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  • Megha Kimothi

Losing ‘U’ To The Promised Land

“I lost u,” read my journal entry, leaving me feeling lonesome as grief washed over me. I was in utter disbelief at my emotional response to losing the letter ‘u’ from the spelling of ‘flavour.’ Even though I'm pretty sure my anger was misplaced, I was frstrated at every fkcing red-scribbled, pardon my langage, ‘o’ followed by ‘u’ word on my compter. So, eradicating ‘u’ from my entire repertoire seemed like an appropriate cottage-scaled rebellion at the moment, right? I shall not be recolonised! Suddenly, after so many years of reinforced English dictation tests, I was being asked to recalibrate my spelling system if I ever wished to participate (read ‘be heard/seen’) in the American creative art therapies world.

As I wrote this, I hoped my humor would be apparent and acceptable. In reality, I was lamenting the loss of colour, behaviour, odour, honour, neighbour and everything else that I lived in and for, till attaining the much anticipated and coveted international student status at Pratt. Because doesn’t losing that ‘u’ feel like losing a little bit of ‘you’?

So, four other fellow first-year international students in the creative arts therapy (CAT) program at Pratt and I decided to delve deeper into the international student experience around bringing our culture into class. For the purpose of this article, we defined culture as an amalgamation of our various lived experiences and identities; internalized, “nuanced,” and metamorphic in quality.

Starting with language, even though English has been our formal medium of instruction throughout life, code-switching or the failure to do so was the red line for all of us. 

“I never thought my name would be an issue when pronounced in American English.” 

“Being multilingual started posing an issue while sharing or understanding in class.” 

Participating in pre-defined norms of group sharing as the only option of effective communication seemed forced to some. “If only there was one more person in the room who spoke my language, I wouldn’t feel so lonely!” I believe there is something calming about a vigorous head-nod or a smile mirrored back to shared phrases. “Language not as words but as an unspoken understanding.” As author of “Research Is Ceremony” Shawn Wilson puts it, “relational accountability is the crux of indigenous life,” and I believe this ethereal accountability is key to creating a therapeutic alliance with patients at the core of our work.

In any kind of alliance, shared histories provide a grounding experience for all involved. However, in the absence of such shared histories, cultural competency must not end at curiosity, because international students crave genuine reflection. When this lack of reflection was perceived as inappropriate due to transitional pain, the urge to defend against American standards or fear of inflating oneself became bigger. When students felt invisibilized because of an awareness gap they described bodily sensations of “suffocation,” “floating,” “sinking,” and a feeling of being othered which in-turn affected our in-class attentiveness. As stated by a fellow student, “When withdrawal from discussions is acceptable in class, I feel angry. But I also introject what I inherently consider disrespectful.” This is a classic example of transitions evoking contradictory emotions and insecurities, while we do not allow ourselves to express them. Holding back such inner talk like, “I am talking too much about my culture,” or “I’ll just turn off some parts of me because I know they won’t understand,” would not prove productive for our patients as well. Future CATs who intend to work in multicultural landscapes might benefit from researching and adding international, non-Euro-centric, non-cis authors and artists to leisure reading/video lists. Interacting with these direct sources is the simplest way to “orient the body-mind-spirit continuum ‘towards’ the cultural differences” in the classroom and in the therapy room.

At the other end of the psychological spectrum is, “asking for help hasn’t been easy for me because I’m so far away from home and I want to prove I can make it.” So, I wonder if there’s potential in providing peer support. Not through spoon-feeding connections, but through structured interventions like introducing formal tutorial groups or increasing group/dyad assignments outside of class in the first semester. Spending informal academic time outside is important not just for emotional but operational support. Visa requirements, work rules, food, housing, and many other underlying issues that could affect academic success are better dealt with together. Logistical challenges around the availability of reading material from countries that deprioritize CAT or navigating school softwares, tools, and other digital resources for those with learning disabilities felt significantly disruptive to the learning process. Due to vastly different international CAT professional landscapes, one student also suggested bringing more focus to non-institutional aspects of clinical practice.

Creative art therapists are not only learning about causes or content around emotional turmoil but also, by the very nature of experiential pedagogy at Pratt, are in some way, undergoing it too.

“I have been feeling like an off-balance scale.”

“I’m very bitter.”

“My patience levels are worse now.”

“I feel like I don't have a culture.”

Fortunately, my interviewees were successful in identifying many built-in, regulatory coping mechanisms within the practice of creative art therapies and our meticulously curated program. Art-making without the need to attach meanings to symbols, moving without having to verbalize, art materials for facilitating risk-taking, the universal language of rhythms, play, mind-body integration, developing individual identities, focus on multicultural competency, openness in classrooms, faculty gentleness, authenticity and their invitations to honest discourse are some of the anchors we’re grateful for and dearly hold on to. 

In my experience, CAT faculty, OIA, HR, the DEI Office, the Counseling Center, and other stakeholders have been immensely nurturing in our transitions. But we wonder if differences in administration styles compared to our home countries could be another opportunity to discuss representation. I believe this global approach could be reassuring to an international student and possibly feed into the truly one-of-kind, culturally-oriented, promising educational set-up our directors are working so hard to maintain as we give up the ‘u’ to build a stronger I.


Art by Serena Y. Cheng


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