When to Ask for Help: Personal Crises at Home and Abroad

My new host family who considered me a part of their family.
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Being in a new country can be scary, but how do you handle a crises by yourself in an unfamiliar country? Learn how Rachel was able to salvage her study abroad experience in China despite some troubles along the way.


[quote]Right featured photo:My new host family who considered me a part of their family.[/quote]

Rachel Senkler has her M.A. in Asian Studies and has spent the past seven years studying East Asian culture and literature. She is a new ISV Blogger/Writer intern and will write many more articles for International Student Voice Magazine.

Knowing when you need help in a foreign country can be difficult. Getting the help you need can be even harder! I am sharing two experiences from studying abroad in China and from beginning a graduate program in the states, so that others may learn and benefit from my experience.

Part of my acceptance package into my graduate program was a sponsorship to continue my language learning in a summer immersion program in China. I had already studied abroad once before in Beijing, so I felt confident in my ability to adjust to a new program and lifestyle. I even found another program in Beijing, so that it would be a little easier to adjust to. However, I had problems from the very beginning! On my first day of arriving, I got a head cold that quickly turned into a serious illness. I could not stop coughing for days, and had intensive Chinese language classes everyday. On top of this problem, my Chinese host decided to withhold food from me during my stay. After many trips to the International hospital by myself, I would patiently try to reason with her in Chinese to explain that dinner expenses were a part of our contract negotiated through the school, and she would pretend not to understand. I had been studying Chinese for three years and knew that her understanding was not the problem. I had paid $1000 for a food stipend over the summer, which was stated in our contract and she forced me to live off of what amounted to be $1 for a whole week. Having lived in Beijing before, I knew you could eat well for $2 a day if you know where to look, but $1 for a whole week—that was impossible! In my whole life, I had never gone hungry before, but now I was forced to starve as I was stuck in a foreign place without family and I was too sick to fend for myself. I went without dinner for a whole month and missed over a week classes because I had become too weak and sick to attend. Why did I let it get this bad? I think a part of it was that I too exhausted to fight for myself, and I thought that I could handle it. I mean we go abroad to learn from other cultural perspectives right? I felt that I needed to try to tough it out and make it work.

My breaking point happened when I heard her talking to her friends about me and how she was angry at me for trying to talk to her. I tried to talk to her about it afterwards to see if we could work out our problems, but she again pretended to not understand me even though I had heard her entire conversation. I confess that I cried myself to sleep that night. When I woke up the next morning, I knew I had done my best to try and fix the situation on my own, and so I gathered up all the energy I had and went to the office staff for help. They were very busy and overwhelmed with the amount of work they had to do as they had dozens of new students coming everyday. They also had trouble believing me because my story sounds exaggerated—and I agree that my experience was most likely a rare and extreme situation. I also knew it didn’t help to be an American because American travelers tend to have higher expectations for living standards. The only way I got help was to be both polite and firm, which was very difficult. It was way too easy to get swept away by the frustration, helplessness and anger, but I knew if I lost my temper, people would be less inclined to help me. I stayed in their office until they had time to see me and calmly said I would either like the money I paid for my food stipend back or a new host family. I found that staying as calm as I could while explaining the situation and being persistent and patient as we discussed and settled on a solution, created a powerful combination for success.

The meal that saved me!

I was able to get a new host family the next day, and after hearing what happened my new host Mom made me enough food for three people—and I finished it all! She even took me to a traditional Chinese medicine clinic and I got better in three days, after being sick for a whole month! They were a dream come true, and reminded me of some the other wonderful Chinese host families I had stayed with when I had studied abroad before. For those of you unfamiliar with Chinese hospitality, they expected me to call them “Aunt” and “Uncle” because they considered me to be a part of their family. (This frequently happens with guests inside a Chinese home). I was so happy to be embraced by such a loving and supporting couple, both of whom took the time to help me recover emotionally and physically from my previous experience.

I learned that staying polite and persistent were key to changing my situation, and in hindsight I know that I should reached out much sooner instead of trying to only rely on myself.

The park in front of my new host family’s home.

So for those of you who think this adventure was more than enough for a learning experience, hold onto to your hats because the plot thickens! I assumed that moving to a new place in America should be easy after all the trouble I’d had in China. I had many wonderful roommate experiences in China and in the U.S. for college, so I had high hopes of at least getting along with my new graduate roommate as I moved back from China. My first college roommate became my best friend, and even was a bridesmaid at my wedding. Other roommates I still keep in touch with to this day, even though they live halfway across the world in Italy, Hangzhou, and even Turkey. However, fate was not on my side. I tell this story with the caveat that this was an extremely unusual situation—and I tell it only to explain how you can get your campus to help you. To keep a long and epic story short, one month after returning from China and after weeks of trying to peacefully negotiate and give my roommate her much needed private space in our shared suite, I came to fear for my personal safety inside the apartment as she had begun to threaten me every time I entered the room. Of course, the situation completely fell apart three days before my midterms! I ended up breaking down in tears before one of my graduate seminars and one of my classmates volunteered to let me live with them for a few days while I tried to find different housing arrangements. One of the most amazing graduate staff advisors even drove me to the police station to help me report what happened and sent me to talk to a social worker, who then advocated for me on my behalf to both the faculty and housing services. I had tried without success to talk to my professors about my situation on my own to see if I could get a little more time for mid-terms and assignments, so that I could move to a different location. Once I worked with the social services on campus, moving to a new apartment was made easy, and my professors learned at least after the fact that I was telling the truth and not trying to escape the workload, which went a long way to easing our working relationship. After this situation, I realized that there were many resources on campus to help me, but I was completely unaware of them. I had just been fortunate enough to cry in front of the right people who could help me.

Roommates after moving back to the states.

Being an international student on a campus like the one I went to, I think it is even more important to understand what resources are available to help you. Most US colleges have free psychological counseling, and trust me I needed several sessions in order to feel safe in my own home again. In opening up about the struggles I was having, I gained access to the help I needed to make it change. I learned that if you are emotionally struggling because of a personal crisis, you can use your campus resources to advocate for you. Have your counselors explain your situation to your teachers or to the dean of students if you need some leeway to recover and catch up in school.

One of the things that was hardest to learn for me both at home and abroad was to understand that there were times I couldn’t completely rely on myself—I needed to learn when and how to ask for help. I found that in China and on campus in the states, once the organization understood the severity of the problem, they were quick to act and were concerned for my well-being. So my advice is this: stay calm, trust yourself, be persistent and don’t be afraid to ask for help!

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6 thoughts on “When to Ask for Help: Personal Crises at Home and Abroad

  1. I am so sorry that this happened to you while studying abroad. I can’t imagine a more frightening scenario than having a threatening roommate, or having a host that withholds food from you! Thank you for sharing your story. Hopefully others will learn from your experiences to get help as quickly as possible. Glad you were able to get help when you needed it!

  2. I am also sorry you had to go through all of this in what should have been an amazing experience from the outset. I teach in a large, urban community college, so we do not have housing, but we have a very diverse student population and face challenges that require support. There are never enough counselors (I’m talking about “counselors”, not “advisors”) to deal with the issues of abuse, violence, addiction, depression, etc. Unfortunately, with budget cuts, it does not seem to be improving. I appreciate any institution that continues to find creative ways to bring people together as a community to improve knowledge of the “other” and improve relationships that will stretch much further after college.

  3. After reading this all I can say to you is congratulations. Many people wouldn’t have had the courage or ability to carry on after experiences like that.
    Good for you for going to seek help, I can be quite a stubborn woman sometimes and would probably have tried to do the same as you originally did and see it through. I am soon setting off for my own study abroad experience at Hawaii Hilo, if anything starts to turn south whilst there i’ll remember your article and know that help is available. Thanks for sharing

  4. Sorry to hear about your hardships while studying abroad Rachel. Unfortunately things like this do happen and it’s very sad. However, you stayed strong and stayed determited to not give up. At the end you met another kind family who fed you and showed you great and warm chinese hospitality. Great job :)!!

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