Delicate and small, a young girl with shoulder length black hair, walked in through the door. Compared to her smiling parents, she had a serious expression, with a hint of nervousness. With little makeup and no jewelry, she wore a white shirt and a pair of black pants – a professional-looking combination of clothing you would not normally see on an 18 year old.
About four years’ ago, at a height of five feet, she weighed a mere 33 kilograms – the result of not eating properly, as a result of chronic gastritis brought on by incessant bullying. Today, she joined me in a café to talk about a global non-profitable project she has to help people with mental health issues through artistic expression.
It’s been a long journey, in a few years.
I had the same questions as you – how did she battle the bullying, what helped her change, and why did she start this project?
Meet Lu Zhang, a Chinese teen, born and raised in Dubai. Her parents came to Dubai in 1994, to build a new life from Jiangsu province in China. Her story may be similar to many expats in the UAE - I know I certainly saw myself as she narrated her journey.
The Zhang family’s memory of Dubai
Lu Zhang’s parents, Wenxin Zhang and Qingya Chen, arrived “with nothing but two suitcases torn at the seams”. She told Gulf News, “It was a land … of promise and opportunity.”
With very little to her parents’ name, they worked tirelessly, started a clothing trading business to build something for themselves. “Over the decades, Dubai underwent a staggering transformation, with skyscrapers and futuristic architectural marvels being built, worldwide investment poured in, a booming tourism industry attracting millions of visitors yearly flourished….”
Zhang’s parents’ business benefited from this growth and built two companies with a client base across the Middle East.
She was born in 2004, in this diligent household, and grew up in Deira – one of the earliest established areas of Dubai, which she describes as, “…full of the savoury scent of chicken shawarmas, aromatic spices, and sweet dates”.
She thrived growing up in this rich expat culture, strongly enough to consider herself as multi-cultural, rather than belonging to one single ethnic group. To date, she remains proud to have had the privilege and opportunity to grow up in the cosmopolitan environment of Dubai.
“I sometimes found it difficult to communicate with people who knew very little about the world and other cultures. I consider myself lucky to have a broader perspective on things, thanks to my upbringing in Dubai.”
However, life is full of ups and downs and this cheery young girl hit one such low point in her early teens.
‘I had never experienced such a low point before’
At the age of 5, Zhang started school. Never did this happy little girl imagine that she would fall into a dark rabbit hole of helplessness, because of the things that were going to happen at school.
She was bullied, badly. “They would say mean things to me and laugh at me – in fact, some teachers even laughed along with the kids. And it was not just me, all kids that seemed different were picked on by others.”
It was not just the bullying that saddened her. According to Zhang, she received an education that emphasised rote memorisation, a method that proved insufficient to satiate her need for knowledge.
“I was the type of kid who detested conventional thinking and sought to challenge and question what was presented to me. I remember clearly that one time I went up to my physics teacher for answers to a question. After listening to what I had to say, he straight up told me that it was useless for me to know the answers to that question, because it was not what was being taught for my grade. Seeing that I was unwilling to leave, he perfunctorily answered my question, in a way that I could barely absorb and process the information, then asked me to leave. Many years have passed, however, that moment of disappointment and frustration remains vivid in my mind.”
After being exposed to such a negative environment for years, Zhang began to slowly slide into a dark space. Losing self-confidence and increasingly doubtful about herself, and about the school, she turned to online social media platforms in her own culture to seek for a sense of community, only to find herself in a worse state.
“The beauty standard on those social media platforms placed emphasis on being slim and light skinned. Not that I am against this beauty standard – everyone has the right to pursue what is considered beautiful to them, but I just think that pursuing it in a distorted way should not be promoted.”
She further explained, “For instance, there was a movement of ‘A4-paper-sized waist’ on those social media platforms, where thousands, if not millions of girls talked about how small their waists were, by putting an A4-sized paper in front of the waists. The standard was that paper should cover their waists, if viewed from the front.”
Zhang had turned to these social media platforms to seek comfort, but realised soon that she did not fit in there either. “When I was a kid, I was always on the chubbier side, but it didn’t bother me. In fact, being chubby should not ever be an issue for me. Every girl is beautiful in their own way. Why should a single beauty standard dominate the internet?”
For a long time, I was afraid of being introduced to other people, just because … [I] was made fun of constantly [at school]. I lost my motivation to study because the traditional way of education was not challenging me to think creatively. My appetite for food was gone... ended up losing a lot of weight, weighing 33 kilograms only – the thinnest I had ever been.
Although this rational thought kept fighting its way into Zhang’s mind, being as young as she was, she couldn’t help but notice her growing anxiety, caused by these ‘trends’ on social media platforms.
So there she was, at the age of 15 – a period of time that was supposed to be about hope and joy, leading an agitated life. “For a long time, I was afraid of being introduced to other people, just because … [I] was made fun of constantly [at school]. I lost my motivation to study because the traditional way of education was not challenging me to think creatively. My appetite for food was gone... ended up losing a lot of weight, weighing 33 kilograms only – the thinnest I had ever been.”
You might be wondering, ‘where were Zhang’s parents when she was going through all this?’
According to Zhang, she had decided to hold everything inside, because she thought her parents would never understand what was happening. “Due to the age gap, and the difference in upbringing between my parents and me, discussions between us often led to unpleasant endings – they could not fully understand things from my point of view, a lot of the times.”
What her parents did notice was that their daughter was not eating properly and was losing an abnormal amount of weight, and they expressed their concern and love by making a tremendous effort in cooking, just to get their daughter to eat more.
However, the silent support did not lift the girl out of her misery. “I had never experienced such a low point before. Nobody could truly help me. I knew I was the one who needed to make the change. I knew that I needed to figure my own way out,” Zhang said.
A way out
“Action is hope. There is no hope without action.”
The young girl found herself repeating this sentence in her head during this, what was to her, devastating time. “Through primary school and middle school, I was this girl who didn’t have a sense of self, who would blindly follow the so called ‘mainstream’, because it seemed to be the ‘right’ thing to do, but I wasn’t happy. In fact, I was depressed. If you ask me what were the exact events that triggered me to change, I frankly do not know. Something clicked at that point of my life. I just knew, ‘This is it’, I would not take it any further.’”
She took a deep look within herself, and realised that she needed to make changes.
“The first thing I needed to do was to relocate to another school. I realised that at the time, my own voice was not enough to change my school’s education system, or to change my teachers and classmates’ behaviour. So I needed to get out.”
Finding a new place to learn and grow
Zhang went online to search for information on schools with different educational systems within the UAE. She also initiated conversations with her parents, and her friends, asking for opinions about the same. After thorough research, countless consultations and cautious evaluation, she was able to narrow her choices down to one school, where a curriculum encouraging critical thinking, creativity, and personal responsibility was in place. “The curriculum was made specifically to foster students’ personal unique perspectives and ideas - it was exactly the type of system I was yearning for. So I made my decision to leave my previous school and enroll in this one at the beginning of Grade 10.”
Her parents were happy to go along with her decision, as they could see the physical impact on their daughter’s health.
She had a smile on her face when recalling her experience at this new school. “I remember how flustered I was on my first day at the new school, when the teacher called my name in front of the whole class – I was afraid of being laughed at, again, but to my surprise and to my relief, my classmates and my teacher simply welcomed me, and carried on with the course.
”It was one of the many pleasant surprises I encountered at this school. There was no longer the division of ‘you’ and ‘us’. Everyone spoke the same language - the language of individuality, creativity, and respect. Teachers listened, valued, and participated in what the students had to say. It felt good to be noticed, and I have never been happier.”
However, this sudden transformation did not have a smooth beginning. “At first, I struggled with this transformative change. My mind fought to adjust to this sudden independence of thought. Surrounded by people with brilliant minds, I often doubted my intellectual capabilities. But this very environment was also one that stimulated my will of advancement. I was not going to be behind. So I observed my surroundings – the different ways my classmates studied, and behaved, as well as the different methods my teachers taught, and communicated. I took all this information in, filtered it, picked out the good parts, combined them with my own techniques, and eventually created a system suitable for me to catch up with the class and develop fast.”
I had forgotten about my troubling relationship with body image. However, two years’ ago, during the Covid-19 pandemic, my life was disrupted. Like many others, I was separated from my friends and the outside world. The unusual daily routines led to unhealthy habits such as overeating and a lack of exercise, which reminded me of my past struggles and exacerbated my relationship with body image.
Covid-19 and the struggle with body image
Covid-19 happened, when this teenage girl had just started to forget her trembling past, and begun to enjoy her new journey full of challenges and excitement. “I had forgotten about my troubling relationship with body image. However, two years’ ago, during the Covid-19 pandemic, my life was disrupted. Like many others, I was separated from my friends and the outside world. The unusual daily routines led to unhealthy habits such as overeating and a lack of exercise, which reminded me of my past struggles and exacerbated my relationship with body image.”
Only this time, she fought back hard. She refused to let her own judgement slip away, and she won the battle with herself. She remembered that the second thing she planned to change on her way out of misery, before joining her new school, was her obsession with social media, and the unhealthy persona it sometimes creates.
“I felt alone, during these dark times where I considered myself an alien in the ‘normality’ of beauty. What I needed the most was understanding and respect from others. I wanted to be heard. Although I pulled myself out of that mess, it still concerns me to think that people with mental issues are out there, feeling alone. While I was able to escape from that helpless time, what about the many, many others?”
Zhang started researching into mental health issues during the lockdown, “I discovered that rates of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression rose significantly globally during the pandemic. I was shocked by a statistic published by the World Health Organisation, which stated that more than a third of people around the world reported experiencing mental health issues as a result of the pandemic – a trend that was particularly pronounced among young people.”
Appalled by these bleak facts, she then began researching mental health intervention practices. “As I delved deeper, I learned that there is a stigma surrounding mental health in traditional communities, including China – mental issues are not regarded seriously as illness. What’s worse, people neglect mental health problems on purpose. And this is dangerous. With the privilege of a good education, I desired to give back to the society that nurtured me. I felt a sense of obligation to make a change in my community.”
From this point on, she wanted to not only change her own little world, but also help in changing the world of others, and eventually to hopefully change the sort of destructive systems she experienced in her previous school, in her own culture, and across the globe.
“Thus, I created Hopethrucranes: https://www.hopethrucranes.com/, a non-profit online platform that seeks to nurture a sense of community through mental health artworks, and the expression of personal, and emotional journeys.”
‘You are not alone’
By combining mental health education with the expressive power of art, Zhang seeks to transmit the message of, “You are not alone”, to all those who visit her online community platform. “The goal of the platform is to create a ‘gallery of hope’, a place where people share their emotional journeys, coping mechanisms, and ways of relieving stress through a form of art. Through the ‘gallery of hope’, that connects people from various places, backgrounds, and identities, I aim to create a community spreading the message of ‘You are not alone’. Not in the past, present, or future. You are never alone.
“I worked day and night to set up the platform, design the website, and tailor the content. I was on a ‘one-person team’, but it did not bother me. I was determined to turn this idea into a reality. After the platform was ready, promotions of the platform were needed. I did it through two ways – first by researching into and reaching out to mental health institutions on various online channels, second by turning to my relationship circle, identifying and contacting the connections who have the power and means to promote my project.
“To my great joy, people who paid attention to my project all wanted to contribute to helping in the spread of it. Initially, participation was low, but I then began to gain small wins. My school principal at the time, for example, was thrilled at the prospect. She even shared a personal story of losing her own child in an effort to inspire students to express their emotions openly. I devoted days to creating posters, PowerPoint presentations, and pamphlets to be displayed at a campaign she helped me organise at school. It was a small but significant victory.
“Armed with my first success, I ventured further beyond my school. I was invited to a podcast to talk about my struggles with body dysmorphia. This emboldened me to deliver a TEDx talk, hosted at my school, on the cultural construct of beauty to a large audience. I was happy that these efforts have drawn attention to the purpose of mental health awareness.”
In a continued effort to spread the message of Hopethrucranes, and with the help of her teachers and friends’ referral, she partnered with like-minded youths, and educational institutions globally, providing workshops on the importance of mental health. These efforts inspired hundreds of individuals from various regions, including the UAE, the US, India, the UK, Canada, Lebanon, Cameroon, Latvia, and China, to submit over 150 works of art and stories to the ‘Gallery of hope’ on her platform.
I have learned that, no matter where we come from, we all share similar emotions, and that a simple act of kindness can make a profound impact on someone’s life.
When asked what she wanted to do now and in the near future, this 18-year-old’s eyes shined. She paused a little, then continued, “I am 18 now, and graduated from my school in June, 2022. At present, I am taking a gap year, to give myself some time to organise my thoughts, and learn skills on subjects such as video editing, computer engineering, and economics.
“I know I may seem to be the odd teenager who does not go for cool things, but this is just me – I find satisfaction in learning, and I get bored and anxious when I don’t have anything to do.
“As I embark on the next stage of my journey in college, I hope to continue my mission to bring hope and solace to those who feel alone in their struggles – perhaps through organisations within my university, university unions, and even governmental institutions. I have learned that, no matter where we come from, we all share similar emotions, and that a simple act of kindness can make a profound impact on someone’s life. Through my project, I have developed empathy and a global perspective on well-being, I grew stronger, and I am grateful for the opportunity to serve my community.”
However, she doesn’t want to stop here. “As to the future, I will probably start some other projects – I don’t know what exactly yet, but it will become clearer as I find my way into adulthood. Since I have benefited greatly with an innovative way of education which strengthens creativity and independent thinking, perhaps I will do a project that promotes independent and creative thinking among youngsters across cultures where traditional education emphasising rote memorisation is still the norm.”