Katelyn (pseudo name) was born in 2002 to a Chinese family in Beijing. She first moved to Canada with her family when she was 3, and since then moved back and forth between China and Canada a few times. She now lives in Beijing and has participated in our teens program since 2020. She bravely shared her story of a time that she moved to Canada again at the age of 13, where she attended a French boarding high school.
Author: Katelyn (pseudo name)
Written in 2020
“You cannot have depression, as it would take a minimum of three months before one develops it.” Those were the words of the woman in front of me, as I was going through half a box of tissues to wipe away my tears.
It had been three weeks since I started grade 8 in a French catholic boarding school. I was 14, and one year had passed since I returned to Canada. I had already been held back a year, as I was forced to complete an immigration program in French. I was determined to make up for this lost year and do my best to fit in. I remember how I first walked into the school cafeteria, subconsciously searching the crowd for faces like mine, but I failed to recognize any people of Asian heritage. I was the only person of color in my grade of 300 students who was actually an immigrant. The three other POCs were all adopted by white families. I felt intimidated but strangely excited about the challenge of introducing all these people to my culture.
“But… but what could possibly be wrong with me?” I cried, struggling to get the sentence out.
I don’t remember much from the school counseling session other than feeling crushed and misunderstood. I specifically requested it to be in English, so I would at least have some sense of comfort and familiarity. Ever since arriving, I had tried my best to maintain perfect grades and a positive attitude towards my new classmates despite feeling isolated and sometimes being mocked. Every Friday when I went back home, I would cry and beg my mom to not drive me back to school the following week. I didn’t get physically bullied and I could sense there wasn’t much malicious intent behind the teasing. It was just extremely ignorant and dumb. One time, I remember teaching some other students Chinese. A teacher overheard me and commented it sounded like “zoo animal language.”
A few more weeks passed by, and I began to suffer academically. Focusing in class became much harder. My mind was preoccupied with thoughts like, “No one likes you here” or “Nothing will make up for the fact that you’re not white, rich and pretty”. I always held myself up to next to impossible standards when it came to grades, and I couldn’t imagine what I’d lose if I wasn’t at least a good student. Unfortunately, all of that was now slipping away, too.
I wasn’t myself anymore. People no longer saw me as extroverted, witty and competent. Instead, I did every assignment half-heartedly and spent my breaks alone, crying in the bathroom. The hope that I would eventually be accepted as one of them but still somehow stand out had long vanished. My 14-year-old brain couldn’t understand the inequality and injustice I experienced, but it became clear to me that either I had to completely change or the environment had to. I stopped going to school altogether.
“You’re so weak-minded! How can you face me like this! You’ve become a disgrace.” The words of my father ringed in my head. It had been months since I last went to school, or ate with my family, or woke up during the day, or felt like a decent human being. I thought I would only be taking a short break, but I’d never felt this exhausted in my whole life. I told my mom I wanted to go back to my old school, where it was culturally diverse and I still had friends, and I did.
This is a story of an international family, which is characterized by the family moving countries every few years. Often times, the moving decisions are decided by the parents, where the children in the family just tag-along. Although children have to move with their parents, it’s important to have a discussion with your children and let them participate in choosing the new school environment that they are going to be in. The decision process should be a collaborative one. Teenagers are at the developmental age where their relationships with their peers are of crucial importance. Culture shock can happen at different levels, but when there’s strong cultural discrimination at a new school both amongst students and faculty, it could put your children at a high risk of depression and anxiety. It is vital to monitor their adjustment to the new environment based on their emotional wellbeing. This can be done by having regular conversations about their concerns, fears, as well as new learning and achievements in school.
We would like to remind parents who have always had high expectations for their children that communicating to your children the following information would make your communication with your children more open, honest, and effective. It would also provide them a space where they can go to get support if they do need it. First, everyone fails and it’s normal. Embrace all the feelings that come along with the failure, such as insecurities, frustration, sadness, disappointment, or even anger. Second, when you fail, I am here to support you, I still believe in you and I love you nonetheless. Lessons we take from failures that are valuable, and we can learn from them together.
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