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Uprooted: The Influence of Immigration on Mental Health

[This piece won First Prize in The Diversity Story Cultural Writing Competition - High School]


BY SUZANNA CHEN


I will never forget that particularly sunny morning in July.

It was when the sight of my mother bursting into tears as soon as she entered our newly rented apartment shattered our mutually constructed “happy new immigrants” façade. She was, and still is, a figure of great strength and perseverance to me. Perhaps it was for this reason that seeing her break down helplessly was devastatingly shocking for me.

Back then, my carefree and ignorant self could not fathom the reason and pain behind those tears. I remember standing there, frozen and bewildered, while watching my heroine succumb to an indiscernible force.

It brought out something in me—something I had ignored for so long.

In retrospect, that summer morning was the beginning of my strenuous and ongoing battle with mental illnesses and the journey to recollect my lost identity. Although I can identify subtle signs of mental distress before that day, it was the events of that morning that made me detect my indescribable, internal discomfort.

Despite acknowledging that all psychological conditions have a biological factor —they might occur as long as I am genetically myself — I couldn’t help but wonder if the forceful relocation and replantation of my cultural roots contributed to my mental health decline. My suspicion was implicitly confirmed by the jointly conducted “Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada” (LSIC) by Statistics Canada and Citizenship and Immigration Canada in 2012. The survey results revealed that at approximately four years after landing, 29 percent of immigrants reported having emotional problems and 16 percent reported high levels of stress, with women predominantly being affected with these issues. As the proportion of foreign-born population in Canada is at its highest in 75 years – according to the 2006 census – the number of people corresponding to these percentages is continually rising, and the mental well-being of this population is having a growing impact on the nation’s present and future.

Being a young, female immigrant who fits squarely within the 29 percent of mental illnesses’ victims, I invite you to take a trip down memory lane with me. Along the way, some of the unique stressors and mental health challenges faced by newcomers in a foreign country will be unravelled in the context of my very own heartfelt experiences.

Let us begin...

I shivered as the chill Canadian spring breeze hit me as soon as I stepped off the airplane. Travelling across the airport, I looked back with an unknown emotion as the aircraft diminished in size. The gradual disappearance of the familiar airline's logo seemed to erase my last, direct tie with my homeland across the Pacific Ocean. In stark contrast to the warm and humid climate of my hometown, the dry and freshening winds of western Canada strengthened the “foreignness” that I’d felt along with the seemingly randomly arranged alphabets everywhere around the airport.

The unfamiliarity of this exotic environment was invigorating to my nine-year-old self, and it had brought me great joy for the first few months. I marvelled at absolutely everything in sight and gasped in wonder at common behaviours of the “foreigners” – which is, ironically, what most Chinese immigrants refer to anyone who is white – that are deemed “strange” and even “taboo” back in my homeland.

However, the “newcomers’ filter” through which I’d seen my surroundings began fading away three months after our arrival, when my father had to leave for his job in China. Even though he was already a “frequent flyer” of almost every Chinese airline due to the nature of his work, our family had never been separated for more than half a month.

As my eyes followed his back until it was submerged within the waves of professional-looking businessmen in the airport that day, the word “immigration” finally sank in. My mother and I went back to our strangely empty – as my father did not have much baggage – apartment that day with an equally hollow feeling in our hearts.

"We are on our own now” was the silent statement exchanged through the feigned impassiveness in our eyes.

Population studies done by researchers of the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program have concluded that despite immigrants' mental health status being generally better than native populations in both sending and receiving countries, the “healthy immigrant effect” – as quoted from the study – tends to wear off quickly to match and even exceed the mental illness rates of the general population.

The “healthy immigrant effect," which can be understood as the initial sense of jubilation upon arrival in a foreign country, can be attributed to the intriguing unfamiliarity and the variety of overall health screenings one must pass through to be permitted to immigrate. What causes this “effect” to fade differs depending on individual situations, but Farzana Doctor, a registered social worker, has discovered a common theme among her immigrant clients.

“When immigrants move to a new country, there is a sense of loss — of their identities, family, friends, everything. In their native country, they probably were experts in their field, they knew how the system worked, they had a strong network of family and friends, and now they don’t have any of that when they first come here,” Doctor said.

I had undoubtedly felt a potent emptiness resulted from the sudden depletion of friends. However, these losses were more prominent for my parents, who had established nearly forty years’ worth of memories, achievements, and connections back in our home country. As she later revealed to me, my mother’s reason for breaking down that summer morning was a poignant flashback to her successful career during an English lesson she struggled to comprehend. It is heart-wrenching to imagine how desperate she must have felt to transition from having an admirable position in the justice system to a mediocre student who was “worthless to the society” – as she stated herself.

The anguish was aggravated when her most meaningful connection – my father – had to be separated from her by the vast Pacific Ocean as well. Despite the convenience of the internet to stay in contact, this separation would, as we would heartbreakingly learn, have a devastating impact on our family.

As much as I looked forward to my father visiting us after three months of separation, me hiding in my bedroom while my parents angrily argued was not how I imagined the reunion would go.

When my father’s figure – notably slimmer than the last time we were together – appeared from the airport's sliding doors, we were all in tears of coexisting joy and sorrow. However, perhaps it was our high expectations of finally reverting to our “normal” family life, the situation at home soon turned terribly disappointing.

None of us wanted to admit it, but a disheartening gap was emerging between my father and us. The quarrel today could be traced back to our mutual misunderstanding.

My father, being exhausted from endless work and despairing loneliness back in our hometown, expected us – my mom and I – to acknowledge and appreciate his anguish and perseverance. Ultimately, he saw himself as the “hero” of our family for being our sole source of financial support.

On the other hand, my mother yearned for comfort and respect for the tremendous amount of effort she put into adjusting to a new environment while still maintaining composure and being a figure of strength for her child.

Neither understood the other’s struggles, which led to the bitter fight today over the petty topic of "what to eat for dinner."

“I ate three meals in restaurants and fast-food joints every single day back there. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Is it a crime for me to crave a specific dish right now?” bellowed my father in his raspy baritone voice.

“Maybe you wouldn’t have to if you have any basic life skills other than microwaving a takeout dish!” my mother shouted back. Her mellow, alto voice raised to a pitch that would have made a soprano jealous.

The unspoken pain on both sides was causing a rift in our once harmonious family bond. Yet, as “a kid who is too young to understand problems of adults,” I was deemed inadequate to take part in their heated discussion. Overlooking the situation as a bystander, I rested my head on my door and silently wept.

And…

It seemed that my own tormenting struggles to adapt and fit into a new set of social rules and expectations shouldn’t be a matter of importance compared to their evident distress.

Although little research has been done on the impact of immigration on families in which only one parent accompanies the minor, such form of immigration is extremely common, as many deem both parents seeking a living in a foreign country too risky. In fact, research by Access Alliance has shown that the inability of immigrant parents to integrate into the labour market can cause depression, family tensions, and other mental health stressors on the family.

Separation of families during immigration can be compared to the parents suddenly becoming long-distance lovers. However, immigrant parents who stay with their children are not only subjected to emotional distress from their "long-distance relationships," but also to stressors associated with acculturation, the processes of psychological change that occur amid contact between two or more cultures. Such changes might include abandonment and incorporation of customs, languages, and values. Acculturation is also the reason why the impact of immigration varies between ethnic groups; immigrants with less cultural differences to the receiving country – such as British immigrants to Canada – would have less difficulty adjusting than those with significant differences, like Asian immigrants.

How does acculturation affect immigrant families? A study by scholars of Queen’s University has revealed that immigrant parents are often at a heightened risk for parenting stress and other mental health vulnerabilities due to acculturative difficulties. Also, perhaps as a rather inadequate reason for my childhood disobedience to my mother, we experienced dissonant acculturation – in which differences exist between our speeds of adopting the “Canadian ways” – that caused frequent conflicts and misunderstandings between us.

With my mother being exposed to stressful adaptation difficulties – as well as a rambunctious child who thought she was too "cool" and effortlessly “Canadian” – and my father struggling with financial pressure and solitude, their simultaneous yet mutually unacknowledged challenges would eventually cause severe instability in the family that we are still attempting to mend to this day.

Unfortunately, the issues arising in our family didn’t stop there, as immigration was not only a struggle for my parents, but for me as well.

Staring down at the numerous, purposely left spelling mistakes on the page, my fingers tapped on the wooden table at a speed that seemed impossible for me during my piano recitals, when it was actually required.

This repetitive act was my unconscious method of expressing – and therefore relieving – the unsettling restlessness that arrives alongside an unpleasant bubbly feeling in my chest. I didn’t know what the feeling was back then.

After all, how could I understand the complex word of “anxiety” when my English vocabulary had not even extended to include terms longer than four letters?

"Can I…bring your eraser?” I asked tentatively after mustering up all of my nearly non-existent courage. My finger pointed at the object of concern, situated conveniently within my reach, on his desk.

Eyeing my classmate’s bemused expression, I watched helplessly as the boisterous, imaginary laughter shattered my overly fragile self-esteem. I threw discrediting phrases at my inner self for daringly choosing a word that hadn’t gone through my investigation for its every potential definition and connotation in the English-to-Chinese dictionary.

Shutting my eyes to avoid his mockingly exaggerated facial expression of confusion, I added this interaction to my mental list named “Reasons to Keep Quiet,” which was already excessively long.

Two months into my first school term in Canada, I had already confined myself within the intangible cage of self-made social restrictions. Despite the unsettling urge to behave like my true self, I deemed these “rules” necessary to avoid humiliation.

The list of rules included: don’t speak unless it’s a matter of life and death, which apparently included spelling mistakes; avert any gazes – amiable or not – that last more than two seconds; and remain stationary until there is absolute confidence that my next actions will be socially acceptable.

I thought it was normal for someone to ponder thoroughly before their every single move.

I assumed that it was typical for someone to be incredibly mentally exhausted after the first hour of school.

I believed that it was common for one to fear this fatigue so much that they involuntarily disappear into the background of every social situation.

It was lonely and dark in my incorporeal cage, but it surpassed the burning embarrassment when my classmate exclaimed dramatically with a horribly insincere look of epiphany on his face, “Oh! You mean ‘can I BORROW your eraser?’”


Perhaps you might find it unfathomable how such a silly incident affected me so much. However, it should be reminded that even the subtlest embarrassment and hurt can accumulate to an overwhelming amount when lacking an outlet. As previously mentioned, the differences in the rates my mother and I acculturated to the new society – dissonant acculturation – caused problematic tensions between us. The tension, combined with both of my parents’ apparent misery, prevented me from pouring out my negative experiences to my family, which, as I failed to socialize and obtain friendship, was my sole option. Due to me lacking the outlet to relieve the stress from being a social outcast, I had found unhealthy methods of coping with them – including not speaking at all and overthinking – which led to the formation of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Unfortunately, research shows that I am not alone with this experience.

As Access Alliance’s study revealed, the number of immigrant youth aged 15 to 24 arriving to live in Canada has increased by 24.9 percent over the last ten years, with 80 percent of them being visible minorities. For all immigrant youths, the key challenges include learning a new language, adjusting to a different school system, and building foreign social relationships. However, being from a racial or ethical minority group increases a youth’s chance of adaptation failures. The same article concluded that the racism and discrimination – even as subtle as academic generalizations – often encountered by minority immigrants frequently result in social isolation and lack of belonging, which further contributes to low self-esteem and stress – the leading causes of mood disorders.

Due to there being inadequate research on the mental well-being of immigrant youths, I cannot provide accurate data. However, from personal experience and encounters with many other youth immigrants, psychological illnesses are far from rare among us. Fortunately, as increased awareness has been spread about this issue, more specialized support programs have been set up. Aside from professional interference, the most undemanding and effective method one can help is to include international students in their activities and conversations. Even an encouraging smile in the hallways can make someone feel instantly welcomed and less alone.

Our exploration of the mental health of immigrants would end here for now. There are still countless issues not addressed due to the limitations of this article. Some of them include the distinct challenges faced by immigrants of different classes, such as family-class immigrants, economic immigrants, and refugees; environmental resettlement, including getting comfortable with the infamously frosty Canadian winters; discrimination towards immigrants of colour, which could negatively affect those seeking jobs; and inaccessibility of mental health services due to stigma and language barriers.

What motivated me to write this article were the truly disheartening complaints by some who claim all immigrants defiant and unwilling to adopt the new cultural and societal values, while most are struggling and trying incredibly hard to do so. Through this article, I hope to increase awareness and acknowledgement of the pain and hardships behind the seemingly “privileged” act of immigration.

Some of us who are reaching our hands out to embrace our new “home” are met with hurtful contacts with the unfamiliar and foreign reality.

All we hope for are reciprocating embraces of welcome to heal our invisible wounds.





References

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