Twenty-five years ago, as I embarked on my first business trip to Asia, I never could have imagined that the start of my career as a designer would also be the start of my career as a psychologist. Throughout the next two decades, though deeply engaged in my career in fashion design, my interest in psychology evolved into an enduring passion that I knew I had to follow.
As we drove from the Hong Kong airport into Mainland China, the scenery shifted. We passed houses made of sticks, women carrying large bundles on their heads, and an entire family riding on the back of a bicycle—the children sitting in an attached cardboard box. Entering the factory, I was struck by the conditions the workers were subjected to, the inequality and lack of privacy they were forced to endure. I was 22-years-old, far from home, and felt so small amongst the realities of systemic oppression. Ashamed and confused about my First World privilege, I wondered what I could do.
Through unspoken attunement and clipped Chinese phrases, I attempted to enter my co-workers’ world. We developed a shared language, influenced each other’s thinking, navigated power differentials, and experienced collective pride in our creations. From physical exhaustion to monsoons that flooded factories, we faced obstacles together. We forged close friendships as we worked tirelessly side-by-side, dealing with the anxiety of changing deadlines and frustration of intermittent power outages.
Over time, I became keenly aware of a tendency among some of my Chinese co-workers to acquiesce. While my life as a privileged White American was starkly dissimilar, I strongly identified with their inclination to comply. During adolescence, I felt constrained as I struggled to know my own voice in my family culture that silenced dissent. It was this struggle that initially led me to therapy. There, I began to understand that I turned to drawing as a silent form of self-expression, which is what initially led me to my career in design.
Years later, following my father’s passing and fueled with a recognition of life’s fragility, I took a hiatus from my job. Traveling began feeling arduous and fashion superficial. In reflecting on my work, I realized that what I found most meaningful was connecting with people, sitting in the muck, and working through challenges together. I came to understand these aspects of my work as a metaphor for the work of psychotherapy.
My road to psychology was hardly linear. Time abroad has deepened my respect and curiosity towards differing perspectives. This experience has strengthened my creativity, expanded my empathy, and sharpened my attunement for those whose language I don’t yet understand. When I announced my decision to leave an established career and become a 40-year-old student, many of my loved ones did not understand. Trusting my voice enabled me to follow my passion.
Twenty-five years and over a hundred China trips later, I remain committed to helping others find voices they may not yet know they have.