Over Lunar New Year, I gathered with my family and extended relatives. Seeing aunts, uncles, cousins, and close friends at my aunt’s house- some people I had not seen since the beginning of the pandemic. We were enjoying each other’s company, catching up over delicious food at the kitchen table, red lanterns and decorations hanging on the walls. It was nice to have everyone coming together to celebrate the year of the Tiger. When there are multiple generations and people under one roof, it’s amazing to see the progress and growth from the previous generation’s hard work and sacrifices. I get a feeling of gratitude and humility when I am around my elders.
My uncle approached me asking about my current job. He always showed interest and curiosity about his niece’s and nephews’ career choices. I recalled trying to explain to him what I do as a therapist and found myself stumbling. I realized I didn’t have the words to describe “therapy” in our native tongue of Teo Chew (a Chinese dialect) and felt silly. I attempted to explain it in Vietnamese, my second language, but to no avail. The only words I was able to conjure were a string that translated to “doctor, talk, heart.” After some Chinglish (a mixture of Chinese and English), my uncle concluded that I was a speech pathologist, helping people “how to talk” as he said. I gave up on explaining and just nodded my head. In some way, he wasn’t entirely wrong.
This experience reminded me how seeking therapy for one’s emotional well-being is still very much a novel and foreign concept in many Asian and Pacific Islander cultures, including my own familial upbringing. Language barrier or not, the concept of mental health is a stranger to many Asians. Whenever I bring up that I see my own therapist to my mother, it is usually met with an awkward silence and brushed off. It was always easier for her to talk about something that seemed more tangible like food or shopping. I believe that she wants to support me but she doesn’t know how to have that conversation.
The Complexities of Therapy
I remind my clients that therapy isn’t a one-size-fits-all because human beings are not supposed to fit into perfectly squared boxes. We are much more complex and multifaceted than that. As someone who has been on both sides of the couch as a client and as a therapist, I would say that therapy is as unique as we are, with each experience we bring our own stories, struggles, trials and tribulations, accomplishments, and victories.
Thinking back to my conversation with my uncle, I don’t think I was entirely wrong when I said therapy is “doctor, talk, heart” because, at the end of the day, I provide a space for my clients to talk about what is in their heart and with that, I proudly wear the title.