The toll of excessive educational pressure from parents? When the child is not returning to the home country.

Contributed by 鶴田 みさ Misa Tsuruta, Ph.D

Getting higher, more qualified education sounds exciting and promising all the time. It is hard to deny excitement and benefits coming from that kind of experience. However, things won`t always turn out to be expected, especially when parental expectation is disproportionately high.

I am saying this because in my private practice in Tokyo, I have seen certain patterns in recent years. Typically, the client is from an Asian country (such as China, Korea, the Philippines, etc.), they are sent to an English-speaking country at various ages (ranging from elementary school to graduate school), stay there up to a certain point, and return to another part of Asia – Tokyo.

There are some good reasons that Tokyo is chosen for this purpose (I hope I`m not too invested in my own town!). First, it is a world class city with a large population and vital economic activities. Second, it is a Japanese/Asian culture but is enough culturally diverse and has a good size of English-speaking (and other foreign) community. On top of these, it is generally considered mostly safe and perhaps notoriously orderly (imagine our bullet trains depart every 4 minutes or so!)

Recently, as one of my friends visited Tokyo from the U.S., I was thinking about this exceptional position of Tokyo as a capital of a country over past 400 years. Tourism-wise, sure Kyoto has much, much more and is unbeatably glorious, but Tokyo is also not too bad with its rich-enough cultural heritages and vast resources.

Back on track. Often, the motivation of the parent/child is more complex than simply wanting to attain higher education. On the parental level, although they might work hard to afford their offspring`s education, they are frustrated with what is available in their own country/culture, including education and the society at large. They typically think that higher education from a good institution abroad (mostly English-speaking) can be a passport for their kid`s eventual, broader successes. This, however, may or may not turn out to be successful enough to satisfy them. Too much pressure and too high expectations can literally wreck the kids, even resulting in mental disturbances. They might eventually miss their child, though by the time they get old enough the child has long been losing interests in getting back to them. This is a flip side of their regarding English-speaking countries as “higher”; kids who are acculturated to the western culture can in turn develop negative attitudes toward their own parental culture, sometime to the point of contempt.

From the child`s (client`s) perspective, depending on the person, there are different degrees of aversion to or avoidance of their parents, perhaps as a result of poor parenting, or some other unfavorable conditions they had to endure as a child. Sometimes these are quite extensive, to encompass not only parent(s) but also the entire immediate and extended family and the society and culture.

So, the tasks in therapy are not only dealing with current anxiety, depression, pressure, stress, frustration, etc. and some past sense of failures or compromises, but also, on the deeper level, responding to unmet emotional needs from childhood and the original family. In a sense, they might be choosing a new culture (in this case, Japan) in order to do these tasks, which allows them to make a fresh start.

On a smaller scale level, I also observe similar patterns among Japanese individuals, who are originally from local regions, studied in major cities within Japan or abroad, and are not getting back to their hometown. It is true that generally people back home are not receptive to “overeducated” individuals and the region often doesn’t have the right job market for them.  Ultimately in Japan, if you wish to work in English, perhaps Tokyo, or Osaka/Kyoto, is nearly the only suitable destination.

Actually, it is said that people enter therapy secretly (or sometimes openly) hoping to make reparation to their early relationships. But in my experience, often people start with different narratives, such as some troubles and stress at work or current relationship conflicts and frustration. This is why these people are called “neurotic” in a rather classic term, because they have the ability to “cover up” their “true motives” and emotionality when they first come to see a stranger called therapist.

Even though they might have some sense of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment or shame, it is entirely normal to experience these life circumstances. Your parents are not perfect, nor is your life. By the way, these can also apply to therapist themselves. One difference is that therapists know that these can happen, and might know how to deal with them – if not, they are willing to think through them with you.

Defining the client`s goals is not my task, but I get serious about helping them. They have choice – going back to their home country, going back to their “educational” country/culture, heading to yet another new country/culture, or other variations. Ultimately they gain freedom and carry what they learned in therapy along with their future life, since I believe that the effects of good-enough therapy won`t fade away so easily.

Author: 鶴田 みさ Misa Tsuruta, Ph.D

Misa Tsuruta, Ph.D. studied psychology at New York University and the New School for Social Research. Currently, she is licensed in Japan and has a bilingual private practice in Tokyo where she sees adult clients with mental health issues, cross-cultural/racial/gender issues, relational issues and experiences of trauma.