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Feb 11, 2013

The many layered onion of life abroad

In brainstorming about what I would write in this, my first blog with the ACA, I really struggled with getting started. I typed and deleted, typed and deleted and then once more, some keystrokes followed by a stab at the ole backspace. Nothing seemed adequate for describing or introducing what it is that I do and where I live. I’d come up with a smorgasbord of topics that I wanted to write about, but I didn’t feel I could just jump straight in to one of them with no introduction.

And then it occurred to me that this is exactly what many of my clients experience when trying to connect with members of their families and friends back home about their experiences abroad. So much to share, but no way to begin to introduce it all.

I am an American working as a counselor to the international community in Shanghai, China. I’ve been in Shanghai for three and a half years now and have worked with people from over thirty countries and six of the seven continents. (none from Antartica just yet!) All different races, faiths, and sexual orientations. With veterans from a variety of conflicts across the world, people affected by countless major world events, families of all kinds of blends who’ve lived in any different combination of places. The only prerequisite for my clients is the ability to speak English well enough to come to counseling. (Although I have done a very small amount of therapy in Italian when it was needed.)

To give you a bit of setting for my story, all of this action takes place in a cozy little office in Shanghai’s Former French Concession. In fact, the room itself looks like it could be a counseling office anywhere else in the world. Which can be part of the puzzle in living here: many elements seems almost like being at home but then mingled in with them are things that couldn’t be farther from it. On the street the minivan parked next to a delivery cart tricycle. High rise apartment buildings intermixed with traditional Chinese lane houses.

True to the name “Former French Concession,” the buildings in this neighborhood were built primarily by the French during the period when much of Shanghai was divided into foreign concessions. It’s always been my favorite part of the city and many of the international people living in Shanghai call it home.

Shanghai has become one of the world’s new “mixing bowl” cities, which currently seem to be much more commonly found in the east than in the west, as many white-collar workers make a type of reverse migration from developed countries to developing. According to the 2010 China census, there are approximately 210,000 people from overseas living in Shanghai, and approximately 1 million in China. We represent 214 nationalities, the largest groups coming from Taiwan, Japan and the United States. Since Shanghai is a city of 20 million total inhabits, this overseas population barely makes up 1%, however we are still approximately equal in number to the population of a small US city. And the number is only predicted to rise.

Living and working among the multi-cultured people here, has made me realize that we’re much more alike than we are different. Many of the common denominators in our struggles are the same. No matter where you’re from, there are people who have difficulty managing anger and stress. Couples still fight. There’s still trauma that needs to be healed and recovered from. In opening this discussion of multicultural counseling in Shanghai, it is helpful for us to remember that genetically, emotionally, psychological, physically, relationally, we have more in common that may initially appear to be the case.

But in stretching beyond the standard multicultural counseling discussion, what all this means for counselors in the US is that they will no doubt begin working with more and more people who have plans to live abroad, may be facing challenges of recent repatriation, or have lived abroad as children. As I will discuss in future blogs, all of these situations can present unique challenges. Each permutation of family history, each relationship, each contact with living in a different place adds a different layer to this onion of overseas experience. And it is through peeling away that onion, learning about it and understanding it, that we also come to better know and understand our clients and what has made them who they are.

Christine Forte is a counselor to the international population in Shanghai, China. You can learn more about her work here:

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