Kenneth Wang, PhD, now based in Pasadena, Calif., struggled to navigate two cultures growing up. Born and raised in Taiwan, he spent five years in Tuscaloosa, Ala., as a young boy. Even today, Wang says, "I'm not 100 percent comfortable" in either China or the United States.
From his experience, Wang is convinced that leaving one culture behind to live in another, even temporarily, can shake a person's identity. His sense of the potential impact of that common transition has shaped his work. An associate professor in the School of Psychology at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., Wang specializes in educational counseling, and he does much of his research with students. He also has a private practice.
"I've conceptualized crossing cultural borders as experiencing loss — the loss of relevant knowledge and a sense of belonging," he says. "This is not an original idea, but I draw on my own experience and observations of that."
Wang and his colleagues have specifically addressed the adjustment trajectories of hundreds of international students in the United States, as well as factors that might affect their transitions, like perfectionistic tendencies. He's also studied the constellation of traits that can help students find their feet, which has been dubbed cultural intelligence, or CQ. His research shows that some students fret most before they ever leave home; others are blindsided by culture shock, then adjust. Yet another group suffers psychological distress that's more about them as individuals than their transition to another culture.
"International students are not all alike in the way they adjust" to new situations, Wang says. He'd like to be part of an effort to identify and encourage supports to help students and other visitors, refugees and immigrants achieve "belongingness" quickly in their new societies.
Wang is also known for his work assessing perfectionism among individuals in different groups. These are not necessarily people from other countries; for example, he has looked at perfectionism and identity issues in African-American and religious students as well. Still, these people can experience a tremendous amount of stress when mainstream values conflict with those of the subculture they grew up in.
The child of professor parents, Wang lived in Tuscaloosa between the ages of 5 and 10 while his father pursued a PhD at the University of Alabama. Wang was the first Asian student ever to attend his Tuscaloosa elementary school. When soccer teams formed along racial lines, the white kids versus the black kids, it was up to him to decide which team to join. He felt he didn't fit in, and he experienced some bullying, he says. His struggles continued even after his return to Taiwan. While he looked like everyone else, "I felt different. I didn't know the songs or games, and I struggled to learn to read and write Chinese, to fit in, to function in that cultural context. I thought there was something wrong with me," he says.
A number of basic values were different as well, Wang says. "Self-promotion is critical in the United States," for example, but humility is important in Taiwan. And always, Wang was held to tough standards, no matter where he was.
For Asians and Asian-Americans, perfectionism is "not just individual but collectivistic," he says. Instructors in Asian schools tend to "focus on where people have gone wrong, where they can improve," in contrast with mainstream American society, which may try to reinforce "feeling good about yourself," even if a student's performance is below par. Asian students have a "more realistic view" of how they're doing and "where they fit in," Wang says, but the Asian approach can take a toll. Even if the culture views the student's distress as constructive, the individual may not get much satisfaction from his or her own success, which can lead to anxiety and depression.
As an adult, Wang worked for years in business, first in marketing and then in planning, until he noticed he was more interested in a colleague's marital problems than in his work. The most frustrating part of that for Wang was that he wasn't able to offer any helpful advice.
His future wife was taking a counseling class as part of her education curriculum, and introduced him to the idea of empathy, "of being in another person's shoes, and reflecting," he recalls. That changed his life. Wang decided to go into a helping profession and came back to the United States, to Wheaton College, a small Christian school in Wheaton, Ill. Deciding against the ministry, he got a master's degree in counseling. When he finished, he returned to Taiwan and went to work in the Disability Resources Center at National Dong Hwa University in Hualien.
But counseling in Taiwan was not what it might have been in the United States. Wang had few clients and his time was taken up with administrative work. "I might as well have stayed in business," he says. Restless again, looking at various PhD programs, he noticed that at Pennsylvania State University in State College, some professors were studying perfectionism, including Robert Slaney, PhD, who had created the influential Almost Perfect Scale–Revised.
"That resonated with me," Wang recalls. The high standards he had grown up with, the "constant striving and pressure to perform well" made him want "to learn more about how that impacts a person." Wang's first publication, in 2006, was a paper he wrote with Slaney on perfectionism among Taiwanese students.
For Wang, his present job at the seminary affords him the opportunity to continue to explore cross-cultural differences, but with the added benefit of being able to travel to China several times a year. Fuller has strong ties to China and Taiwan through its China Initiative ministry, and that connection offers research and other collaborative opportunities.
Wang says, "Psychology encourages us to be who we are, and accepting of who we are. I've come to accept that I'm a cross-cultural person."