Catherine Ma: Exploring the Psychology of Immigration

Catherine Ma: Exploring the Psychology of Immigration

Exploring the Psychology of Immigration

Catherine Ma, Kingsborough Community College (CUNY)

Keywords: Food, Culture, Immigration

Course: PSY 2800 – Contemporary Views of Psychology: The Psychology of Immigration

This was a new course that I created from scratch. It is considered an elective course but I am working with my civic engagement coordinator to designate it as a civic engagement course that would fulfill Kingsborough’s graduation requirement for our students. My goal for this course is to expand what we already know and challenge our current assumptions about immigrants. With the overwhelming majority of our students at Kingsborough being first generation college students and immigrants, I feel that this course is important for students to gain a better understanding of what it means to be an immigrant living in New York City and provide them the tools to dispel myths about immigrants with the aim to reduce or eliminate discriminatory views.

Course Description

This is a special topics course that focuses on the lived experiences of immigrants. Unless you are Native American or of indigenous descent, colonizing settlers, 18th- and 19th-century slaves, or exploited Chinese railroad workers, you are an immigrant or have immigrant roots. This course will explore how our immigrant ancestry lead to our way of life in the United States while exploring the complexities in what constitutes as being an American. The theme for this semester’s course will query issues related to the psychology of immigration. Our personal lives may seem mundane to us but our lived experiences have the potential to transform the way we see things and become civically engaged in our communities. Civic engagement can take the form of many different avenues, becoming more informed about a topic that affects those around us can be one way. Becoming a voice for marginalized or invisible people can be another way. I want you all to take away from this class that your voices and lived experiences are powerful and this class will give you the opportunity to be heard.

What were your goals/hopes in integrating Asian American content in your course? Did you have specific learning objectives?

I had a budding idea in my head years ago to create a psychology of immigration course as I wanted to explore how my own upbringing as an immigrant has affected my life. I also noticed that many of the students at our college are first generation immigrants and college students. I hoped that having a class to discuss the difficulties and resilience of immigrants would be beneficial to our students. Being a first generation immigrant and college student myself, I often experienced struggles and I hoped having a course that aimed to reveal some of these often unspoken struggles would provide validation to other students who were also facing similar struggles. I incorporated many of the readings that we completed during our BAAS fellowship into my syllabus. I felt they gave students a good foundation of some of the issues immigrants faced and are still facing in their daily lives. My specific goals were twofold where I wanted to make salient the challenges immigrants face and to expand the class’ understanding of the many facets of immigration.

My class was capped at 28 because it was new and many of the students in the class shared their relation to immigration whether they were immigrants themselves, of later generations, or born in the United States but still being treated as if they did not belong due to the color of their skin. The students of Kingsborough Community College are very diverse with many students being first generation college students and/or immigrants. I would like to think that many of the students felt safe to share their fears, traumas, micro- and macroaggressions, and personal experiences because I was forthcoming in sharing my own experiences as an immigrant and first generation college student. I did receive feedback from quite a few students thanking me for giving them the knowledge about my own Chinese culture as they can readily relate to many of the trials and tribulations I have had to overcome or am still overcoming.

What did you do in your course this semester to integrate As Am content?

I created a list of topics to be covered during the spring 2017 semester that touched upon different aspects of the lived experiences of immigrants. We began with the American Psychological Association’s executive summary of The Psychology of Immigration in a New Country to give them a good foundation of what are some of the issues immigrants have faced and continue to face living in the United States. I included topics that I found pertinent to expanding our understanding of immigration and immigrants. My syllabus shows each topic and the corresponding short writing assignment to help students apply their new knowledge to their own lives. I find making the connection to our own lives to be an effective way to teach students and to give them the opportunity to expand their own thinking.

The lecture that I wish to focus on explored the relationships between food & culture. I chose the topic of food because it was a nice change of pace after learning about more depressing topics such as residential schools, the problems of the Model Minority, and the mental health issues of immigrants. It was a lighter topic that many students could relate to. I bought some samples of Chinese foods that each symbolized something different (e.g., pistachios represented happiness, Chinese candies that I grew up eating, salted prunes that my grandpa enjoyed when he was alive, gold foil wrapped Ferrero Rocher chocolates that many Chinese people use as offerings to their Gods, Chinese peanuts that represent fertility, etc.) so students could taste a little bit of Chinese culture. I explained how each treat I bought to class had a cultural significance to many Chinese people. I also incorporated the readings of the keywords, Food and Culture from Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, Linda Trinh Võ, and K. Scott Wong, eds., Keywords for Asian American Studies (NYU Press, 2015) to teach the students how food is our common language, food pornography exoticizes Asian cultures for American audiences, food can be used in derogatory terms (e.g., an Asian being called a Twinkie or banana where they are yellow on the outside but white on the inside), culturally relevant foods represent certain ethnic enclaves (e.g., West Indian Chinese food in Richmond Hill, Queens), a new generation of celebrity Asian chefs are changing the way Asian foods are being viewed, ethnic foods as a way for immigrants to find solace and comfort in their surroundings, and the use of food to mark celebratory milestones. Students were asked to not only complete the readings on those 2 keywords but to also share 3 pictures of foods that represented their culture and write a short paragraph describing each food, why they liked or disliked it, and to describe its cultural significance. Many students enjoyed sharing personal stories and the holidays associated with the foods they chose to highlight in their assignment.

How did it go? What was effective? What would you do differently, and how/why?

The lecture on the relationship between food and culture went well and there was a lot of positive feedback where students were happy to share different types of food that reflected aspects of their culture. It was also refreshing to focus on a happier topic and students responded well to having the opportunity to try the samples of the treats I had brought in. We also examined the similarities of certain dishes across cultures. Many of the foods the students from Spanish cultures chose to reflect upon were wrapped in banana leaves which were similar to one Chinese dish where sticky rice mixed with fatty pork, dried shrimp, a salted duck egg yolk, and sometimes Mung beans also wrapped in banana leaves were used to celebrate May day. Discussing the commonalities and differences among our favorite foods was a nice and friendly way to bond with one another. One student shared his memories growing up in Belize with a picture of Belize garnaches which are corn tortillas that have been deep fried until they are golden and crispy, then covered with refried beans, grated Dutch cheese, chopped onions, habanero peppers, and onion and cilantro steeped in lime juice or vinegar. I enjoyed how he shared that this dish was one of his favorite meals because his mother had taught him how to make it and when he eats it, he is reminded of Belize. His example showed the importance of how food can also represent a sense of home and familiarity for new immigrants who are adjusting to life in America. I recall Kalaya’an Mendoza, who is the field director of Amnesty International USA from the Asian American/Asian Research Institute of the City University of New York’s (AAARI-CUNY) conference on Building Coalitions & Coalescing a Pan-Asian/Pacific/American Identity sharing his method on how to increase diversity and fight against racism through parties and engaging in discussions over good food. His comment struck me as it helped students understand that food is a commonality we all share and to have the opportunity to be a part of a different culture and that is celebrated with good food left us all with a stronger sense of camaraderie this semester.

Generally speaking regarding the rest of the class, I did hit some obstacles. We had some very interesting discussions and most of the class did participate in the discussions, did the readings, and wrote their papers on time but there was a small proportion that did not do the readings, did not post their reaction papers on Blackboard, or participated in class. This was frustrating because the group projects and in-class activities I had planned could not be completed if most of the students did not complete the readings. There were a few times that I had to remind the class that their grade is based on completing their readings and writing their reactions papers. I was naïve to think that giving the students all the required readings that I personally found interesting was enough to get them to read. I feel that the next time I teach this class, I will need to give exams to force the students who may not do the work that is expected of them, to keep up on the readings. I shared my experience with a colleague who was also teaching a seminar class and she agreed that periodic exams were needed in her class as many of her students also did not complete the readings on time. I don’t like being the punisher or reading police but this is a lecture class that readily depends on the students doing their required reading assignments. I was very clear in the beginning of the semester about the nature of this class and the importance of reading but I now realize that I need to provide additional incentives to read. I also gave every student access to electronic versions of all the readings which I scanned myself and a hard copy of all the readings so they would not have any excuse to not read. This has probably been the most disappointing part of teaching this class


Do you have any student feedback to share?

I had many long and insightful discussions outside of the class in my office where students felt comfortable sharing personal information and issues they were dealing with me. Many shared with me that my own disclosure regarding my experiences of discrimination as an immigrant during class helped them feel less isolated in dealing with their own issues with discrimination. One student shared with me that being a part of this class has helped her remember how resilient she is. Another student shared that the topics we discussed in class gave him the motivation to begin working through old intergenerational trauma he had experienced when he was younger, which was a topic we had discussed in class. I felt bad because there were certain topics where he would share were triggers for events he had experienced. Another student disclosed how he was working through feelings of discrimination and asked me for suggestions on how he could change himself to better fit into American culture. Our discussion greatly surprised him because I suggested to him that he didn’t have to fit himself into American culture and that it was enough for him to just be himself. I reminded him that the person I saw in front of me was a hardworking young man who had already overcome many obstacles, faced a long history of discrimination but still saw the best in America and was open to meeting new people so he could learn from them. One student emailed me a note of thanks with “Hey professor, i know this is random, but I just wanted to say this class has opened up my eyes more and i learned so much more about Asians. Everytime i see an Asian family I think about all the things Ive learned this semester and wonder how their migration to here was. And evrytime i see a successful asian, i just feel happy. Thanks to this class it really changed my perspective on things and even on my father for working hard for me and being far away. I been wanting to thank you but usually forget. Thanks for the knowledge!” This group of students really endeared themselves to me as we all shared our many experiences of discrimination and racism, which really helped forge a bond that is quite rare. A theme that was infused in many of our class discussions was trying to find the silver lining in this political climate and I feel we were successful in understanding a small iota of the history of colonialism, challenging and critiquing misconceptions of immigrants, and devising ways to resist


Sample Teaching Materials

Sample teaching materials used in this course:

Dr. Catherine Ma
PSY 2800 – Contemporary Views of Psychology: The Psychology of Immigration
(Spring 2017, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY)

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