Friday, March 25, 2011

Raising or Being a Child Cross-Culturally: Some Challenges

While I haven't read the book above, the interview with the author Rupinder Gill, copied below, raises a number of issues common to raising children in a cross-cultural environment, primarily as an immigrant, but also as an expat, including the children of students on long scholarships abroad, as is often the case for Saudis on scholarship in the West. Similarly, though focusing on the experience of being an Indian in a small city described as "predominantly white", and the only Indian family in their area, the interview describes experiences that are common cross-culturally, particularly when a family from a more conservative culture lives in the midst of a more liberal one, and where there is not a broader ethnic community to provide the much needed childhood socialization and compensatory activities.

The article focuses on the role of the parents in preventing their children from joining the normal activities of their classmates. It does not address the issues of acceptance, tolerance for difference or racism of the host community. Rupinder Gill grew up in a small city that is not only "predominantly white" but predominantly Anglo-German for generations, surrounded by similar villages, towns, and cities. The roots of the regional community are in the conservatism of United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution; German-speaking Pennsylvania Dutch; German immigrants pre-WWI and post WWII. Though the name of the city was changed from Berlin to Kitchener in WWI, it was still possible in the late 20th century to live in the area in German only. Now, there is a rapid growth in immigration from diverse backgrounds, unfortunately accompanied by a growing, thankfully still a small minority and fringe, group of neo-Nazi white supremicists.

The interview also does not address fully how newcomers often become more conservative themselves, clinging to "back home", "the old country", "over there" in ways that fail to recognize the evolution and modernization that happens in their country of origin, or had already happened before they arrived overseas from a small, conservative, isolated community within their own culture. At the same time, they may have serious misunderstandings of what the host culture is doing, fed by television, film, misinformation, and rumour.

Once when I was training in adolescent psychiatry, a Filipino father said to me, "It may be normal in your culture for teenagers to stay in the mall until 5am, but in our culture it is not". I informed him that it was not normal, and in fact his daughter was involved with the wrong type of teenagers, and the only people in that mall at that hour were gangs--which is why the police have youth police service stations right in certain malls.

More recently, a Pakistani graduate student was telling me why he had moved his family to a neighbourhood with a high enough Pakistani population that he could safely send his children to the local public school, where they would not be influenced by mainstream Canadian culture. He probably only told me that much because previously I had added "Insha 'allah" to the end of one of his sentences, when he obviously suppressed it; and, on another occasion told him it was good for him to go to communal prayers and gain support from his fellow Pakistani Muslims.

I also recently treated a tall, willowy, naturally blond university student who had immigrated from Eastern Europe with her family as a tween. Her parents wanted her in a Roman Catholic school, to keep her on the right path. She was mercilessly bullied for years by short, dark, Portuguese girls who made up the majority of the senior public (junior high) and high schools she attended. She had been treated for depression since about age 15, and I was seeing her for the same diagnosis.

Though these examples are from more recent waves of immigration, similar stories are told by older immigrants...of being the only Ukrainian, or the only Chinese, in a small town, or of being part of an ethnic community on the fringes of mainstream society. The vast majority of people survive the normal childhood and adolescent challenges well, and vow not to do the same to their children. However, as the comments on the article indicate, there are often residual negative feelings and memories.

The interview does address well the feelings of isolation, having missed out on some aspects of childhood, and the impact on adult development. Part of this is normal childhood and adolescent development, as not all parents let their children do all things going on in the community, even the seemingly more sedate ones. All parents do seem to have mastered the "I don't care what x does, I am not x's mother/father", "If x's parents want to let him/her be a hoodlum/slut that doesn't mean I will let you", and "Under my roof, you will..." rebuttals to all cogent, if tearful, arguments for why one should stay out later, go horseback riding, wear strappy shoes, stop piano lessons, get a motorcycle licence,...whateva'!

Most adults learn to reconcile childhood dreams and expections with adult realities. It is necessary to give up some, yet most can be transformed into realistic goals. Some of the challenges of being the odd child looking on can be mitigated by parental and family involvement in more mainstream activities, finding a like minded group, asking trusted neighbours to explain necessary rights of passage like Hallowe'en, sleepovers, etc. Adolescents also need parents to set appropriate limits so that they can roll their eyes, shake their heads, and say genuinely, plaintively, victim-like, "I want to, but my parents would KILL me", about things they don't really want to do. It saves one's adolescent face.

Photo of the author Rupinder Gill during the interview 
(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Rupinder Gill grew up ‘on the outside looking Indian’
From Friday's Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Mar. 24, 2011 4:26PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Mar. 24, 2011 7:06PM EDT

If nothing else, Rupinder Gill’s childhood Who’s the Boss? and Full House marathons taught her what kids in North America do. What were normal activities for her classmates – swimming lessons, sleepovers, going to Disney World – were remote fantasies for Ms. Gill, who was raised by strict Indian parents in the middle of predominantly white Kitchener, Ont.

When she turned 30, she vowed to make up for lost time. She went camping, learned to swim and made a better-late-than-never pilgrimage to the Magic Kingdom. However, as she recounts in On the Outside Looking Indian: How My Second Childhood Changed my Life, when she took a second swing at childhood she also made adjustments to her adult life – including quitting a comfortable but unfulfilling job as a publicist.

She discussed her reclaimed childhood and new-found perspective with The Globe and Mail.

What were the biggest things you felt you were missing out on as a child?

I think the social interaction was a big thing. Especially in high school, it becomes very obvious who does not go out. On the Monday they’d all talk about what they were doing and I’d have so many excuses – the main one was a cousin’s birthday. Once, one of my friends said that they were going to get a calendar and write all my cousins’ birthdays in and see if they’d match up the next year. And they wouldn’t. That was the worst. I thought I was covering it and people weren’t noticing it. I’d just sit silently when they talked about what they’d done.

You talk a lot about how you didn’t have any Indian friends growing up. Do you think that would’ve made a difference to the sense that you were being deprived?

Absolutely. I really do wish I’d had that. I feel like they’re the only other people who can understand. Had I had another Indian friend, I’d have been allowed to go to her house and I would’ve been allowed to then have the sleepover. We would’ve done stuff. I would’ve had a more rounded social life. And the other people were just white. They were going to “corrupt” me.

When you went to New York you ended up meeting your first Indian friend there. What did that change for you?

I’m realizing that I need more perspective as an adult on my culture because so much of my ideas are from kind of, I guess, trying to have nothing to do with it as a kid because it was the reason I couldn’t go out. It was kind of embarrassing because my parents were different. As an adult, I want to have my own relationship with it. I plan to go by myself in the next year to India, which really does scare me a bit.

You had these bigger goals, like learning how to swim, but you also had a couple of things left over from childhood – things that are very kid-centric, like going to Disney World, having sleepovers. Tell me about that, trying to do these things at 30.

I’m really happy I learned how to swim. But some of the things, I had to realize you can’t really relive those. Like when my sister and I went to Disney World we really did stand out. Every other kid was dressed either as Buzz Lightyear or one of the princesses, in these elaborate costumes, and going to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo salon to get their hair done. And we were just these women who were there squeezing onto a Dumbo trying to have this experience. It’s a beautiful place and I’m happy I saw it, but I think that sometimes you have to get over things.

You know, as much as I felt somewhat deprived of my childhood, I’m a lot luckier than a lot of kids were. I’m sure a lot of kids have much bigger lists and had actually tough lives. I didn’t have a tough life. I feel like Disney World really made me realize that. The sleepovers – same thing. I looked and there were these women who were 30-plus. You know, it’s not junk food time any more when you’re over 30, so we’d all ordered from Fresh (a Toronto vegetarian restaurant) these vegan meals. Enough’s enough. I will leave that one as a “not done.”

Were there any goals or dreams that you pursued where you thought, “Even if I’m not enjoying this as much as I want to, I need to stick to it,” because you’d almost bigged it up so much?

Oh yeah. I wondered if as a kid I would’ve just been like, “Okay, thanks” after lesson one. In a way I do see why my parents didn’t sign us up for everything. When they did sign my brother up for things, we were sweltering in the sun in August and he would be so bored at the soccer and not wanting to be there. I made myself stick out everything for at least the length of the lessons and whatnot to give it a go.

When it comes to things you didn’t do as a kid, you had culture and parents to explain some of that. But what do you think was holding you back as an adult from the bigger goals related to your career?

I think you just paint a picture of your life as a kid that’s so simplistic, and then you think: “By this age I’ll have done this. I’ll have a big house at 32.” Then you move to Toronto, and those things aren’t going to happen and so you sort of set a more realistic set of goals for yourself. I started asking myself, too, how important those things were instead of some of the bigger goals. For me, doing something that’s actually fulfilling to me matters a lot more than a lot of other things. As much as I was adjusting those goals from the things I wanted to do when I was a kid – like realizing Disney World’s not important – I was readjusting my goals as an adult too. I’m more go-with-the-flow instead of the general Indian way of pre-planning your life on a graph and then inputting it into the computer and living this life that’s so strategically done.

You say that’s a very anti-Indian way of thinking. You talk about how this idea of pursuing your dreams was very, in some ways, selfish. Did you feel guilt about how your parents would see all of this?

There’s no excuse to quit your job if you’re an Indian. When I was a kid I wondered, “Why couldn’t I do these things?” And then I realized how hard it must have been for my parents with four kids and being new to the country themselves, struggling to make ends meet, and then five kids eventually. Never once in their lives would they be able to pause and say, “Is this the life I want? Is there anything more I want? Is there something I should be doing?” It is indulgent that I have the luxury of doing that when my parents never did.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


What are your impressions from the interview?
What rings true for you?
What doesn't?
The book is a personal, humorous look at acting 13 when one is 30, to compensate for a missed childhood. Any stories in a similar vein you would like to share?
Other thoughts, comments, impressions, experiences?

Image accompanying a humorous article in the National Post by Rupinder Gill, recounting her adult learn to swim adventures. On a serious note, drowning statistics in Canada have risen dramatically, particularly due to an influx of immigrants with no experience of swimming and aquatic activities. As a land of lakes, rivers, streams, and ice that can be unstable or melting, swimming lessons which include aquatic safety are imperative. The Royal Life Saving Society of Canada, and the Canadian Red Cross are designing lessons tailored to different immigrant communities, including teaching mothers in their own language, as a safety measure for adults and children.


oby said...

I personally feel anger toward parents of children like Gill. It is a multilayered reason but I think the primary one is that they come to the West to start a new life and work their hardest to prevent the kids from becoming "tainted" by the host culture. Beyond being insulted by the fact that the people come to the west only to take advantage of the opportunities without ever seeing themselves as part of the overall fabric of the culture...and integral part and wiling to give back to the culture gladly when they have been able to make a success of things, I think the attitude and the guilt it engenders in the children is terribly unfair. Kids are maleable and will adapt to their situations...but to put them in a culture where they are then not allowed to be a part of it and only peer in like a kid with their nose pressed against the glass of a candy store is cruel. the kid is marked as a weirdo or different when in a large measure of liklihood if the parents had allowed the child to participate to some measure and reserved their condemnation of the host culture for the major things the child could have been able to be a part of the group while still respecting the parents wishes on some of the big ticket items. Non negotiability in all things is not fair to the kids. They see these things and are attracted to them naturally but can only long for them and it is made worse when they are the only ones of that type culture in the area. I think children are more democratic than their parents and will often accpet such a different child into their midst.

I think of myself. Even if my daughter were not half indian could I reasonably expect that if I moved to India that I should devote my life to her not mixing in the culture? She should spend her life separated from the host culture? That is a crazy thought for me. If I find the culture so abhorant that I would not allow her to partake in any of it including going to school then I should never ever consider moving to such a culture that I cannot begin to respect. It is a closed minded and racist attitude on the part of the parents IMO.

Chiara said...

Oby-thanks for your comment on this particular topic.
I don't feel anger, and I don't think most often that the immigrant parents who behave this way do so out of racism. I think they isolate their children from certain experiences because of misunderstanding about them, fear, their own sense of inadequacy about fitting in to the host culture, and their feeling that they can compensate for their immigration by holding to older norms from their culture of origin.
It is ultimately unfair to the children however. Most good articles even advising against participation in certain host culture activities, advocate providing alternative social experiences for the children's development and happiness.
Ideally 2nd generation children of immigrants, or children who arrived at a young age are happily bi-lingual and bi-cultural. Often by the 3rd generation the linguistic and cultural skills have faded.
Thanks again for your comment and for your evocative description of the plight of excluded children!


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