Pi Cheng Hu first went into therapy in 2018, in his first year at university. “I’d actually been thinking about doing it since I was 13, but a study advisor gave me a push in the right direction. I’d been complaining to him about my course, about how alone I felt and how I felt I lacked a sense of purpose in my life and he thought it would be good if I spoke to a therapist.”

This story is about domestic violence. If you are or have been a victim of domestic violence, please reach out to Veilig Thuis or Mind Korrelatie, for example, to get help. Alternatively, if you just want someone to talk to, then please make an appoint to see a student psychologist.


This is how the then Econometrics student ended up seeing a student psychologist. “They helped me open up more, because I was very closed off at the time. To give you an example: I was scared to tell even my closest friends that I was seeing a therapist.” Although he definitely made progress in the first six sessions, he shared very little about his childhood with his therapist. He did, however, decide to switch to another programme (Economics) and gained a better understanding of his emotions.

Pi Cheng was very closed off due to the fact that he was very ashamed of his childhood and of his relationship with his parents. The first few, happy, years of his life were spent living with his grandmother in China rather than in the Netherlands and it was only once he was five years old that he joined his parents, who were living in Arnhem at the time. “We were really poor”, Pi Cheng says recalling those years. “We had rice and egg every day. We didn’t even enough money to pay for the school photo, which cost five euros.” Pi Cheng still has vivid memories of that time. “It made me cry at the time, because it was something I really wanted.”

An unsafe home

Pi Cheng’s home life was unhappy. “My father gambled regularly, despite the fact that money was already very tight, and my parents fought a lot – which sometimes also turned physical. And my mother would take the stress of being poor and their arguments out on me. Sometimes I’d be beaten or whipped for little things that I’d done that weren’t ill-intended at all, like when she thought I was using too much shampoo when I showered or when I’d be playing Snake on an old Nokia phone and she thought it cost money.”

The beatings lasted from the age of 5 to the age of 14. “Even as a five-year-old I had a sense of how unfair it all was and that made me foster a sense of anger and fear towards my mother. Later on the physical abuse became less frequent and it shifted more to verbal abuse…” Pi Cheng observes that he feels he blames his mother more than his father. “That’s really only because he was less involved in my upbringing, but he’s just as much to blame.”

Life took a turn for the better thanks to his grandmother, who would occasionally visit Arnhem. “I would always be begging my parents to have chips for dinner and then my grandmother said: well, if Pi Cheng likes them so much, why don’t you try opening up a chip shop?” Using money borrowed from family members, his parents eventually succeeded in taking over a chip shop in Westland.

A prestigious course

Thanks to the chip shop, there was slightly more money to go around after the move, but Pi Cheng nevertheless still felt isolated at home and was bullied at school. “Kids used to shove me into the wall, call me names and threaten me. I was forced to fight back because I needed to survive. During that time I used to have a lot of anger tantrums.”

The situations at school and at home made Pi Cheng into a boy who rarely puts himself in the foreground, never betrays in doubts (“because my parents would walk all over me if I did”) and who makes decisions that are more aimed at erasing the shame he feels about his childhood than at making himself happy. “When I went off to university, I thought: what’s the most prestigious and most difficult programme there is? That’s how I ended up at Econometrics. But I didn’t stop to think whether it was right for me or if I enjoyed it.”

Defence mechanism

Pi Cheng is now on the verge of completing a programme he does enjoy (the Master’s in Data Science) and has been back in therapy since the start of this year – albeit under completely different circumstances than in 2018. Whereas at that time it was a cry for help, this time he was able to reflect on the purpose and the timing of his therapy at greater length and more calmly. “There are significant waiting times for therapy and as early as a year ago I thought: if I start in about six months’ time, that’ll be good for the final stage of my studies.” This time he aimed to be more open about his past. “I shared my whole story in two long sessions, more or less like I’ve done here, because by now I’ve learned that psychologists can only help you with the things you tell them, not with the things you hold back.”

Pi Cheng discovered that he had developed certain defence mechanisms in his youth that helped him then, but get in the way now. “The fact that I would never share information, for example – even positive things – because that could lead to trouble. For instance, when I got my driver’s licence, all my father said at the time was: ‘As long as you don’t think you’ll get to drive my car.’”

His girlfriend, however, feels it’s a terrible shame that he doesn’t share things, like the fact that he completed his Bachelor’s degree or got a new job, on his own without being prompted. “She knows that life is just a bit better when I focus less on what I can improve and focus more on things that are going well.” Pi Cheng also says he leaves little room for doubt in his opinions and statements. “Because if I used to that back then, I would just never get anything done: I wouldn’t be allowed to do a sport or go on the school trip, because my parents would always say no, unless I was super confident.”

Helping out

Throughout these weeks, Pi Cheng will be helping to supervise first-year students during the Pre-Academic Programme. This also reflects how much he has changed. “I’m not doing this for the prestige or as a learning experience, because I’ve supervised groups often enough. I just think it’s great that I get to help them. And the process involves sharing a lot about yourself, especially regarding the things I used to be ashamed of, like growing up poor or the fact that I don’t have a relationship with my parents like others do. Nowadays I just think: well, that’s just who I am. It adds to my character.”

He says that he has since forgiven his parents. “I do love them. We have a better relationship than we used to, although I fought hard to get it to that stage. My father has turned his life around. On top of that, my parents’ behaviour was also a product of the environment they were in, which was one characterised by poverty, stress and fear in a new and foreign country.”

He hopes that his fellow students would not hesitate to seek out a therapist. “I think that a lot of people underestimate their own problems or the obstacles they face. Oftentimes they think: ‘I don’t need any help because my problems aren’t severe enough.’ But you don’t realise how much of an impact certain obstacles have on your life and how they affect your relationships with others. And sometimes you might not be ready for it – and that’s okay too. I wanted to get help as far back as my third year in secondary school – but it took nine years for me to share my story.”

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