MISUNDERSTOOD MINORITY: AMERICAN ACCULTURATION OF ASIAN IMMIGRANTS AND THEIR CHILDREN

By Zishan Lokhandwala

Within the United States, there has been and is today only limited understanding of Asian immigrants’ assimilation into American culture. In fact, our understanding is essentially limited to the “mythico-historic record” (Suarez-Orosco 2), which tags Asian Americans as quiet and hard-working high-achievers, and ultimately leads us to label these people as the “model minority.”This label is especially misleading for students however, as it focuses solely on scholastic achievement while completely neglecting psychological functioning; Asian American children reported the poorest levels of self-esteem and highest levels of depression among adolescents. (Qin 22-23)

This poor psychological functioning can be explained by the immense strains on the parent-child relationship which immigrant life has produced, and the premier dynamic of this poor relationship is the cultural gap between the immigrant parents and their American-bred children. The younger and older generations tend to embrace the new host society differently; whereas the children greatly focus on adjusting to American society and “fitting in,” the parents primarily focus on “making the best of a new environment and retaining traditional family life.” The parents were raised in the motherland and were subjected to the ideals, morals, and standards of the Eastern World; the children in contrast “lack meaningful connections to their ‘old’ world” and thus, acculturate to much greater levels than their tradition-minded parents (Zhou 1,5). This “generational dissonance,” as it is coined by Suarez-Orosco, not only generates poor psychological health among adolescents, but also perpetuates this state throughout adulthood.

Immigrant parents undoubtedly have different goal orientations than their “Americanized” children, and generally tend to structure their lives and the lives of their families around “instrumental” success (Suarez-Orosco 9). A Chinese immigrant summarized the three basic goals of Asian immigrants: “to live in your own house, to be your own boss, and to send your children to the Ivy League” (Zhou 323). Immigrant parents base their “standards of success” on the “old world” Confucian value system, which places heavy emphasis on education. H. Andrew Kim, a Korean immigrant parent, claims that only the Asian parents seem to show up to PTA meetings in his hometown of Fullerton, which clarifies the relative importance Asian parents place on the education of their children (Shoenberger 4). The parents do not place the burden solely on themselves however; as first-year UCLA student and “1.5er” Dien Sun says, “My parents take my education very seriously, and they put pressure on me to get good grades.” Statistically, Asian American students have outperformed students from other ethnic groups in standardized test scores and grade point averages; this can greatly be attributed to the high academic expectations of the parents. (Qin-Way-Mukherjee 2) However, in many cases these same parental expectations created great pressure for the adolescents and caused the children to exhibit low levels of self-esteem and high levels of depression. (Qin 22)

Immigrant parents undoubtedly encourage their children to cultivate the “instrumental” aspects of American culture; however, “they are decidedly more ambivalent about their children’s exposure to… the ‘expressive’ elements” (Suarez-Orosco 9). Just as American society has “defined” Asian immigrants through the mythico-historic record, Asian immigrants have “defined” American culture as materialistic and disrespectful, and thus, do not want their children to become immersed in it. (Zhou 5) Unfortunately for the parents however, immigrant children do typically embrace this “expressive” culture, and the result is a disharmonic acculturation rate among the immigrant parents and children. Generational dissonance strains parent-child relationships because it places both the parent and the child in a different state of mind and renders them both unable to understand each other. The children will behave in accordance to American culture, which the immigrant parents see as disrespectful. For example, in Chinese culture it is regarded as insolent to make eye contact with an adult while speaking to them; conversely, in American culture eye contact is regarded as a proper mannerism. Thus, immigrant children will tend to make eye contact with their parents, only to be scolded for their irreverence.

Eye contact is a minor issue however, and pales in comparison to the larger issues that abound immigrant families, such as teenage dating and consumption behavior. Whereas Americans typically view teenage dating as a social norm, “Chinese parents consider dating in high school not only a wasteful academic distraction, but also an unhealthy, promiscuous behavior” (Zhou 327). Furthermore, the parents often regard fashionable hairstyles and clothes as corrupt and “too American.” These issues clarify the generational dissonance within immigrant families—what is accepted as commonplace by mainstream American society is rejected by Asian immigrant parents, and more often than not, immigrant children conform to the mainstream ideals of the new country and are thus placed at odds with their parents. (Zhou 1-5) As a result, children often lie to their parents, or simply leave them uninformed, as in the case with seventeen-year-old Mei who says, “[My parents] do not know that I am dating…or if I had problems with my friends, I would not tell my parents…” (Qin 10) The generational dissonance incurred among immigrant families has alienated the children, making them feel as if they cannot seek guidance from their parents. This ultimately cripples the parent-child relationship, and may in fact have drastic effects on the child’s psychological functioning in adulthood. Parent-child communication is crucial to a child’s psychological development; in Dr. Qin’s experimental survey, a lack of communication in the home provided a reliable indicator as to whether or not the child exhibited individualistic tendencies. (Qin 26-32). The tendencies developed in adolescence are likely to transcend into adulthood.

Furthermore, the pressures implemented on immigrant children persist beyond adolescence; Asian immigrant parents seem to suffer from a “white-collar complex,” meaning they push their children to enter highly reputable professions despite the desires of the child. Such is the case with Marcia Choo, a twenty-seven-year old “1.5er” who’s father absolved her from his demand that she become a doctor as long as she promised to go to law school. (Schoenberger 4) Moreover, one should note that the highly reputable professions that the parents seek for their children are not reputable in the sense that they provide a significant public service, but rather, in the sense that they provide financial security and are restricted by some standard of higher education (i.e. a post-graduate degree). For instance, becoming a fire fighter would be unacceptable to the parent, even though this particular profession is held to very high regard in society. Writing is also an unsuitable profession; though it may require extensive education, it does not necessarily provide financial security. Whereas American children are encouraged to “follow their hearts” with regards to profession, Asian immigrant children are essentially encouraged to “follow the money.” From this perspective, it becomes very clear why the majority of Korean immigrants are doctors, lawyers, bankers, and engineers. (Shoenberger 1)

This tendency to encourage their children to join “white-collar” professions stems from the parents’ “old world” Confucian value system; this system indoctrinates the immigrant parents with a standard of success that differs from that of their “new world” children. (Shoenberger 4) Fifteen-year old Sally claims that “[immigrant parents] think you have to be academically successful if you want to be a successful person in life.” (Qin 14) While the parents judge the success of their child, and ultimately the success of their parenting, through an exclusively instrumental “old world” viewpoint, the children “are prone to evaluate themselves…by the standards of their new country,” which measures success from a multi-faceted viewpoint, and ultimately champions personal fulfillment with a selected profession over financial security and education status. (Zhou 1)

Often times however, the desires of the child are replaced by the desires of the parent. Immigrant parents have undoubtedly made great sacrifices emigrating to the U.S, and all of these sacrifices are made in the name of family; the children are well aware of this however, and consequently feel obligated to fulfill the parent’s wishes that they enter a white-collar profession. (Foster 1) Marcia Choo (mentioned earlier) states that she has an “overwhelming sense of burden and responsibility [to become a lawyer]” because it was her father’s wish. (Schoenberger 4) Furthermore, white-collar professions validate the parents’ sacrifices, providing “proof that their choice to immigrate, and the struggles that came with it, were not in vain” (Foster 1). This obligation to validate the family’s immigration inevitably forces many “1.5ers” and second-generation immigrants into professions that they do not wish to be in, which ultimately causes unhappiness and may even lead to depression. Moreover, entering a profession that one is unhappy with may trigger feelings of inadequacy; recall that while the immigrant parents judge success through “old world” instrumental standards, the children use the “new world” standard, which champions satisfaction with one’s profession over social status. (Zhou 1)

It is evident that the “cultural gap” incurred in immigrant families can have everlasting effects on the children’s psychological health in adolescence as well as adulthood. The foremost consequence of this “cultural gap” is a failure, or perhaps unwillingness, to communicate among immigrant parents and children. “In homes where parents attempted to understand their children’s world [and] valued communication… very different dynamics in the parent-child relationship were evident;” the children did not exhibit the individualistic tendencies that the children who did not sufficiently communicate with their parents exhibited. Furthermore, parents who communicated with their children generally displayed different attitudes towards their children’s education; “they expected their children to have a purpose in life…and contribute to the society.” They also univocally opposed “achieving for achievement’s sake.” (Qin 30-31) It can be reasonably assumed therefore, that these parents would not pressure their children into professions simply because of the standing that they hold in society. The psychological stresses associated with second-generation immigrants are much less severely experienced in families with parents who communicate; thus, these stresses should be much less detrimental in adulthood. The keystone aspect of the problems associated with immigrant family life is communication—an inability to communicate in due course brings about psychological instability within immigrant children. And while Asian Americans are likely to retain their title as the model minority, we should note that, despite primordial ties and an eastern work ethic, many suffer psychological disturbances that cannot be compensated for by corporate success.

Zishan is a second-year political science major at UCLA.

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6 responses to “MISUNDERSTOOD MINORITY: AMERICAN ACCULTURATION OF ASIAN IMMIGRANTS AND THEIR CHILDREN

  1. Fascinating topic. Many of these issues also affect other immigrant groups. The generation of “hyphenated Americans” (ie: Asian-American, Mexican-American, etc) is one that is often culturally torn between the US and the “motherland.” Depending on the situation and context, some individuals feel a higher degree of conflict than others.

    I think it’s interesting to note also that many immigrant parents are misunderstood by their children as much as they misunderstand them. As the author pointed out, there is often a lack of communication and understanding between the older and younger generations. Growing up in an Asian-American community, I’ve seen many examples of the families described in this article – parents who pressure/threaten their kids to excel academically, musically, and replicate/embody many cultural traditions and values. Sure, one could say they have a “white-collar complex” or they’re “indoctrinated” with a standard of success, and at times it seems like many parents want to carve their kids into little trophies that they can show off to friends and relatives. But, as true as this may be in many cases, it’s only part of the story.

    The other part of the story is that many of us in the second generation also don’t even begin to understand our parents and where they’re coming from, because it is literally a foreign world. Born in houses with two cars, fully stocked refrigerators, closets full of clothes, electricity, running water…many of us cannot conceive of the “third world” conditions that our immigrant parents grew up in: a single, barely functional bathroom shared among dozens of people, not enough food to eat, much less adequate nutrition for bodily growth (many second generation asians are taller than their parents), the ones in slum-like apartments were considered the lucky ones because they weren’t in hand-made shanties on rooftops. Many kids start working in factories as soon as they hit puberty, but of course, the money goes back to help the family survive – unlike their American counterparts who might whine about getting an ipod or the latest smart phone, many kids in developing countries would be happy with just a pair of shoes.

    And of course, second generation kids have heard the stories, and because it’s so incredibly foreign and removed from our own privileged lives, we can’t comprehend it. We hear it but we don’t understand it. And because we’re acculturated with American ideologies and privileged with opportunities and choices, we feel the (valid) desire to “follow our hearts.” And compared with our passions, our parents desire for us to have a profession with high social standing and lots of money seems mercenary – perhaps greedy. But our immigrant parents are not money-loving, white-collar lusting, old-fashioned tyrants- instead, unlike us, they’ve seen the dirty underbelly of poverty and they’ll be damned if they or their children ever has to see it again. Sure, maybe a lot of parents want to have bragging rights about their kids, but their behavior and views are also driven by a desire for their children to have better, do better, and be better than they ever could have imagined in their wildest dreams when they were our age.

    We are upset when our parents can’t understand us, but do we try to understand them?

    Of course, I’m not saying immigrant parents are right and their children are wrong. Like the article pointed out, it is a huge cultural gap (and socioeconomic gap). And if an Asian-American wants to ditch the doctor route and become a nomadic artist married to a non-Asian (of the same sex) after serving a stint in Peace Corps, more power to them. But I’m just saying we should not only see the issue from our perspective, we should also try to understand our parents’ perspectives because somebody has to try to bridge the gap (and it’s probably easier for us to walk that bridge than them because, let’s face it, we’re younger, more open-minded and flexible =)

    nice article, i enjoyed it.

    -charita

    • I understand that we should sympathize our parents and their efforts. My dad’s childhood conditions were horrendous due to the war and attack from Japan. The stories he talked about are inhumane. I understand his hardship he had to endure, where he is coming from and the person he has become today. I accept his faults and his good human nature.

      I am grateful for the things he has done for me. The problem is not about being grateful for his life choices and sacrifices, but that we are indebted to our parents. The moment we are born, we are burdened with the responsibilities to complete our parents’ “American dream”. We are constantly being guilted as we are lesser if we don’t achieve their ideals. We were born, not to be as an individual, but as an instrument for their satisfaction.

      Yes we, the younger ones are more open minded and flexible. When the parents can’t understand the kid because they’re too ‘old’ and fixated with their ways, it creates basically what this article proposed. Just because they are old, it doesn’t mean they can’t be unchanging. Communication and understanding isn’t one sided; it should be mutual. I think this is why a lot of children-adults are having all these issues. The lack of acceptance and mutual respect the parent should be giving the child.

      Growing up in Asian-Canadian society, I also witness countless of people who fall into this, including myself. But there will always be one family who isn’t a part of this oppression at all. Witnessing this good bonded family is an eye opener and basically set an example of what I want with my kids in the future.

  2. a huge part of the problem is most definitely communication between cultural gaps. i wonder what the author thinks about how we can foster strong solutions that can allow us to bridge the cultural gap?

  3. Pingback: Intro to Multicultural PR by Rosanna Fiske, APR | prnewpros·

  4. I really love this article because it’s basically my memoir. Wish there are centers out there to parent the parent and mentor the children. Even in my 20s and my siblings in 30s, we’re still in constant fear of our parents. This article nailed it!

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