|Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary
Chinese Culture and Psychological Disorders in Pastoral Ministry
An Introduction to the core issues
Melvin W. Wong, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Fax: (510) 475-1473
Copyright © Melvin W. Wong, Ph.D. 1999-2001
During the course of professional counseling and pastoral care to Chinese-Canadians, consideration for characteristics of their culture is prudent. This course is an introduction to the basic understanding of the Chinese-Canadian culture, in hopes that it will foster better communication and therapeutic results. Many of the characteristics of the Chinese-Canadians are common to other Asian cultures. Thus, the term “Chinese Canadian” can be viewed as a generic term to describe Chinese or Asian.
The purpose of this presentation is to correlate the Chinese culture and psychopathology. Culture influences the development of personality and psychological function. It is generally accepted that while there are distinct differences between Chinese ethnic groups and other Asians, the cultural practices within them have common denominators. Thus, they also share some common personality disorders.
The impact of a Confucius-based cultural heritage as the common denominator is examined in the development of the self and in relationship to personality disorders. The chief factors of this cultural heritage the author will be discussing are: The five-cardinal relationships (the Five Orders), filial-piety, gender-bias, shame and guilt complexes, codependency, and some modern issues unique to ethnic Chinese (not necessarily those residing only on the Mainland).
It is important to clarify that the goal of this presentation is not to find faults with Chinese culture, but to examine the impact of culture on psychopathology, while upholding the positive aspects of Confucianism. The presentation here is not intended to degrade the Chinese culture. No culture is without its imperfections. It is the goal of the author to examine the parts of the Confucian ethic that adversely impact the healthy personality development of an individual.
It is the desire of this presenter to help reduce a client’s interpersonal pain by equipping mental-health professionals with the etiology of pathologies of the self, and to bring an end to the “Family Pain” that has plagued the Chinese as a culture for generations.
Couples counseling requires the formulation of the “presenting problem”. Equipping counselors and pastoral staff in the clinical-cultural context of this formulation is one of the main features of this presentation. As professional counselors have come to realize how culture plays a role in the manifestation of psychopathological problems, one of the hopes for this course is the realization of the significance of culture as it impacts the individual. The successful completion of this course will provide the participant with a culturally competent perspective in rendering treatment planning.
The Chinese culture is very complex, full of contradictions and paradoxes. It is the desire of this author to provide some basic understanding and appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of the actual practice of this ancient culture.
To understand the basics of culture, in particular the Chinese culture, we need to understand the cosmological view. This will serve as a background in understanding the genesis of the Chinese traditional culture. Like all ancient cultures, the Chinese culture also has its own account of the origins of the world. Most Chinese scholars indicate that the Chinese culture goes back as far as over 3,000 years ago. There is, also, a legendary culture based on verbal history that went back another 2000 years. Subsequently, what we have, then, is approximately 5,000 years of history.
The first group of Chinese that came to Canada was those who came for economic reasons. They were people from the coastal regions of southern China, such as the Toi Shan (Table Hill) and Chung Shan (Central Hill) of the Canton province. Similar to the early migration patterns of the United States, these Chinese came for the pursuit of a better life. Their final goal was to return home to China, bringing with them fortune and honor for their families. These early immigrants can be considered as migrant workers as they did not have a goal of remaining permanently. Most of these new workers came to Canada based upon stories that they heard from others about the open economic opportunities in Western Canada and the United States. Around the 1840’s, news of gold rushes in the foothills of California began to circulate. This fueled their thirst to seek fortune and adventure. Many other Chinese arrived only to be deceived and enslaved by a master. Many Chinese suffered this deceit: They left China with an understanding between a master that, after working to pay the cost of transportation to Canada, they would be free. However, once they arrived, freedom was not available to them, as their master specified unrealistically high costs. Thus, they became indentured servants. Unfortunately, this is still true today of illegal immigrants attempting to be smuggled into North America.
The early Chinese were mainly single adult males. They worked in different hard labors, such as farming, building railroad tracks and general construction. Many took additional risks and ventured into the prairies. Some of these immigrants were happy with their lives in Canada. These men would return home to China to get married and would return with their brides to Canada to begin new families.
New families accounted for the second group of Chinese Canadian immigrants. Commonly, a family would start a small business, such as a restaurant or a laundry. It was hard for the newly immigrated to work in established positions in the Canadian communities because the Chinese were not yet able to speak fluent English. Add to this, the problem of racial discrimination, and assimilating into a new culture compounded. The Chinese families tended to stay together to maintain their Chinese village culture. They did that out of a need for a stronger cultural identity and a sense of solidarity. Family benevolent associations were born to take care of those bachelors who were aging, and, therefore, outside the structures of family care.
The third group of Chinese Canadian immigrants comprised of the extended family and relatives of these newly formed families. During the decades between the first and second groups of immigrants, there were some “push factors” that occurred in China, propelling and solidifying the desires of Chinese citizens to leave their homelands. There was great political unrest in the southern part of China due to the Opium War between China and Britain. Later, the revolution started by Dr. Sun-Yat Sen and the Second World War also made the people want to leave China. By the time the third group of immigrants was arriving, the first Canadian-born-Chinese (CBC’s) was growing up. They began to assimilate into the Canadian society mainstream, being educated in the Canadian public schools.
Many people who lived in Hong Kong were political refugees, since they fled the communists from Mainland China around the 1940’s, after the Second World War. Having lived through political unrest already, they became very skeptical of the stability of the Hong Kong government under British rule. Simultaneously, in Mainland China, the Cultural Revolution was taking place. Around the 1960’s, the political situation in Hong Kong was becoming less secure. There were local riots and bombings resulting from homemade bombs. What galvanized the plans of the well to do to emigrate were the daily news reports of dead bodies washing downstream in the Pearl River near Macao and Hong Kong. Many wealthy parents sent their children to North America or Britain for education, desiring for them, foreign citizenship as opposed to a Chinese citizenship, should China take over Hong Kong’s sovereignty by force.
Around the 1960’s to the 1970’s, single college students were arriving. They were the fourth group of Chinese Canadian immigrants. Most of these students were from Hong Kong, while a few were Southeast Asian, ethnic Chinese. The students’ goal was to procure a college education. They were unable to obtain a college education in Hong Kong due to the limited educational opportunities under the British system. Some of these students were intelligent, super-achievers, sponsored by generous scholarships from well-known universities. Many of the students in this latter group stayed to become members of the local academia. The rest of the students who wanted to stay became naturalized as citizens. Other students married Canadian citizens guaranteeing their stay in Canada.
In 1989 the Beijing Tianamen Massacre of students further deteriorated the morale of the Hong Kong people. In this political event, the Chinese government, with their weapons and tanks, overpowered the students. Petitions to emigrate to a foreign country increased dramatically overnight. This is, perhaps, the fifth group of Chinese Canadian immigrants. These emigrants were primarily political-economic immigrants: Political in that their determination to emigrate was based on political unrest; economic in that, unlike the United States, Canada had a liberal immigration policy by way of investments. In fact, many Hong Kong people came to Canada by way of investments. Another way they qualified was by “points” attributed to them by the Immigration Department because of their professional profile. This group of new immigrants came from the middle to upper-middle class or the extremely wealthy class. The unifying characteristics of this group of immigrants are that they are homogeneously Cantonese speaking from Hong Kong. They carry with them a certain set of Chinese cultural features that are not seen in other parts of the world. Favorite immigration destination cities in Canada are Vancouver and Toronto, also known as the “Little Hong Kongs”.
With the wealthy Chinese immigration, a subset group of Chinese immigrants was birthed. Comprised of service-oriented professionals, such as executive chefs and real estate brokers, this group of Chinese saw economic opportunity in following their clients across the ocean to Canada.
A strange phenomenon occurred with the group of economically endowed immigrants. While they were wealthy, their English skills were quite limited. They did not want to stay in Canada for employment because they would be under-employed for lack of mastery of language, and would, then, become emotionally depressed. Heads of households came to Canada to settle down with their family, but they routinely commuted across the Pacific Ocean to and from Hong Kong to attend to their work or business there. This group is known as “Astronauts” because they spend a lot of time flying between Canada and Hong Kong. Their children lived with their mother and, experientially speaking, they virtually became fatherless upon coming to Canada. Women became “Immigrant Widows”, in actuality, because their husbands had to work for long periods of time (like six months stretches) in Hong Kong to support the family who lived in Canada.
These “Immigrant Widows” and their children have a host of immigration stress problems due to the emotional voids left by their husband’s/father’s absence. Material possession and conveniences are not as satisfying as an on-going, real time spousal relationship. Fatherless children also have a constellation of problems with promiscuity, rebellion and depression. Their condition may worsen as news of their fathers reach them, confirming their worse fears: their fathers were having affairs with women in Hong Kong or in China. These children are an anomaly in the current Chinese culture because they are without any roots. They have not learned to speak English well, being unable to concentrate in school because of their emotional dysfunctions. They follow the Hong Kong culture with their mothers by listening to Hong Kong music and watching soap operas, but, actually, their Chinese is not very good. Additionally, if they were to return to Hong Kong, they would not be able to adjust to the competitiveness of their peer there. Thus, the Canadian-Chinese children became stuck between two opposing cultures.
Since the increase of Canada’s relationship with China, more and more people have been coming from China. Taiwanese have also been coming and, together with people from China, they comprise a Mandarin-speaking group of new immigrants. New immigrants coming from China are from the coastal regions of the mainland. Most of them are from Shanghai or Beijing. They carry with them a different set of cultural values. By and large, the general psychological issues are similar to the early Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong and southern China. Perhaps the exceptions would be their traumatic background of having survived the Cultural Revolution, and the different political uprisings under the ultra-left Communist rule. There are, also, high power scholars and intellectuals coming to North America under different financial sponsorships. There is a special elite subgroup of young Chinese who are from well to do backgrounds. Mainly, they have parents who are in high political position in the government of China; they are here to gain a Western way of business operation and computer skills; they come from a special family pedigree with connections and lineages in very high places; and, they are being groomed to be the future movers and shakers of China. Many successful Chinese from Hong Kong feel intimidated by the rising of these special elite young single adults because they are already politically and financially powerful, with the ability to speak fluent English, Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Mandarin.