23 May 2017

Crossing Cultural Borders with Kenneth Wang

Crossing Cultural Borders with Kenneth Wang
Ken Wang
APA Fellow Kenneth Wang's interests include perfectionism, cross-national psychological adjustment, cross-cultural and multicultural psychology, and Asian and Asian American mental health.

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."

Did you find this article interesting?

101 2
23 Feb 2017

Shium Andrew Chen and 50 Years of the Asian American Experience

Shium Andrew Chen and 50 Years of the Asian American Experience
APA Fellow Shium Andrew Chen has written extensively on the issue of cultural inclusion of Asians through psychological identity and acculturation. (Photo: Drew Costley)

Shium Andrew Chen, PhD, drove all night from Slippery Rock, Pa., to Raleigh, N.C., one night in July 1989. He was spurred to action by the murder of Jim Ming Loo, a Chinese American, who was killed by two white brothers, Lloyd and Robert Piche. The Piche brothers admitted to not liking “Orientals,” as they called them, and harbored resentments originating in the Vietnam War. After hearing about the murder, Chen went to support the family and community in its pursuit of justice in the situation.

“We spent two hours listening and comforting Loo’s crying parents about their loving son who was ready to enter [college] as a freshman that fall. It was heartbreaking to learn that Jim's 11-year-old brother knelt in front of his brother's portrait without saying a word for a whole month,” Chen said. “At 8 a.m. in the morning we met with the community task force, helping to solidify their effort. I attended the court hearing of the case. The murderers were found guilty and sentenced.”

For Chen, the Loo case was similar to the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 by two white American autoworkers, who, according to Chen, were influenced by media coverage of the booming Japanese auto industry. Like Loo, Chin wasn’t of the country of origin that the assailants sought to discriminate against, but he was Chinese American.

“He was killed by Caucasian Vietnam War veterans and they saw an Asian, but he wasn’t even Vietnamese. . . . I link their attitudes to violence in the media and the media portrayals of Asians, so that’s resulting in that type of violence.” Chen was among the first wave of psychologists researching and/or writing about the impact of violence in mass media on violent behavior. In 2003, Developmental Psychology published a study conducted from 1977 to 1992 titled “Early Exposure to TV Violence Predicts Aggression in Adulthood.” He was also among the first generation of academics in the past few decades writing about the media’s portrayals of Asians and its impact on American perceptions of Asians.

The perpetrators of the murders in the both cases were convicted for their crimes, but they received different sentences. Robert Piche was convicted of second-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon, and Lloyd Piche was convicted of misdemeanor assault in the case of Loo. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were charged with second-degree murder, but were convicted of manslaughter in the case of Chin.

For Chen, these cases represent a nearly 50-year exploration of implicit learning, ethnic identity, the causes of violence both against Asian Americans and in general, and ways to prevent it.

“I dream about world peace. Any problem, whether it be diplomatic or otherwise. I think it can always be addressed with psychology,” Chen said. “That’s why I [talk] about cultural adaptation and psychological identity, basically because we feel that we are different, but if we share with each other and share or accept or adapt to each other, we can solve a lot of our problems. . . . [It’s like] with China. They are building their military because the U.S. threatened their country in the South [Asian] seas. . . . If you are planning peace, you have to practice peace yourself.”

“I hope that the racial problems, the ethnic problems can be solved by navigating our individual psychological identities and psychological interchange of our attitudes,” said Chen.

Chen, a longtime Fellow of the American Psychological Association, was an early psychologist to explore implicit learning, the learning of complex information in an incidental manner, without awareness of what has been learned. This type of learning has become known as one of the causes of racial and ethnic discrimination. Chen said that media portrayals of Asians, combined with depiction of violence in the media, play a large role in the discriminatory attitudes that lead to violent crimes like the murder of Loo.

For Chen, it was the atrocities that he saw growing up in Japanese-occupied China, along with the humanistic Eastern philosophies of Confucius and Mencius, that inspired him to become a psychologist.

Chen was born in 1931 in the Jiangsu province in eastern-central coastal China, the same year that Japan invaded Manchuria, a region that is now referred to as Northeast China, in what many considered to be the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The war, during which between 17,000,000 and 20,000,000 Chinese civilians died according to Michael Clodfelter’s (1992) book Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Reference, served as a backdrop for his childhood.

He was witness to and a victim of these atrocities. “Witnessing atrocity during childhood years affects one's personal development and attitude,” Chen said. “When I was in my teens, each time I entered the city gate, I had to bow down to Japanese soldiers holding their guns with bayonets on them. And one night, we had to hide in a small boat under tall weeds in a creek while Japanese gunboats were sweeping with machine gun overhead.”

This time in his life made Chen feel “desperate for safety, peace, security, love, and all of the other human ingredients.”

He found comfort in the philosophies of Confucius and Mencius, who emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, and sincerity.

“They provided me very much with the base, the roots of interest in people and interest in psychology,” said Chen. In 1949, Chen emigrated from Taiwan to the United States to continue his studies in psychology at the University of Oregon and then at Teachers College, Columbia University.

He was quickly confronted with being an ethnic minority in a country mired in racial segregation and untrusting of those from outside of traditional Western European culture.

It took him a long time to acculturate to American society. Chen said he learned that ethnic minorities have to negotiate with their indigenous ethnic culture, the minority realm that is imposed on them by way of being a minority in a society, and the mainstream culture that exists in a society.

“[I acculturated] because of my kids. They are Americans. . . . One of my boys was in the Boy Scouts, I remember vividly one scene. His Boy Scout leader kept saying, ‘You are Chinese,’ and my son said ‘I’m not!’ He said ‘You are. You are Chinese,’ and he was almost in tears,” Chen said.

At the time he was living in Butler, Pa., a formerly all-white town where his family was one of the first two minority families to arrive. Because Chen was so focused on his studies, he said, he hadn’t realized how discriminatory Americans could be toward Chinese Americans. The experiences of his children, his research on the aforementioned hate crimes and his becoming president of the Organization of Chinese Americans opened his eyes to what was really going on around him.

“I didn’t realize how badly the Chinese were mistreated until I was in the Organization of Chinese Americans,” Chen said. “I had no idea how badly the Chinese were treated, especially laborers in the early days of this country.”

In addition to bringing to light the discrimination that Asian Americans face, Chen has identified issues related to seeking and receiving mental health services.

Regarding his 1985 paper “The Need for Relevant Psychology for Asians,” Chen said, “I emphasize the value of psychology, but psychology is still foreign to people in general,” adding, “especially to Asian Americans because they are unaware of it. Maybe not because of them, but because of the exclusiveness of American culture itself. Personally, I feel my work, Asian American psychologists’ work, is a success, even though the awareness level is low.”

For example, when he joined the Association of Asian American Psychologists (AAPA) in 1975, it was somewhat monolithic in its scope, focusing on building unity among Asian Americans and attempting to tackle the issues of the Asian American community as a whole. But now, Chen said, the organization has several subgroups – an LGBTQIA+ group, an East Asian group and a South Asian group, for example – that focus on individual identities that Asian Americans form.

Now retired, Chen hopes his body of work can contribute to the struggle for a better life for all ethnic minorities. He’s written a memoir titled My Journey to Becoming Chinese American – A Memoir of an Asian American Psychologist and His Search for Ethnic Identity that’s currently being edited.

“They say that I retired from psychology,” he said. “But I never retired from civil rights and my work, the memoir I’m working on, is a continuation of that.”

Did you find this article interesting?

152 0