Raising Concerns about Chinese Students’ Mental Health

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Yongfei Ci is a 6th-year-PhD student in University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. While he is majoring in math here, this semester he went to Brown University to do research. But on September 28th, Ci returned to Urbana and murdered his ex-girlfriend Mengchen Huang in her apartment in One North. They had broken up one week before the homicide.

Huang was a first year PhD student in art history. She was also a teaching assistant for an art history class. I tried to interview several close friends of Huang to get their understanding and feelings about the homicide but they refused to talk  “due to respect for her and her parents”. But, a student in Huang’s art history class said,  “Yongfei Ci read too many books and devoted too much time into his own study. He didn’t have many friends.”

Yongfei Ci was a TA in Calculus 3. He doesn’t have many friends. When being asked about him, the victim’s friend said, “I don’t know him at all.” Huang is the only one he can talk to and rely on, but this semester he is doing research far away. His 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.

“If someone means everything in your life, you cannot bear losing her,” remarked a Chinese student after hearing about it.

Ci reflects some common characteristics of Chinese students: lack of a social life, eminence in academics, and unwillingness to express feelings. These are common among Chinese students. They only make friends with Chinese, and they rarely go to parties. They don’t even need to go to a doctor or hospital because almost all of them have a bag of medicines for cold and sore throat. What’s more important, they don’t usually seek help from others. Things could have been different if Ci had consulted friends or psychologists. Asking for help, or even advice, is commonly recognized as embarrassing and illustrates the person’s inability to depend on one’s self.

Xinyan Zhou, a sophomore student in computer science major was surprised when he found that I was texting an American girl discussing how to start my paper, saying “I never sent a message to an American for advice.”

“There are two typical groups of Chinese students. One is very social, and the other is kind of like geeks.” Said Molly Ma, a Chinese freshman student majoring in architecture. “But one common feature is that both of them basically only get along with other Chinese.” However, she gets along well with her American roommates. When asked which type she is, she said “I don’t mean there are only these two kinds of people. They are just typical.” Then she added, “Now I only have three close American friends, my roommate and my two suitemates.” While even she only has three real American friends, most Chinese students don’t make friends with any Americans. “We know each other’s name or maybe we don’t. We are in the same class and we talk to each other. That’s all, and there’s no more.” Said Yang Lei, a freshman student majoring in math.

“We all know that there is McKinley for mental health, and counseling in International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), but I never heard of anyone using it.” said Yang, “and now after Ci, it feels like everyone assumes someone studying math has mental issues.” The ISSS in UIUC has a project called “interlink”, which aims to help new international students establish a mentorship with senior students. Sadly, none of my interviewees has heard of anyone taking part in it as a mentee.

Chinese students are avoiding communication with others. The foreign environment enhances the problem. Being one of a minority increases international students’ anxiety. They find it difficult to be friends with people of different ethnicities. As they grow older, more of their friends graduate or leave the school. “The old people don’t make new friends.” Jialun Liu, a 24-year-old graduate student in electrical and computer engineering said. “We are the old people on campus.” The shrinking number of friends makes them feel insecure. All these factors make them more and more lonely. They need mental health care.

“Offer them more opportunity to come out of their own world,” concluded Molly, “that will prevent tragedies like this from happening again.”

(Hong Cheng is a freshman in Math & Computer Science, U of I)

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