Don't put me through to the manager, I've spoken to him before. He's a useless Chinaman and can't speak English.

I was 17 years old in the early 90s and working at a small computer parts company during the holidays. I had a low threshold for putting things through to the manager if the sales staff weren't around.

I said after a pause that James is still on lunch break. If you want, I can leave a message for him.

I will wait for him to call, but can I take your name?

It's Holan.


No, Holan, H-O-L-A-N.

What sort of name is that?

It's a Chinese name.

Why do you have a Chinese name?

I said because I'm Chinese.

It wasn't true that my father couldn't speak English. He had a Chinese accent, and it took him longer to form a sentence in English as it was a second language, and I was three when we moved to the UK. The problem was that people didn't have the patience to wait for a response from my father, even though he had a PhD in engineering. I wondered how a British person would feel talking about graphic cards in a foreign language.

He used his own experiences to guide me, even though he was never bitter about being underestimated. You just have to work harder than your classmates to get ahead.

Fitting into a group allows us to feel part of something bigger

I took on board my father's advice and worked hard, even though it was obvious that it was a given. I started my car washing business at 13 with a friend and by 16 I was working at the local babysitting market. My eyes were focused on the prize of a Cambridge medical degree as that meant I would be given the chance to prove myself. I didn't see this as applicable to my father and his generation of immigrants because I never took seriously the idea that people will see you as a foreigner. I wore Gap and Top Shop and spoke English, but I didn't have a Chinese accent.

There were some incidents in my childhood that every immigrant has to endure, and we don't want your kind here. When I got my blue hardback passport at 11 years old, I felt like I was British because the system gave me an education as if I was one of their own.

My desire to be British and fit in better than my parents did stems from a fundamental human desire to belong. The feeling that we belong to someone, somewhere, is so important to us as human beings that psychologist Abraham Maslow rated it the third-most crucial. It is a need that is found in all cultures. It is the driver of a lot of human behavior, including love, friendship, power and achievement. We feel part of something bigger and more important than ourselves if we fit into a larger group. It is a sense that we are valued members of a family, group or society and that we make a contribution. It is so important to human happiness that belonging is so important. Without belonging, people can feel worthless, lonely and resentful. Poor mental health is caused by all the negative emotions.

I noticed that many of my patients with diminished mental health wanted to be alone. Some teenage girls are under immense pressure to fit in with popular culture while others are starving to fit. To fit in as a mother and dutiful wife, former high-fliers turned to opiates to get through the day. Some of the women cowered in the dark to escape their husbands. The men tried to feel a sense of belonging to the societal idea of being strong and being in control. In their own homes, these feelings are taken care of privately.

My own mental health came undone when I was told that I was not British. The event was just a catalyst that broke the camel's back, but it was still a huge blow to many other events throughout my life.

There were people who believed in me when others wouldn’t

It made me think about the line between belonging and not belonging in an advanced and liberal society like Britain. I am telling my children that they are mixed-race and that they will make assumptions about me if they see me as their mother. Is it possible that the only change with the passage of decades is that what were once conscious thoughts and actions are now unconscious? We still need to work twice as hard to belong.

It can be easy to become bitter and resentful, but it does nothing to improve your mental health. I like to take my parents' positive attitude and give them advice for young patients who describe playground bully, to tell the teacher and find someone else to play with. My interpretation of telling the teacher is to use my voice to notice the problems I see. I write to highlight the inequalities that persist in society and the effect that has on people. Equalities are based on race, gender, disability, wealth, and of course, my area of expertise, mental health. The easy part is this.

The harder part is to create a place where we can belong. When my mother was a young immigrant mother of three, there was an elderly lady called Ms Smith who befriended her and showed her around. Mr Evans was a colleague of my father's who could see beyond my father's broken English. I can think of people within my system that supported me when others didn't.

At some point in our lives, we will all feel like we don't belong, but the reality is that there are. Every person who wants to keep refugees out of the country is willing to give them a room in their home. People set up foodbanks for every benefit cut. The British are fair and open-minded and I am proud to be one of them. We will work to make sure that British systems represent that one day. I believe that we all belong to humankind and that we can find our place in it by showing kindness to ourselves and others.

Short Books published A Sense of Belonging: How to Find Your Way in a Fractured World by Holan Liang. You can buy it at