Hackie Reitman, M.D. explores acculturation with Pei Fen Li, Ph.D.
(27 minutes) Dr. Pei-Fen Li is an Assistant Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy and an Institutional Review Board Representative from Nova Southeastern University, located in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Dr. Pei-Fen Li’s research interests include dyadic analyses of couples’ relational factors, application of MFT models in Eastern cultures, acculturation of immigrant families, reentry experiences of international students and Solution Focused Brief Therapy intervention with parents of children with Autism. Dr. Li is committed to the application of MFT theories in different countries and in the development of culturally-sensitive strategies in delivering MFT curriculum in the field. In her conversation with Dr. Reitman, Dr. Li defines acculturation from a psychological perspective, discusses autism support in Taiwan, and explores cultural differences.
For more about Dr. Li visit her NSU faculty page here
For information about Nova Southeastern University’s therapy support click here
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Getting to know Dr. Pei-Fen Li
HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR): Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains, and today, we are so fortunate to have with us the assistant professor from Nova Southeastern University in family and marriage counseling and so much more, Dr. Pei Fen Li. Pei Fen, welcome,
PEI FEN LI, Ph.D. (PFL): Thank you so much for your invitation. It is my honor to be here.
HR: Well, why don’t you introduce yourself properly because I probably messed it up and I know you do a lot of other things, too?
PFL: Okay. My name is Pei Fen, and I am originally from Taiwan, pretty much grew up and received my college education in Taiwan. Then I decide to come to United States to pursue my Master’s and Doctorate Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. So, right now I’m working as a full-time faculty at Nova Southeastern University Department of Family Therapy Program. Yeah, so I have been… move around in United States ’cause when I did my Master’s, I was in Oregon, and then I went back to Taiwan to practice for another three years, then came back to Georgia to do my Doctorate Degree for six years, then I moved to Connecticut for another one year also teaching there before I move down to Florida, so I kind of move around in United States and experience different kind of culture, working with different people, yeah.
HR: You don’t look old enough to have done all those things! Haha!
PFL: Oh! Well, I am old enough, yeah! Well, okay, I really appreciate my aging genes you know I don’t look as my real life biological age, I guess, yeah.
HR: Now, do you consider… do you have a favorite sub-specialty all of the things you do?
PFL: Okay, I think there are several. Currently, I’m working for a grant project. Actually, I did a grant project in 2017, so we provide solution-focused oriented group therapy for those parents, they have a children of autism. And I have learned a lot from on the process because is the international project. we collaborated with two Taiwanese scholars there. You know, it’s not a perfect project, but we have learned a lot how to do collaboration internationally, how to engage, you know, the parents there two attend the group therapy, so, you know, I just kind of modify the project design a little bit, and then we received another grant we’re going to do. We’re going to replicate the same study with the parents in Western – in the local community – clinic in the fall. Yeah, so that’s one special area that I’m currently doing right now. The other one is I’m also interested in exploring like the influence of acculturation on immigrants, like currently I’m working with my one of my student who is from Cuba originally, and he wants to do his dissertation study about how Cuban families that come to United States, what’s their acculturation process look like, what type of cultural strategy the whole family adopts to adjust to the United States here, so that’s another track of research that I’m currently working with my student. Also, I have a third tri… you… I’m just curious, you know, how… because as an international scholar I’m always curious how MFT theory that I have learned in United States have been applied in a different culture. So another course that I have been teaching in my program is, we call, “International Perspective of Family and Counseling.” And every other two years, we also have that collaboration between our program and Beijing Normal University. We will visit some city in China and engage some… I and my student, we went to China and visit their program and participate in their International Foreign MFT Conference every other years and engage some culture trip there.
What is acculturation?
HR: Now, acculturation, you’re the defining that as an immigrant comes over, say, to the United States, for example. Take us through the acculturation process.
PFL: Acculturation happens when two groups of people, they meet and how they are learning from each others in terms of the other side’s cultural value, their cultural attitude, even their cultural behavior, so for example, for those international students or for those immigrants or for those sojourners or those business people that often travel around the world, so when carry on their own heritage cultural value, like you know, I’m carry on my Taiwanese Chinese culture value, you know, my behavior, and when I come to United States, how I engage myself into the dominant discourse here. So for example, when I came in here I noticed, you know, you stand up and that you approached me, you hug me. But in Taiwanese culture, we don’t usually do that when we greet each other. We will stand up, we would shake, you know, we will hand our hand out in the front and then shake each others, so it’s a different way of greeting, so for me as a foreigner, how I modify my behavior, my value, or my perception of your way of greeting and adjust in that situation. So I think acculturation kind of takes both sides, both groups of people, their effort to get to know each other and to find a middle way to meet each other.
HR: What do you think is the biggest lack of understanding or the biggest misconception that a layperson like me might have about acculturation and immigration from your psychological perspective?
PFL: If I go back to early on, the definition I give about acculturation, I’m thinking… I think acculturation takes both eyes effort, but the interesting thing is I think most of the time people on the dominant discourse here in one country, they usually expect the immigrant or the sojourner to adjust more rather than themselves. So I feel like that may be where is the conflict or maybe there is where’s the disagreement or maybe that’s where the misunderstanding arise. If I’m just imagine if the dominant discourse here or the dominant culture here in United States, they are willing to take more learning stance, try to understand what is really going on with those people, why they choose to come to United States, why they don’t choose to go to another country, you know, and learn and then engage in dialogue with them. Then I guess they might open the more opportunities for each side to get to know each other more, rather than shutting doors too quickly you know, before to engage them.
Autism in Taiwan
HR: Now, one of the groups you’re engaging with are the parents of children with autism. What patterns might you be able to comment on at this point in your knowledge?
PFL: I, well, best based on my interaction with those Taiwanese parents, I think, like, lots of research has demonstrated when you notice how the parents, how the spouse, they manage, you know, their role in relation to raising their kids. You see the mother is still the main caretaker role. You know, they give transportation to take the kids to here and there, to receive the training, to get the service that needs… that the kids need, and the father is the main breadwinner, so you know, when you notice that sometimes, I feel like how we can better kind of challenge that pattern a little bit, so in the way the mother won’t feel the much burden throughout that parenting process.
HR: And then it’s complicated by the fact that there’s, I believe, a higher rate of divorce, at least in America, among the special needs parents, and in my book I call the single mothers the “Pitbulls with an Angel’s Mentality” because as you said, they have to fight with the doctor and the system and the insurance and the teachers, and the also have to bring home the bread in many instances, too.
PFL: Yeah, yeah, you are right.
HR: It’s kind of tough. What are the biggest differences you see between the Taiwanese population in this regard vs. what you see here in America?
PFL: Well, I think the research has demonstrated some similarity and some differences, the similarity including, of course, raising kids with the special need that will usually increase their marital distress and lower their marital quality, and sometimes, both parents, they also feel like… they also experience some psychological wellbeing issue like experience anxiety or depression. There are some research that is specifically is done in China, or in Taiwan, they notice the mother would even worry more about their kid’s future. I think that ties back to especially for the couple if they play more rigid gender roles. You know, so lots of time, because the mother is usually the one who provide the main caretaker who notices what kind of the challenge or anticipates what kind of the challenge that her kids might experience in the future, so it promotes more like a worry and anxiety for the mother rather than the father. I think there is one study also talked about in China in some city where they notice that the kids, they experience more discrimination from the majority of the people when they don’t have enough knowledge about what really happened to their special kids.
PFL: Yeah, yeah, but for the similarity, I feel like – this is just my clinical observational perspective – I think, for the most part, I feel like those families like other normal families in my perspective because I see most parents, they are very willing to sacrifice themselves to find every resource as they can find to support their kids, to make their kids thrive, you know, in the future.
Getting Into Psychology
HR: What got you interested in therapy?
PFL: Wow, that’s… you just a remind me… you just throw me back to my memory, you know, back to my day of being interviewed in my doctoral program, like, “Why you choose family therapy?” Because when I was a guidance teacher working in Taiwan, and when I worked with those adolescents, usually you notice when you work with those kids, you cannot not talk with their parents because that’s how their behavior issue or psychological issue they mention about is always related to the family member, either tie back to how the parents treat them, how they perceive parents treat them, or how was the relationship with other sibling, so lots of time, I need to, you know, with the kids, I would talk with the kids, “Hey would it be okay if I invite your parents come to the school?” And that’s a conversation about, “Would it be okay if I call your parents, try to really understand what is really going on in your family?” Because, when you hear the kid’s story, that’s one side of the story, but you really want to hear another side of the story, too, yeah.
HR: Can you talk a little bit about the role of the therapist self?
PFL: The role of the therapist self? In regards to…
HR: …Your protocols and, you know, how you go about things.
PFL: How I do therapy?
PFL: Okay, well, pretty much, I follow the, you know, what the ethical protocol looks like. I think the most important thing for me is how you build the therapeutic relationship with your client, so the first few sessions, I will really try to get to know my client, where they are coming from or what’s their expectation about working with me. I will also be very clear about the contract, you know, what’s my expectation throughout the therapeutic process, and I might encourage them to ask me any questions, you know, so through that process, through that inquiring process that they also have a chance to get to know me, so I think for the first few sessions, they are building a good relationship, you know, how we can work with each other, how, you know, they’ll feel like I’m a trustworthy person, you know, they can rely on to throughout the changing process, yeah.
Teaching at Nova Southeastern University
HR: What have you seen in your students? What do you think of today’s students, your students?
PFL: In general?
HR: In terms of those students nowadays changing and what ways might you think they are changing?
PFL: Well, I think I really need to clarify little bit because I think Nova Southeastern University is a very special learning context because we have a lots of nontraditional students. We have a lot of students, they already work in the field, and some of them are licensed therapists already, and then they come back, they decide to pursue their degree, and of course we have some straight from the world of students; they just graduated from college, you know, still very young, learn how to do therapy professionally, ethically, also maturely, in my perspective, so we do have a diversity among our students. I don’t want to, you know, say in a very stereotypical way to categorize one way than the other, but I do think teaching nowadays with the current generation is, in my perspective, I feel like is much more a challenge compared to when I was a student at UG. UG is more like a research institute, and I don’t know, I feel that there is more like a hierarchy set up between the faculty and the student. For the student, I feel like you need to be an independent learner pretty much. Like, the faculty will give you something and then you go back, find the resources, find the information, and to most extent, you need to learn by yourself. But I feel here, maybe our students get to be too busy sometimes, you know, so I feel like they rely on the instructor a little bit more than rely on themselves. So I don’t know, I guess, you know, like what I said earlier, the context is different so I know for our students, their resources, what I mean is their time resources are very limited, so they spend their energy in their work, in their family, so it kind of makes sense sometimes to me, you know, I feel as the instructor I not only give them a hand or sometimes that I need to provide more information you know and motivate them more in order for them to feel more excited or interested in the learning process.
HR: So you need to inspire them.
PFL: Yes, I feel like- I feel that sometimes, you know when I prepare my teaching material, I’m not only preparing the content the count I need you single by how I delete the content, I need to think about how I deliver the content, how I can make it more fun, more interesting in a way, yeah.
Exploring Cultural Differences
HR: Are you writing any books?
PFL: No books at this point, I have many writing a manuscript for publication. Yeah.
HR: What is the manuscript on?
PFL: Well, you know, the one manuscript I’m working on is that we are working with to another international student, about the cuban immigrant adolescence, how they’ll perceive discrimination, linked to the feeling of depression and therefore can impact their education attainment. But also we examine how the family cohesion can possibly moderate or buffer the negative impact of discrimination. That’s one manuscript we are writing on right now. And so one of the students are also doing more in depth literature review about what research has been done with the cuban immigrant family, yes.
HR: Well you know there’s history Miami Museum, where they took some- I had some- a piece of the wall of the old 5th Street Gym from Miami Beach that was where Muhammad Ali trained and everything, and it has since been demolished by the history of Miami Museum, they had a lot of the Cuban history which I was ignorant of until I went down there, really. You know, going back to the Peter Pan and all the -the different stages of migration they’ve had, and there’s all different generations, and they disagree with one another, for instance, the youngest Cuban American generation will disagree with the grandfather.
PFL: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. They create another complex in the –
HR: But they do have- generally speaking of course, very strong family ties, multi- generational, which is very very helpful, and we see the opposite in some of our underserved areas here in the United States, you know for instance, the Reitman Boys and Girls Club on Broward Boulevard which is in zip code 33311, which is one of the worst zip codes in the world; the young people there, mainly African-American, they in this poor neighborhood, they don’t really have family. If you asked them to raise their hand if they have two parents only- nobody raises a hand; if you ask if you have one parent, only about half of them do their foster homes and grandparents and things like that, risen many of the Hispanic family trees which are very diverse themselves, it’s very different in as you know between a Cuban family say than a Dominican family, or a Venezuelan family, that can be big differences, but they do have the family support that many other ethnic groups do not, and that’s extremely helpful, and that goes back to when the you know, Ellis Island when the immigrants first came over to New York you know, they had everybody lived (chuckles) in one building, you know you had aunts, uncles, cousins, everything, and now it’s different.
PFL: Yeah. I mean we do, while we are analyzing the data, we do find that family cohesion is a significant protector for those kids, you know, to buffer the negative impact of discrimination and their education attainment. We do find that, so the data also prove our theory about that. Yeah, family cohesion is really a very unique cultural characteristic associated with the Cuban family, associated with the Hispanic family. yeah, yeah. Mmmhmm, and you mention like a whole family they live in the same building, It’s still practiced in Taiwan too. Yeah, like I have- I have some friend, female friend, when they got married, they moved into the hospice family operation. It’s how they situate the family building, okay? So the first floor is the living room and the kitchen on the back; the second floor is for the parents, the grandparents; the third floor is for her and for her husband and for their one kid, and then the fourth floor is for her husband’s brother and his wife. Yeah, so they all live together, they all need to learn how to communicate or juggle with each other, you know for example, who’s going to cook, you know, for lunch, for dinner, who’s responsible for which days, you know that kind of stuff, yeah.
Parenting and Autism
HR: The families of someone with autism in Taiwan versus the families of someone with autism in America, how did these families differ in their approach, and what are their patterns?
PFL: I feel like… What I see is like for those Taiwanese parents, at least for those parents that I have luckily have interaction with. I feel like they all work really really hard. Because when they just noticed, or when they have no kids, get that first diagnosis, you know, well first they might feel surprised- what really happened to my kids. But throughout that making sense of process, they gradually accept that kind of label, but then they start, I feel like they don’t just give up there. They start to figure out what those outside resources. You know, their kids can have – and older the kids can be more independent functioning in the school, or in their daily life, and doing that group therapy process, I notice each parent, they are so willing to share what kind of strategy they have used. You know, this is a successful strategy I noticed you know, I can help out my kids to do this and that, you might want to try that out. So, I don’t know, I imagine the parents here are doing pretty much the same thing like your book. You write this book because you want to provide this practical guideline for those parents or for even educators or for us to understand how we can really approach those kids. Yeah, so in that sense, I don’t feel like they are that different. Yeah.
HR: Right. Same thing and the world goes round. Do you feel that- does Nova Southeastern University have a lot of resources for these families and for the autistic individual?
PFL: I mean at PDI we do provide the Family Therapy Clinic, we do provide family therapy, you know, for those – for those families too.
HR: How can our Different Brains® audience learn more about you?
PFL: Me? Myself?
HR: Well they’ve just seen you here, and then you’re very smart, you’ve got a lot of good stuff, you’re helping a lot of people, how do they contact you, where do they read more about you?
PFL: Well I think they can go to our NSU college of art, humanity and social science website, we have a faculty profile, I think they can read more about who I am, and in terms of my research interest, in terms of all my life experience there, so yes and there is an email contact, if they are willing to get to know me more, they can click that email address and email me, and then we will continue that conversation.
HR: Are there any topics we have not covered today that you would like to cover?
PFL: Well I wish I can share with you more about my future research study, maybe after you know we finished implement that research in Weston, and maybe, you know, after my analysis of preliminary analysis, maybe I can send you- cause we I think after we got to the preliminary analysis, we’re going to find a chance to present those research findings at different conferences. So maybe at that time I can send you here’s our research finding, here’s my observation, and then we can, you know, I can maybe I have more insight, you know, in regard to some of your questions: what’s the difference between Taiwanese family and American family in terms of how they rear their special kid.
HR: Well we’ll be delighted to have you back, if we’re lucky enough if you come back to see us.
PFL: Okay, I would love to, okay sounds good.
HR: Well Dr. Pei-Fen Li, it’s been such a pleasure to have you here, thank you for coming in here today, and being on this episode of Exploring Different Brains, we learned so much, so thank you very very much, and we hope to have you back soon.
PFL: Thank you so much for inviting me and to have a fuller dialogue with you. I really appreciate you giving me this chance and I hope to talk with you more in regard to my research finding in the future.