Ann Wu and Rachel Lauren Storm
In last November’s issue of the Public i, Hong Cheng, a freshman in Math & Computer Science at the University of Illinois, published an article entitled “Raising Concerns about Chinese Students’ Mental Health,” wherein he discussed the brutal killing of Mengchen Huang, a graduate student in the School of Art + Design. Her ex-boyfriend and University of Illinois alum, Youngfei Ci, had travelled from his Brown University post-doc intending to kill Huang, following their break-up a week before. Cheng problematizes a lack of access to mental health support for Chinese international students, asserting that things “could have been different if Ci had consulted friends or psychologists.” Cheng speculated that “[Ci’s] absence might be a reason that his girlfriend broke up with him, which eventually led to the tragedy. His girlfriend and his studies in math were his whole life.”
While we do need to engage in critical discussions on barriers to accessing mental health services and ensuring that students, international and domestic, receive adequate support, Cheng fails to situate Ci’s murder of Huang in a larger context of abuse. Moreover, Cheng employs a number of problematic stereotypes and generalizations about the experiences of Chinese international students. This article is a response and urges that we understand the problem of violence against women within a larger framework of structural violence. Intimate violence must be fought through prevention education that is conscious of larger systems of power, privilege, and oppression.
According to an ongoing study by the World Health Organization and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, more than 35% of all murders of women globally are reported to be committed by an intimate partner. In comparison, only about 5% of all murders of men are committed by an intimate partner. Among all homicides of men and women, approximately 15% are reported to be committed by an intimate partner. A global study of intimate partner homicide forthcoming from the National Institute of Health used data from 66 countries to illustrate that more than twice as many women are killed by a husband or intimate acquaintance than are killed by a stranger using a gun, a knife, or any other means.
It’s important to recognize that this was not isolated violence–Ci was abusive before the killing. At the campus vigil for Huang sponsored by the Women’s Resources Center and Chinese Student Association, one woman shared her own experience of having gone on a date with Ci. She described feeling uncomfortable early on in their ride to their dinner destination and expressing wanting to end the date prematurely, requesting to be taken home–a request that Ci ignored. In her statement, she shared that at the time , she–like so many others–didn’t possess the tools to recognize this as abusive behavior. All too often survivors face victim-blaming narratives that obscure the reality of the violence they suffered. By failing to recognize that Huang was abused by Ci during their relationship, Cheng fails to see that this tragic killing was part of a larger pattern of intimate partner violence that escalated to murder when she left. Those of us organizing around issues of intimate partner/domestic violence know that a woman is most at risk when she attempts to leave. In fact, this life-threatening risk is one of the reasons why women may find it extremely difficult to escape an abusive relationship. Speculating that Huang may have left the relationship due to Ci’s absences, without also noting Ci’s history of abuse, has the effect of minimizing or even erasing that violence. Failing to recognize Huang as a victim of intimate partner violence, and describing Ci as simply in need of mental health services, obscures a larger system of patriarchy pervasive the world over. The silence around Huang’s death was part and parcel of the silence surrounding gender-based violence so prevalent for women. Reports of the murder as a “homicide” with no mention of gender, abuse, or violence against women also reflect that silence. This labeling represents an institutional silence that produced false narratives about this being a senseless, random crime.
Unfortunately, mental health services haven’t proven effective for dismantling patriarchy. There are very real structural barriers to the accessibility of mental health services for students of color, ESL students, and immigrants, among other marginalized groups. These include ethnocentric design of direct service, lack of cultural competency among staff, inadequate marketing of services for specific populations, and not enough attention given to the dismantling of social stigma surrounding mental health services; all involve xenophobia, misogyny, racism, and classism. However, it is patriarchy– the social, political, and economic system that positions men as dominant– that sanctions beliefs about gender that give rise to misogyny and violence against women.
Overgeneralization of the experiences of Chinese international students in Cheng’s article also contributes to mischaracterization of the problem. Cheng identified “common characteristics of Chinese students [as a] lack of a social life, eminence in academics, and unwillingness to express feelings.” He stereotypes Chinese students, inferring that it is their ethnic background and supposed monolithic cultural upbringing that lead to isolation and lack of support. This not only overgeneralizes the experiences of Chinese international students, but it holds only students accountable for seeking help, rather than demanding institutions meet the diverse needs of students. Cheng was trying to point to very real structural barriers facing marginalized students–which can include those for whom English isn’t a first language, those with immigrant statuses, and international students. That said, institutions must meet those needs where they exist. Furthermore, Cheng focused on the lack of support for Ci, without reflecting upon the fact that Huang may have also needed support from the community as a victim of abuse long before her death.
In response to Cheng’s characterizations about the experiences of Chinese international students, Ann Wu (PhD. student in Art Education in the School of Art + Design) writes:
As an international Chinese student myself, I know that generally, Chinese students do not seek to limit their friendships to other Chinese people. Many of us face barriers in reaching out and connecting, not because of our ethnicity, but because English is our second (or third or fourth etc.) language–making it hard to keep up with native speakers of American English.
My immigration status comes into play in other ways. Because of student visa regulations, I am often afraid of being deported for breaking even small rules. Not being from the U.S., I lack the social network to guide me through times of discomfort or confusion. If we locate Chinese students’ experiences within a larger framework of marginal immigrants’ lived experiences, it is not hard to recognize the systematic denial of access across all aspects of campus and community life that contribute to an alienation in the United States. Instead of resorting to stereotyping and blaming international Chinese students’ lack of initiative (especially when no two experiences of international students are the same), it becomes necessary to recognize the structural hostility facing immigrants of color and the diversity of our individual experiences.
INCITE Women of Color Against Violence asserts that women of color and immigrant victims of violence are at a “dangerous intersection,” facing multiple obstacles to receiving help as a result of oppression. Survivors of violence face many barriers to accessing services as a result of their legal status. They are often reluctant to report crimes because their partners threaten to report them to the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) for deportation. Many programs for domestic and sexual violence survivors in the U.S. do not provide services in languages other than English. To respond to these challenges, INCITE argues that those of us working to end violence must:
Develop analyses and strategies around ending violence that place women of color at the center;
Address violence against women of color in all its forms, including: attacks on immigrants’ rights and Indian treaty rights; the proliferation of prisons; militarism; attacks on the reproductive rights of women of color; medical experimentation on communities of color; homophobia/heterosexism and hate crimes against lesbians of color; economic neo-colonialism; and institutional racism; and
Encourage the anti-violence movement to reinsert political organizing into its response to violence.
What is overwhelmingly apparent is that Cheng, like so many of us, is mourning– looking for ways to make sense of a terrible crime and its affect on our community. Too often in these moments, we move away from looking at structural problems and, instead, individualize the crime or position it as exceptional. We do this to make ourselves feel safer, but in doing so, we fail to recognize that not only is violence against women commonplace, but that these issues are deeply connected structural violence and our work needs to come from a place that addresses violence in all of its forms.
If you or someone you know is experiencing violence or abuse, direct them to these resources:The Women’s Resources Center | 217.333.3137 703 S. Wright St. MC-302 2nd Fl. Champaign | www.go.illinois.edu/WRC | firstname.lastname@example.org –advocacy, counseling, and education services for students experiencing abuse A Woman’s Place/Center for Women in Transition | 217.384.4462 508 E. Church Street, Champaign | http://www.cwt-cu.org | email@example.com –24-hour domestic violence crisis hotline: 217.384.4390 –shelter, counseling, and advocacy for women and children experiencing abuse Rape Advocacy Counseling and Education Services (RACES)| 217.344.6298 Lincoln Square Mall, 300 S. Broadway Urbana | http://www.cu-races.org/ | firstname.lastname@example.org — 24-hour sexual assault crisis hotline: 217.384.4444 –rape crisis advocacy, counseling, and education services Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline: 877.863.6338