In 2018, while a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the international program of the Professional School of Psychology in Sacramento, CA, I enrolled in a course on cross-cultural coaching, held in Bali, Indonesia. As many of my classmates were from southeast Asia, prior to this course we had only met in on-line Zoom classes and study groups, or as we put it, “two-dimensionally”. Prior to my arrival in Bali, I decided to first sightsee in near-by Singapore. Traveling overseas solo for the first time, I was worried about being on my own, so had apprehensively made a dinner plan with a classmate for my first evening in Asia. I had only met this colleague in class on Zoom, and I worried about imposing on his time. I had heard Singapore was fairly westernized and imagined that like the USA it would be “every man for himself”. My colleague had a career and four sons; I was certain he was busy. I imagined he was just being polite or ingratiating himself to our professor by being nice to the only present American student, me. I also felt self-conscious as an American traveling overseas after the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Trump had run and become President on an anti-immigrant/foreigner platform. Although I was horrified about the election results, I believed I shouldn’t expect kindness from Asians when my own country’s leader used such hateful rhetoric toward non-Americans. I was ashamed of the current political climate in my country and felt I would understand if people from other countries might want to keep their distance from me, a potential “ugly” American.
I arrived at my hotel and freshened up. In a few hours my classmate, Ly, showed up to welcome me to his city and country. Having only conversed on a computer screen, I was surprised that we immediately recognized each other in our three-dimensional forms! Although we had never met in person, Ly informed me he had taken some time off from work to accompany me around Singapore, stating I was “a guest in (his) country and that it was (his) intention to take (me) to all the famous sites in Singapore as well as some of (his) own favorite places”. I felt so safe and cared about and was deeply touched by his hospitality. I sadly thought to myself that foreign visitors to the United States are rarely treated with such kindness, especially in the current political climate.
That week, I learned that Ly likes all kinds of noodles and a dish called Chicken-Rice and I suspect I ate the best Chinese food in Singapore. He told me about the history of his city and about his family and the story of how they came from China to Singapore. He told me about his parents, his sister and about his family and sons. He asked me questions about my husband, children, parents and family background.
Ly is a Chinese Christian, formerly a Buddhist monk. My parents are from New York, I grew up in northern California and am primarily of Jewish Eastern European and Irish Catholic descent. Basically, a product of the American melting pot! Over the next three days, Ly and I talked about our spiritual beliefs and our psychotherapy practices. We also learned that we both had studied martial arts which had greatly influenced our lives and spirits. We were from different parts of the planet, different cultures and spoke vastly different languages with different alphabets, yet had so much in common and connected like a brother and sister who had known each other their whole lives. During our three days together, Ly and I talked and laughed and cemented a deep friendship and professional relationship that have sustained us not only through our doctoral program experience but also through personal tragedies and losses. This friendship, as well as other important connections I made during those years, were the most important part of my graduate school experience. Was my academic education excellent? Yes! Was the cross-cultural perspective illuminating, unique and inspiring? Yes! But what sustained me, what really mattered to me were the intimate connections.