I am not an American; I was born and raised in Romania and although I have American citizenship, I don’t identify as one. I moved to the states 6 years ago and even though it may not seem long, my transition (assimilation) into the American culture has not been easy, well it is not easy since I am still trying to adapt. You can see then, where my interest in multicultural counseling comes from: experience mainly, experience that taught me a lot about being aware of who I am, the importance of where I am from, and what my role is here.
I am even now surprised with how America proclaims itself a pot of multiculturalism, yet many of its people are not really ready to take on the responsibility multiculturalism brings with it. I wonder when the decision was made and whether the people of America were ever asked about their opinion with regards to the definition of multicultural America. I know, forgive my being a little mean and sarcastic but it’s the only way I know –that has worked so far- to deal with being a foreigner in the New World.
I’ve been wanting to be a therapist for a very long time and I’ve been getting myself ready –amongst other things- by being a client, seeing what therapy means from the other side, experiencing with different counselors with different theoretical backgrounds. I am learning a lot from them and what seems –to me at least- to be a recurring theme is this: multiculturalism, the lack of respect and understanding for the different cultures that can be found every two steps you take in America.
In my home country you can’t visit someone (friend, doctor, therapist, etc) empty-handed. It is what it is: whether you are bringing flowers, or chocolates, or cookies it is rude to knock on someone’s door without a gift. Now, you can imagine how embarrassing it was for me when my first American therapist refused my gift and scolded me a little. It took me back when I was 3 and the kindergarten teacher would put me in the corner, to shame for coloring over the lines of the image. How was I supposed to know –after 23 years of presenting gifts to all my hosts- that here it is not only unnecessary, but also frowned upon and unethical?
I know, you’ll quote the ACA Code of Ethics that prohibits us from receiving any gifts from clients. I stopped thinking in such black and white terms a long time ago, not everything is black and white especially in this case where the client has a very strong eastern European accent and just got off the plane. My feelings –as a client- were hurt, I felt ashamed as if I’ve done something wrong, and the last thing I wanted was to pour my heart out to this person who basically judged me right off the bat for who I am –that’s at least how I saw it at that moment-.
In counseling you just can’t take the risk to assume anything about your clients: anything at all. One of the main rules we practice by is not to harm our clients. Culturally competent counselors take all these “little things” into consideration because what might be common sense to you might not be to the client, and vice-versa. We are responsible for treating our clients with respect, keep judgments locked away, and help to the best of our abilities. I personally believe that when dealing with clients from a different culture –and not only, of course- respect for that client should be second nature, not an option.
Diana C. Pitaru is a counselor-in-training, and a student at Walden University. Her theoretical interests are in Gestalt, Art, and Narrative therapy while focusing on multicultural issues and eating disorders.