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Fujianese-Speaking Social Workers Hard to Find
From Singtao Chinese Daily
January 11, 2003

The Chinese Community Health Services Association held its January meeting yesterday. Representatives from a number of Chinese social service organizations were present. In introducing themselves and the work of their individual establishments, they touched upon a problem that they were all facing -- social workers who understand both Chinese and English are hard to come by, and those who know the Fujianese dialect are even scarcer. Language has created a substantial barrier between the many new Fujianese immigrants in the city and their need for counseling. The social workers at the meeting found this distressing.

Rapid Growth In Immigration, Equal Growth Needed In Social Service Profession

The rapid increase in the rate of Chinese immigration, especially from the Fujian province in Mainland China, forced the issue of the need for bilingual social workers to the top of yesterday's agenda. According to the U.S. Census, New York City's Chinese population grew by 53.4 percent in the past decade to a total of 374,000 persons at present. In 1994, the U.S. State Department estimated that the city's Fujianese population was about 100,000, and that it would grow by 10,000 a year. If true, there are now approximately 200,000 Fujianese in New York.

This growth has thrown the organizations that cater to the well being of the Chinese community into a frenzy. It prompted the Lude Society's family and social outreach divisions last November to establish the New Life Center [Xin Shengming Center], which aims to help new Chinese immigrants, especially the Fujianese. Within its first two months of existence, more than 40 Fujianese immigrants showed up for counseling, overwhelming the center's two full-time counselors.

"Fujianese immigrants have a strong need for social workers, but the majority of those who operate within the confines of the Chinese community are Cantonese or Mandarin speakers, and organizations that are able to meet their varied needs are small in number," said the director of the center, Ye Guihua. For example, he added, only three organizations in Chinatown provide services for abused children, these being the Lower East Side Family Network, the Chinatown Youth Council and the Chinese Planning Council. "This is not enough to meet the demands of the Fujianese community," he added.

Language Problems Raise Difficulties For Aid Seekers

"Social service organizations frequently encounter health and legal questions. Often, Chinese immigrants will only feel relaxed and be able to give a true reckoning of their problems to someone who speaks their language or dialect," said Asian Americans for Equality social worker Zhang Huixian. "But such bilingual individuals are hard to find, and Fujianese speakers even harder to find." He related a recent encounter with a Fujianese couple. Originally, the wife had come in looking for counseling, but as she spoke only Fujianese, on later visits, she brought her Mandarin-speaking husband along as a translator. "That took up a lot of his time, and was not very convenient," said Zhang.

He is not the only one to have encountered this language problem. The Chinese-American Cancer Prevention Council's director of publicity, Pan Wei, makes weekly trips to Bellevue Hospital's cancer ward to explain cancer treatments and provide psychological counseling to its patients.

He said that because Bellevue is a service-oriented institution, those he counsels include many Fujianese immigrants, who as a group tend not to have health insurance. The hospital does have Fujianese-speaking staff on hand, but there are not enough to go around. And since the Chinese-American Cancer Prevention Council does not have a social worker who can speak Fujianese, Fujianese patients often have to find their own interpreters. "Sometimes they have their children there to translate their Fujianese into Mandarin for my understanding. I then translate it into English for the doctor's understanding," said Pan.

Social Work Profession Will Continue To Suffer Lack Of Bilingual Speakers

There are many reasons why there is a lack of bilingual social work professionals. Representatives of various social organizations agree that the main reason is the failure of university social work departments in attracting students of Chinese origin. According to the Statistics on Social Work Education in the United States, of the 1,733 students enrolled full-time in the six recognized social work programs in New York City in 1970, only 10 were Asian. In 2000, although the total enrollment in these programs had increased to 3,083, only 169 were Asian. "Most hard-working immigrant parents ultimately hope that their children will take up profitable fields of study and stay a respectful distance away from the poorly paying but societally enriching social service profession," said Ye Guihua.

Pan Wei of the Chinese-American Cancer Prevention Council believes that the lack of appropriate bilingual counselors in the community is due to the fact that the Fujianese are recent arrivals, and the younger generation has not yet had a chance to attend college. "In such a situation, social service organizations should not restrict their focus to new social work graduates, but rather recruit college-educated students for training. Anyone with compassion can enter the profession," added Ye Guihua.

Translated From Chinese by Kelvin Wu

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