A Panel to Their Heart: Promoting Mental Wellness among Heritage Mandarin Learners

There is no better time to focus on mental wellbeing than during a time of global seclusion. The Chinese Language Program (CLP) at UBC always attaches great importance to its students’ mental health and wellness, constituting a positive learning community that consistently supports its Mandarin learners. This October, the CLP hosted a panel titled “A Panel to Your Heart: Promoting Mental Wellbeing of Heritage Mandarin Learners” for heritage Mandarin learners and their family members in acknowledgement of these learners’ unique mental health challenges. The panel featured three special panelists from both Canada and the US, welcomed around 50 attendees, and offered an abundance of tailored information and resources for heritage Mandarin learners’ mental wellbeing. 

With the generous help and support of three special panelists, namely, Dr. Xinshu She, Dr. Brenda Lee, and Ana Tam, the event successfully identified and analyzed particular mental health challenges that heritage Mandarin speakers faced. For instance, such struggles may include heritage learners’ pronounced experience of identity conflicts, cultural confusion, language barriers with family members, and lack of intergenerational understanding. Accordingly, the panelists offered professional and practical mental health advice and support for both students and their parents present at the event. 

“Mental health is the overall well-being of a person. It truly affects our minds, how we feel and handle different aspects of our life, such as stress. The ability to manage stress and prevent it from affecting the other aspects of your life is crucial for me.”

Around one fifth of the panel attendees were parents of heritage students, and almost half of the audience used Mandarin as their primary language. To better enhance the audience’s understanding of and engagement with the panelists’ presentations,  Kevin Sun, a heritage student from CHIN345, and Ying Zeng, a fourth-year Economics and Psychology double major, provided interpreting services in Mandarin and Cantonese respectively throughout the event for the purpose of inclusivity, which also shows the diversity of Chinese heritage students. The interpreting services and occasional polls greatly contributed to the audience’s interaction and engagement with the panelists. 

Interactive polls to encourage the audience’s meaningful engagement with the panel

Dr. Xinshu She, Clinical Assistant Professor in Pediatrics at Stanford University and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, opened the presentation section as the first speaker.  With over 14 years of experience in Global Health and multiple publications on youth mental wellbeing, Dr. She’s presentation was abundant with practical advice for heritage students, shedding great light on how to cultivate and enhance one’s mental wellbeing on a daily basis. 

More specifically, Dr. She’s presentation focused on mental-wellness-related issues such as Asian families’ attitudes toward mental health challenges, how to practice mental self-care, and so on. She discussed the importance of building resilience in stressful situations through, for instance, meditation, journaling, thinking positively, and spending time with family as well as friends. Dr. She further advocated the practice of mindfulness as a lifestyle to cultivate a sense of inner peace and spirituality.

“Dr. Xinshu She mentioned how important building resilience is to combating stress at school. One of the ways she mentioned to build resilience is to try to think of negative experiences in a more positive way, and to try to learn from them instead of speaking down on yourself… [because of this message], I have started to try and have a more positive outlook in life, and learn from my mistakes rather than beating myself up over them.”

Ana Tam, the second panelist, is a third-year Political Science student at UBC, who previously took CHIN 243, a heritage Chinese language course. In her presentation, Ana shared her most recent mental health struggles resulting from her heritage background. Specifically, her stories centered around the generational differences between her and her parents, a topic which deeply resonated with her fellow heritage students at the event. Her presentation opened up a new horizon for the audience from the perspective of heritage Mandarin learners, and directly relates to the attendees via shared experiences and difficulties.

Moreover, Ana recounted how she overcame her mental health challenges through personal development, psychotherapy, counselling services, and the support of her instructors and friends at the Chinese Language Program. Her presentation shed light on her personal mental struggles that arose from her heritage identity and the generational differences, focusing on the transmission of generational trauma that was further complicated by migration experiences and cultural differences

“I was really touched by Ana’s presentation … [and] I think that she provided a really strong message that there’s many people out there who are quietly going through their own challenges and have trouble reaching out for help, whether it’s out of a fear of being judged or believing that it’s a sign of weakness. It was incredibly brave of her to speak out about it and I’m thankful that she was willing to share her story with us.”

The last panelist was Dr. Brenda Lee, a Registered Psychologist at UBC Counselling Services. Richly experienced in engaging with UBC students’ mental health issues, Dr. Lee approached heritage Mandarin learners’ mental wellness from both a professional and an insider’s perspectives.  Her presentation focused on challenges these learners faced in a variety of contexts, and elaborated on their acculturation into the host culture. Accordingly, the process is frequently fraught with social, psychological, and cultural changes that arise from not only navigating the balance between two or more cultures, but also the necessity of adapting to the dominant culture in society. As a result, the heritage Mandarin learners are often faced with challenges such as relationship conflicts, potentially stigmatizing situations, and the dilemma between one’s own independence and filial obligations.  

“I found the rings of identity/acculturation concept — integration, separation, assimilation, marginalization — that Dr. Lee brought up to be particularly insightful. I thought the understanding that integrated and separate identities are the ones with the best mental health outcomes was so interesting, though I guess it also feels somewhat obvious, as those are the identities that intuitively feel peaceful — there’s no inner struggle and no feeling of being unanchored in the world.”

Accordingly, Dr. Lee offered a treasure trove of information and resources to help heritage students cope with their mental health issues. For instance, she highlighted the importance of setting healthy boundaries at home as a solution to the conflict between desiring independence and adhering to the notion of filial piety. Furthermore, Dr. Lee proposed strategies such as Cognitive-Behavioural therapy, acceptance and commitment, mindfulness-based activities, and solution-focused approaches to counter heritage Mandarin learners’ mental health challenges. In addition, she also provided a large number of resources students could easily access at UBC, such as Counselling Services, Student Health Services, Student Assistance Programs, and much more. 

Dr. Lee providing resources at UBC that support students’ mental wellness

After the three panelists’ informative presentations, Professor Hsiang-ning Sunnie Wang combined a poll with Zoom’s annotation tools to interact with the audience, and demonstrated heritage learners’ parents’ high expectations of their children’s academic performance. Through this interactive activity, it became apparent that Mandarin learners with a heritage background received lots of pressure from their families to perform well in school, which unfortunately gave rise to many mental health issues, such as depression, performance-anxiety, and so forth. Professor Wang ultimately passed on to the group a thought-provoking message: “Achieving good grades is temporary, but your mental health is going to stay with you forever.” Apart from Prof. Wang, the CLP’s very own lecturers Li-jung Lee, Yi Chen, and Yu-chun Peng also attended the event to show full support to their heritage students and raise awareness of these learners’ distinctive mental health challenges. 

Professor Wang’s discussion on heritage students’ parents’ expectations of their children’s academic performance

“I think as a Chinese parent, although we love our children very much, we generally spend more energy on fulfilling our children’s physical needs like providing food and shelter, but avoid addressing their emotional needs. For example, I don’t tell my children ‘I love you’ very much, because I feel that everything I do should make them know that I love them, and I don’t have to use words to express it. But now I know that I should change my introverted character… Thank you for this lecture, for letting me know that my daughter can also find help at school when she needs it. At the same time, I now know that the encouragement and support of family members is an important way for my daughter to get out of depression. I will do my best to help her live a happy life again.”

At the end of the panel, an interactive Q&A session was held by Aydin Quach, a fourth-year Honors History in International Relations and Chinese Language and Culture double major, to further help heritage students and their parents answer questions concerning mental wellbeing. Throughout the event, the audience raised a large number of questions via the chat box to engage with the panelists’ presentations, share their ideas and thoughts, and connect with one another. The Q&A session effectively addressed all the questions garnered through the chat box and stimulated many more as well.  

Participants who attended this mental wellbeing panel

“This panel made me realise that it is okay to seek help, and [mental health] is a journey that is not linear. I am on my own journey of ups and downs and I have to take care of my mental health to take care of myself. A healthier mental health is reflected in the relationships you carry, the energy you give out, the mentality and thoughts you drive.”

“For a long time, I felt that because I’ve broken through my mental health struggles and trauma in the past, I refused to acknowledge my declining mental health in the pandemic. I teared up throughout [this panel], and am finally gaining the confidence to go back to therapy.”

To sum up, the event not only promoted the awareness of mental wellbeing among heritage Mandarin learners and their family members, but also served as an occasion for them to identify, analyze, and explore these learners’ unique mental health challenges. The panel has further encouraged heritage students to reflect on their own experiences of mental wellness and work together to take care of their mental wellbeing. The panel’s interactivity enabled both students and parents to engage with each other, deepening intergenerational understanding among the audience. Through events such as this panel, the Chinese Language Program persistently strives to foster its Mandarin learners’ mental wellbeing via unwavering support, empathetic understanding, and community connections. 




Written by Ji Woo Choi

Edited by Shih-wei Wang