TRAVEL LOG: Billy’s Adventures in China II

December 20th, 2009

By Billy Kaplan, LCSW
HCC President and Clinical Director

December 2009 – After the Journey

I realize when I spoke to students in China at Fudan University in October I didn’t attract as much attention as did President Obama when he spoke there in November. But I like to think that, like the President, I influenced some students to think about things differently.

The audience was comprised primarily of the “counselors” of the student-led peer counseling program, as I had been when I was in high school. I wanted to discuss some common mental health issues specific to student populations, namely; leaving home, building new relationships with peers, and dealing with academic stress. I addressed the need to help shake off the stigma of seeking help for mental health issues. I also encouraged the student “counselors” to help their peers express feelings. I used the analogy of a shaken can of soda to illustrate what happens when we hold in our feelings: the pressure builds and the release is explosive and messy! In contrast, expressing feelings gradually can be likened to slowly opening a twist-top bottle of soda: the pressure is released steadily in a more manageable and less destructive way.

I was nervous about giving the talk because I didn’t know if my audience would understand me. My host, who worked in the counseling program at the University, got the students’ agreement that they would be comfortable with me speaking in English; my host would only translate things that were more technical. And so I began: haltingly at first, tentatively, trying to determine if they could decipher my words, let alone understand their meaning. Soon after starting I checked in with my host to see how she thought my talk was going, and she simply asked me to slow down. “Slow down!” I thought, “How do I do that?” I had gotten too energized and too excited speaking with them. But I did slow down. And though it sounded to me like I was talking strangely, and insultingly slow, I could tell through their body language – nodding heads, laughter – that what I was saying was getting through.

In general, I found that communicating in China was not nearly as difficult as I feared. Though I only spoke a few words of Chinese, my use of those words brought approval from anyone to whom I spoke them. One day I saw a dad with his baby. The child saw me and got huge eyes. “Whoa! He looks different!” I imagined the child thinking. I smiled and waved, and the dad, smiling back, encouraged and helped the child to wave as well. Some body language is just universal. “Ni hao,” I said —“hello” in Chinese— and I got even bigger smiles.

I learned that the official “one-child” policy in China coupled with China’s historically collectivist values create unique challenges for Chinese parents. Understandably, they want to dote on their single child, but at the same time they want to impress upon him or her the cultural importance of the group above the individual. When I spoke at a mental health clinic in Shanghai, one of the therapists expressed concern that the therapeutic attitude of PACE (being Playful, Accepting, Curious and Empathic), from the Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy model of Dr. Daniel Hughes, may “spoil” older children and teenagers. I responded that children with significant attachment-related problems received little to no nurturance from infancy to toddlerhood, leaving many of their early developmental needs unmet. In order for these kids to get better, those same needs must be tended to. I told her the story of a foster dad who was having problems because his teenage daughter wanted to spoon feed him. The dad was reticent to do so because he was watching his diet carefully due to an earlier weight problem. Once he understood that his daughter was acting like a toddler who wants to bond with her parent by feeding him, the dad acquiesced. In so doing, not only was the tension between them absolved, but healthy intimacy and connection flourished. While developmentally regressed, this was the best this child knew, and it was what she needed. Once those early developmental needs were being met by her father, she was able to move on to new developmental milestones.

How does one describe twelve days of touring China in four of its cities? Exhausting, to be sure. Thought-provoking, with every turn of every corner. Overwhelming with the sheer volume of input. Beautiful in every aesthetic detail: the curved-corner roof lines, the doors separating one space from another, the tiles that lined walls, the colors, and the gardens in which it was easy to imagine an ancient court entertaining visiting dignitaries. Many highlights for me had nothing to do with the place and everything to do with the people: an old man and woman who allowed me to take their picture, a mother playing with her toddler, and teenagers who were, like, so excited to be photographed with an American.