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OPINION: Searching for Kinship in Psychotherapy

by Angelina Li 李羽茜

I first entered psychotherapy as an undergraduate business student. I didn’t know what was wrong, just that I felt terrible, lonely, lost. I deeply craved connection with other people, yet, despite my ongoing efforts, felt so alienated and like I didn’t fit in. I tried psychotherapy on a whim by enrolling in a research study through my school’s psychology department. 

The study aimed to teach the participants acceptance/mindfulness-based techniques to manage anxiety symptoms. It seemed like a good place to start for me, someone who was a beginner to therapy and had limited financial resources. It was the first time I had experienced being with someone whose primary role was to listen, and it taught me techniques I still use today. Once that study concluded, I was referred to my current therapist who I’ve been seeing for five years. She has become a very important person in my life. 

Therapy became a process of coming home to myself. It is always a place I can soften and sit with the uncomfortable truths of living in the presence of a caring, wise person and in a way that makes me feel more settled. It facilitated my decision to physically leave my home and to return periodically with a fresh set of eyes. It helped me move towards freedom and away from self-destruction. 

Slowly, through personal therapy, I began to understand the power of listening. I had been bouncing between business school and working in a law office with the intention of applying to law school. But there was a particular moment at work that, combined with my experience in therapy, led me to pivot into seeking training as a therapist. 

I was one of the only bilingual Mandarin-speaking Chinese American employees at the law office where I worked. An elderly Chinese woman came to the office one day seeking legal representation for her work injury. In the absence of access to a translator, I volunteered to help facilitate a meeting between this woman and an attorney. Throughout the meeting, I tried carefully and patiently to listen to the woman’s story, but the attorney tried to probe and rush for the facts that would establish whether or not she had a case. I was struck by the attorney’s impatience and the woman’s story of repeated rejections from different law firms, no one to believe her, no one who understood or even listened. 

As someone who immigrated as a young child, I could relate to the woman’s sense of frustration at being an easily dismissed stranger and felt deeply moved by her suffering. As she continued to speak, I held space for her by moving to another office to meet with her privately. I became curious at the way she kept repeating her story over and over and wondered what might help her. An hour or so later, the woman left the office clutching her decade-old medical records as she continued trying to repeat her story to me, even as she walked out the door. She seemed lost but determined,  and I felt a sense of regret, worry, sadness in not being able to help her get where she needed to go. I wish at the time I knew to refer her to some sort of mental health support. I’ve learned in my training as a therapist that when a story is repeated, it can become a process of retrieving fragmented pieces each time. With each repetition, more can be understood about what has happened to the person. 

While histories of settler colonialism are violent and cannot be justified, there is still something undeniably human about the desire to settle. I think for many Asian Americans, what presents as depression can actually be an ongoing, intergenerational mourning of lost homes — a sense of feeling displaced. David Eng and Shinhee Han write about this in their book Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation. Can we settle — into our families dreams for a better life, into reclaiming a sense of home and kin — without displacing the homes and people that already exist where we try to land?

In the Many Moons 2021 Lunar Planner, Sarah Faith Gottesdeiner writes this: 

“For reasons personal and political, home will always be complicated. Home correlates with power: wars have been waged over territories, over the sovereignty or control of bodies. Bodies are homes to our souls, ancestors, and ancient futures. Because the traditional idea of home is so complex, and often ambiguous, it could be useful to consider the concept of home in some gentler ways. Home is all the knowledge the water inside you carries … home is all the places you enjoy being, literally or figuratively. Over time, you become of a place, or of many. As you remember, as you fulfill longings, you enact your own homecoming.” 

Growing up, my family rarely spoke of mental health. My parents are scientists who left China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. The revolution began in 1966, was led by Mao ZeDong, and lasted for about a decade.

The 1900s was a period in Chinese history marked by radical class resistance to capitalism and imperialism but also a time in which a country’s foundations were shaken at its core. Many suffered, and it led to an economic deprivation that’s still being recovered from. My parents and many Chinese are still recovering from this often invisible history. It shapes our desire and search for home, nourishment, a place to settle. It also gave way to our persistence and determination. Today, my parents are a little different. My mom has been more open about her history with me, and I do my best to listen. My dad has found his peace and forgiveness through church. 

For many of us, like for me, the search for home and kin doesn’t end. Sometimes the search is a return to my physical places of birth, places I grew up, people I grew up with. Sometimes it’s searching for something inside myself. Other times, like with my work, it’s searching for kinship with people I’ve yet to meet but when we do, it feels fated. I think as immigrants, we are all just trying to find each other and ourselves. Being a therapist and being in therapy is how I continue my search. A therapist is someone who, through sustained listening and curiosity, can help us come home slowly to our bodies in a way that opens up all sorts of possibilities — including how/where we define home to be and who/what we are really trying to find.

Angelina Li 李羽茜 is a Chinese American psychotherapist in private practice based out of Columbia City (Unceeded Duwamish Land). She’s passionate about radicalizing psychoanalysis/mental healthcare systems and caring for her people/pets. Find out more here.

🎨 Featured artwork by Derek Do

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