Depression and the Asian Third Culture Kid: A Conversation with Ellen Mahoney

Depression is something we often hear about among third culture kids. If you’re from a cross cultural background, you’ll probably already be familiar with the standard narrative: Moving around and being embedded in foreign bubbles lead to a cultural disconnect with the local society. Living in communities that are inherently transient means it’s hard to hold down long-term friendships. More importantly for those of us from Asia, the need to suppress the negative emotions of the individual for the communal good might stifle the conversation about depression.

So I found it refreshing to talk to Ellen Mahoney, founder of Sea Change Mentoring, which provides guidance to TCKs by pairing up high school kids with adults who grew up just like they did. Ellen believes that through mentoring, depression doesn’t have to dominate our story.

Even though Ellen is American, I feel like she completely gets my Asian TCK-ness. I guess it’s no surprise, because Ellen spent a big chunk of her childhood in Asia, in Tokyo up to the sixth grade at the International School of the Sacred Heart, and Singapore for junior and senior at Singapore American School, with a few years in Connecticut in between.

After graduating from university, Ellen joined iMentor – which supports students from low-income communities through mentoring – before founding Sea Change Mentoring in 2012.

I spoke to Ellen about depression and TCKs, particularly in Asia. As someone who has herself battled depression, she was able to provide a unique perspective.

ellen mahoney circleCXC: How prevalent is depression among third culture kids?

Ellen: There is no real good data about this. Among third culture kids, you hear a lot about depression and anxiety. Adolescence is not the most common age group for depression in general, but it is still normal to see teenagers who are TCKs develop depression.

What are things that can lead to depression? Could it be family history? Could it be the culture where that particular expat community is located? For example, in Singapore, you have a lot of people in finance. High-achieving parents may put a lot of pressure on their kids, which can exacerbate existing depression if they don’t have the proper coping skills.

Another question is this: Is this related to affluence, or TCKness? I wasn’t trained in Asia, but in the U.S., with affluent children, there is more drug use, depression and anxiety. We need to ask, when a TCK is depressed, is it related to TCKness, or some other characteristics?

As for my personal story, I also experienced depression, and one of my friends committed suicide.

One reason why people commit suicide is because of feeling of not belonging. That is the primary reason. To put it more precisely, if you feel like you don’t belong, it doesn’t mean you will commit suicide, but if you commit suicide, it means you likely felt like you didn’t belong.

Among affluent communities, it is common to find depression. Depression can be hereditary. Maybe it has to do with the pressure to maintain the standards that your parents have set in terms of class and status. I think there could also be pressure to keep up with the Joneses and always have a public face. Really what depression is, is when we have a feeling and internalize it. Sometimes in affluent and also expat comunites, you can’t show that you are upset or angry. What will the other diplomats say? What will the company say? You might get kicked out of the country.

In most Asian cultures, it not okay to talk about mental illeness. Culturally, it is not appropriate to get that out and it’s looked down upon. I wonder whether that might have something to do with a sense of “I don’t belong”.

CXC: When does depression usually appear among TCKs?
Ellen: You definitely see these cases in teens, adolenscents aged 16 to 23. What I’ve noticed is that it becomes more pronounced within the first two or three years of leaving the international community. It’s that adjustment period. Any time someone goes through adjustment, there’s loss involved. If you’re not near your support system – your family, siblings, the international community – and you’re on your own, that’s really hard. If you’re not being mirrored, you feel disconnected, and can be at risk of being depressed.

As for Asia, this value of keeping things inside, not making a scene, being part of the group and not making yourself stand out – I wonder if that encourages people to internalize their feelings. If you are taught to keep it inside does it lead to more depression? It’s a question that I would want to ask.

I think it also depends on where they go to university. I think racism can be a problem. In the U.S., you’ll see that a bit. In Australia, that’s another serious challenge.

There is also the question of reverse culture shock. Take Japan, for example. Because Japan is so homogenous, and there is such a great respect for Japanese things and traditions, it’s really hard for kids to come back and integrate, and especially hard to find a job. The are a lot of kids returning who feel really alientated. The Japanese government is now trying to do something about it. They have recognized the need to welcome these Japanese back into Japan.

One of my friends who works for the City University of New York talks about families who are Hong Kong Chinese and have lived overseas, who are having a really hard time being accepted by their Hong Kong peers.

CXC: You started Sea Change Mentoring in 2012. What is the idea behind it and how do you help TCKs?

Ellen: In education and psychology, there is a theory of positive youth development, and that is an idea that I subscribe to. It is the idea that even children have tools to be resilient, which is in contrast to the 1980s and 1990s, when there was much more of an emphasis on risk-oriented theory. I think it’s dangerous to think this way. It eliminates hope for kids. It leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The story of a TCK is hard. I personally had depression for seven years. I think if we keep telling that story, we are only going to feed these illneses, adjustment problems and relationship issues.

Why I chose mentioring and to work with kids is because there is a ton of research that shows that mentoring can promote mental positivity in kids. I want a tool to work with TCKs, to tell them you’re resilient, adapatable and open-minded. Let’s focus on that first and see how you can apply those assets. I prefer to work with kids when they’re still in their international communities. So when you tansition into a different place and into adulthood, you can say: I already know what assets I have and what tricks to pull out of my bag.

One of the coolest things to come out of research is that mentoring actually decreases the symptions of depression – just the ability for a TCK to have a relationship with a mentor who understands them, because they grew up the same way. No matter where they move, their mentor is with them. Just having that mentor is a protective layer against depression.

It sounds cheesy, but we’re all human beings and we all just want to be loved and cared for, and to be seen and acknowledged. When you’re depressed, you feel you are not seen. Mentors are there for you. They say: We see you. You can be a total jerk to me, and I’ll still be there next week, the following week, and after that. That is a very powerful thing.

One of the themes we work with is relationship issues. Because a lot of us did not get as much practice in dealing with conflict and having a constant group of friends from the ages of five to 18, a lot of us don’t know what that means. Relationships are very important for a sense of love and belonging. Mentoring is reparative. Maybe you didn’t have that practice. The mentor helps you undo some of those bad practices.

Find out more about Sea Change Mentoring and Ellen here.

The white guy speaks: Mark Zuckerberg’s mediocre Chinese at Tsinghua

By now, we’ve all seen the video of Mark Zuckerberg wowing crowds at the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management with his Chinese. If you haven’t, see a video from Reuters here:

As Zuckerberg himself admits and several news outlets have noted, his Chinese is “hen zao gao” — very bad. But why is everyone fawning over him?

First of all I have respect for anyone who makes an effort to engage an audience in their own language, and Zuckerberg made a fine effort here, not least because Chinese is notoriously difficult for people from an Indo-European linguistic background.

But to anyone who actually knows Chinese, Zuckerberg spoke like a child, with all his intonations out of place, so that at some points during the 30-minute session, it’s hard to understand what the hell he’s actually saying. If I were to bastardize the language the way he did, I would have gotten a swift ass-whooping and been sent into a corner to reflect on the great insult I had committed against the great language of our forefathers. And Mandarin isn’t even my native dialect.

The sad thing is, this kind of fawning over white people speaking our language is all too common. I’ve seen people break into applause when Brits and Americans break out their Mandarin. The girls go wild. The guys want to give them a medal. Congratulations, you have achieved mediocre competency in a language with zero grammar!

These attitudes have real consequences. I know of one case where a white candidate got preference over a Chinese applicant for a job where Chinese was essential, because the Chinese interviewers were so impressed by their kindergarten-level ability in Chinese, even though the other candidate had native competency in both Chinese and English.

Anyone who moves to another country or has a spouse from another culture, should, by default, learn that language. For me and many people, that is simply a given. It’s about respect for that culture and the people you live and work with. So Zuckerberg should speak Chinese, his wife’s language and that of his in-laws. And I should speak Russian in Russia, German in Germany, Mandarin with my mainland peers, and Cantonese with my family, friends, relatives and colleagues. There is no award for it, and no one should expect applause.

Most of the Chinese-learning English speakers I know are extremely humble about their fluency. They’ll apologize ahead of time, or give fair warning that the intelligence quotient of the conversation is about to take a steep dive — which is what many of us do when learning a foreign language. That’s because they know their Chinese sucks. The only thing missing is our acknowledgement of that fact.

Good People from China: Why You Won’t Get Me to Join the Bashing Brigade

friends-fingers

It’s been a rather disappointing and busy week for me and I’m sure many of you, with Beijing handing down its decision on democracy in Hong Kong. My phone has become permanently grafted to my arm as I try to follow what’s going on.

Earlier in the week, I wrote a piece for the South China Morning Post and had a great chat with Noreen Mir on RTHK Radio 3′s 123 Show. If you missed them, check out the article here and the recording here.

It appears readers had a lot to say about the SCMP piece, with comments ranging from “hit the nail on the head” and “zeitgeist” to “baloney”. I’ve been called every name in the book (“another idiot suffering from affluenza”) and apparently there is a contingent of people who don’t want me back in Hong Kong again, like ever. The reactions raise a lot of interesting questions — questions that I think might have been quite similar to the ones Hong Kong faced pre-Handover, so I hope everyone keeps on talking.

Amid the disappointing news about Hong Kong, I got some comfort from an unexpected quarter: my mainland friends.

Over the past few days, several of them have told me Hong Kong was also in their thoughts. “We care,” they say, with one adding: “What happens you in Hong Kong also has implications for us in China.”

Tensions between Hongkongers and mainlanders have grown worse in recent years. You might recall the fracas over claims that Dolce & Gabanna permitted mainlanders to take photos of its Tsim Sha Tsui storefront, but not locals (to this day I’m still wondering why anyone would want to take photos of D&G’s storefront). Then there was the crowdfunded ad in a local newspaper decrying mainland “locusts” and more recently, Bladdergate — which, contrary to the name, involved a mainland woman allowing her child to defecate on the streets, riling residents.

These reports would have you think that all Hongkongers think mainlanders are just a bunch of D&G-toting parents with children who have a penchant for public urination.

But these are some of the mainlanders that I know: a sassy woman who has managed to maintain a roaring banking career in addition to recently having a baby, a pensive photographer who doesn’t speak much but takes pictures worth a thousand words, a journalist at one of China’s most critical newspapers who can be kawaii one minute and giving the finger to censors the next by interviewing dissidents, a consultant who can disarm anyone with his gregarious charm, a student from a poor Guangdong family who struggled to learn Cantonese and English in her teens but went on to complete an English-language master’s degree in Hong Kong, and a researcher who can cook up some pretty amazing stewed pork with Sichuan peppers.

To my knowledge, none of them has ever allowed their child to defecate on the street, or tried to take photos of D&G.

Oh, and apparently mainlanders play a mean game of mafia. I discovered this recently when we reached deep into our inner geeks and played for three hours straight on a train. (Yes. A reprise mafia party could be in the works.)

So say what you will about Beijing, but when it comes to the Chinese, you won’t be able to get me to join in the bashing brigade. My beef is with the government, not the people. I’m glad that most of us know the difference. And for those who don’t, I’m going to have to introduce them to my friend’s Sichuan pepper pork.

Do we leave, or stay to watch our beloved home fade away?

Is it time to leave beloved Hong Kong    South China Morning PostCriss Cross Culture occasionally appears in other publications. This article was originally published in the South China Morning Post on September 3, 2014. See the story here.

In my family, we like to joke and call my father the “insurance man”. An insurance consultant for more than 40 years, he goes to extraordinary lengths to minimise risks in any and every situation. As such, he’s tried to ensure the family has a soft landing, should anything untoward happen.

In 1989, amid uncertainty over the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, my parents took out the ultimate insurance policy: they moved me and my sister with them to Canada, where we obtained citizenship first before moving back to our home city.

Now, 25 years later, I am thinking about putting that insurance policy into action and leaving Hong Kong permanently for Canada.

I recently moved to Bonn, Germany, temporarily for research, and like many millennial transplants abroad, I followed Beijing’s decision on elections in Hong Kong through online news reports, Facebook posts and Skype calls home.

When I first read the news on my phone during my morning train ride, I couldn’t help but get emotional, my eyes welling up with tears right there in a crowd of German commuters.

I wanted to be with my fellow Hongkongers at this vital moment. But, more than that, I was moved to tears out of frustration, because this is the latest in a string of disappointments for our city.

Over the past few years, I have grown steadily less hopeful about Hong Kong. At 30, I should be contemplating buying a flat and starting a family, but neither of these prospects entices me. I resent that being a homeowner in Hong Kong means saving for over a decade to buy a miserable hovel in the boondocks. I cannot contemplate having a child when the only options in education are pressure-cooker local schools and overpriced international institutions.

My friends and I stopped going out – there were too many tourists everywhere. I no longer know where to shop. With affordable stores disappearing and visitors crowding the ones that remain, buying clothes, shoes and basic necessities became a daily battle.

Then, there are the signs of Beijing closing in: the plans for national education in 2011, and the white paper released in June proclaiming China’s comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong.

The right to vote for our leaders might not change all the things that are wrong in Hong Kong, but at least, with a ballot in hand, we could take ownership of our problems and try to resolve them. With Beijing’s announcement, these hopes have been dashed.

For those of us who moved all those years ago – to Canada, the US, Britain, Australia and beyond – we had a very clear idea of what we were running from. Images of the violence and bloodshed in the Tiananmen crackdown were etched in our memories. The same thing could befall us, we thought. If ever a tank rolled over the Lok Ma Chau border, we could take our passports and run.

What we didn’t visualise quite as starkly was a threat of this kind: the gradual encroachment on our way of life, and the sustained restrictions on our ability to decide how our home is governed.

I care a great deal for my city. I believe inherently in Hongkongers’ ability to innovate, endure, thrive and reinvent ourselves. But I’m not sure I have it in me to stay.

Leaving is not something that any of us talk about lightly. It feels like desertion and betrayal. But I suspect that many, like me, are starting to have that conversation – not because they do not love Hong Kong, but because they can’t bear to see the home they love slip away.


Voices: Chen Qingfeng @ Hong Kong Wok in Bonn

There comes a point when an Asian gal living abroad must put her foot down and set aside the potatoes and pasta to eat some rice.

Since I arrived in August I have also been eating pasta, potatoes in all its forms — fried, boiled, mixed with flour and simmered into a knoedel —  and bread, bread and more bread. Not that I mind. Actually, German bread has been really growing on me. But in the words of my dear grandmother, god bless her, they’re just, well, not rice.

So imagine my glee when I stumbled upon Hong Kong Wok right here in the middle of the city of Beethoven. Hel-lo soya sauce. I was even more excited when I stepped in and the proprietress promptly asked me: “Sind Sie chinesisch?” Are you Chinese? 

It turns out Mrs. Chen had just come back from three weeks in Hong Kong. What d’ya know? She’s a mainland Chinese transplant who married a Hongkonger after meeting him in The Netherlands, and now lives in Germany. Not only does she know Mandarin and Cantonese, she also speaks Dutch and German.

I decided I had to have a chat with this woman who is now raising two Asian third culture kids in Germany, kids who in turn must be having experiences very similar to the ones I had as a child in Canada.

So after polishing off some lovely beef fried noodles which I liberally doused in pungent red pepper sauce, I caught up with Mrs. Chen, whose husband owns Hong Kong Wok. She graciously answered my questions between taking orders from a long and steady stream of customers, both German and Asian. This is her story:

Chen Qingfeng, 49 I moved to The Netherlands when I was 22 with my aunt, who has been living here for almost 60 years now. My mother had passed away before I moved and my father stayed behind in China.

It was hard to learn Dutch at first, but I picked it up after about a year. One thing that was good was I really like watching TV shows. That helped me a lot in learning the language.

I met my husband through friends in The Netherlands. He’s originally from Hong Kong — he lived in Sheung Shui back then — and he came to Germany about 40 years ago. So I moved to Germany and picked up German, too. After a while I managed to learn it. I also speak Cantonese and Puntonghua.

Sometimes I get confused with all my the languages because I have to switch among them so often. Like I’ll be speaking with my family in Cantonese but then a customer will come in who speaks Putonghua or German, or I’ll be on the phone with my sister and we’ll speak in our native dialect. There are so many languages happening at once that I’ll get stumped on what words to use.

I have a daughter who is 14 and a son who is 10. I try hard to encourage my children to learn Chinese. We speak Cantonese at home. My daughter is willing to take lessons, but my son says he hates it. My daughter has decided she will go to Chinese classes for half of the year, then rest for the other half. My son is unable to speak with our relatives in China in Chinese. I’d like for him to learn Chinese too.

I think it’s also important for my children to learn the local culture and language. We’ve hired a German tutor to teach them German because we really want to make sure that they get their pronunciation right.

I have a lot of relatives in The Netherlands, about 60 in all. My sister lives in Italy. But my brother still lives in China. I visit him every year during my trips to Hong Kong and China. He recently found out he has cancer. That has been hard for us.

I think kids have it better here. They don’t get as much work as they do in Asia. On weekends they don’t get any homework. They have a lot of free time. It’s a lot more relaxed and they can be happy here. Mrs. Chen’s daughter reminded me so much of myself when I was younger, and other Anglophone Asian kids I know, only with German as the primary language instead of English. The whole time I was speaking with Mrs. Chen, she was serving customers in German and talking to her mother in Cantonese.

Usually when I think of westernized Asians, I only think within my own frame of reference. But I wonder how much second-generation Asians in Germany, or France, Spain and the rest of Europe, share in common with Anglophone Asian kids. What do you guys think? Do you know any European Asian CCKs?

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