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How to Talk to Our Immigrant Parents (#44) 💬
Lemon, the Biotech Revolution, and the Anthropocene
In this week's LWH🏡:
💫 - How to Talk to Our Immigrant Parents (#44)
🎥 - N.E.R.D.'s hit song "Lemon" owes a lot to New Orleans bounce (YouTube)
🎥 - Dr. Rick Klausner: The Biotech Revolution will Transform the World (YouTube)
📚 - The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human‑Centered Planet by John Green (Amazon)
How to Talk to Our Immigrant Parents
A door slams, and we're right back where we started—backs turned against each other while we stand on opposite ends of a tiny boat that is glug-glug sinking ever faster.
Talking to our parents can be one of the most frustrating and painful experiences of our lives. Despite the enormous amount of face-time childhood and adolescence allows us to have with our parents, it can feel like nobody understands us less than they do. The space between us feels intergalactic.
It can feel like parents overlook the best in us and focus instead on all the ways we are unsatisfactory. In lockstep with how we boil them down to their parental responsibility, they boil us down to a small number of traits too, almost all of which share a striking resemblance with the ones we most regret.
Lost in Translation
The pragmatism of immigrant parents often stops them from valuing and encouraging “risky” investments of our time (e.g., cultivating artistic hobbies). Further, their preoccupation with ensuring the home country’s culture isn’t lost on us forbids them from appreciating how we may show an affinity for aspects of Western culture, like rock music or collectible trading card games.
Over time, so much of who we are goes unseen and unnurtured by our parents as we diversify our identity and attach ourselves to worldly, cultural phenomena. What we feel is most important to us feels simply incomprehensible to our parents who have no cultural reference point to understand its significance. And that’s not their fault.
My parents, for example, would be too hung up on the swearing of Kid Cudi’s debut album Man on the Moon to grasp how it made their sad teenage son feel less alone in the world. They'd have too many preconceived notions of when or who it would be appropriate to date to grasp the complexity of the break up that would make him sad in the first place.
Immigrant parents scoff at cultural mainstays when starting a family in a new part of the world, forgetting their kids are steeped in that culture’s ubiquity. They talk down to the way things are “here”, forgetting “here” is all we know. They drive us to defend the culture to which we contribute, even the aspects we aren’t the biggest fans of ourselves.
The Nature of Conversation
Immigrant parents and their kids tend to struggle with conversation since there is such little cultural overlap to use as a starting point. Our childhood and adolescent years looked so vastly different from our parents’, so explaining our lives feels like a gargantuan task.
They probably feel the same way. It’s disconcerting how many immigrant kids don’t really have back and forth conversations with their parents, just sharing opinions and experiences. Most conversations between immigrant parents and their kids consist of instructing or informing. Instructions flow from the parents to the kids, and information flows from the kids to the parents. That is most of it. The majority of conversations are devoid of excitement, collaboration, and learning.
The Acculturation Gap
Kids born and raised in a different country than their parents have the neuroplasticity and the frequency of interaction with cultural natives to pick up on norms, traditions, and language extremely quickly compared to their parents. Because kids and parents acculturate (i.e., assimilate or integrate into a new culture) at different rates and have mismatched cultural experiences, a cultural gap is created between them despite living in the same household, aptly named the acculturation gap.
This mismatch of experience is the foundation for the lack of understanding between immigrant parents and their second generation children, and both parties suffer considerably as a result. For all the beautiful aspects of growing up with two cultures and being able to pick and choose their favourite aspects of both, immigrant children struggle a lot with connecting with, and feeling seen and understood by, their parents.
In 2000, Richard Lee and his colleagues observed “the clash of values and preferences arising from these intergenerational acculturation gaps lead to family conflict, which in turn results in youth maladjustment.” The acculturation-gap-distress-hypothesis, as this phenomenon was later dubbed, may explain why some immigrant children fight more aggressively to assimilate even further into the new culture, subsequently pulling them away from their parents’ native culture.
Kids feel like they need to choose, and it’s much easier to pull away from their parents towards everyone else in their lives than to pull away from everyone else in their lives towards their parents.
Bridging the Gap
The immigrant kid experience is my experience, so over the years, I’ve tried to develop a formula for productive, healthy conversations with my parents that satisfy my need to feel seen and understood by the people who love me. It’s always a work in progress and it’s far from an exact science, but I have three general strategies that have all worked for me to varying degrees.
Reshaping Cultural Narratives
Reshaping cultural narratives has two major components. First, our parents, unfortunately, have plenty of preconceived notions of what is typical or acceptable in this new culture, and many of these might be flat-out incorrect. Asian cultures tend to judge Western cultures as being flagrant, dismissive of tradition, and individualistic to a fault.
Shedding light on true, real-life examples that targetedly counteract these narratives can rejostle their understanding of Western culture. It’s difficult to understate the power even one strong counterexample can have in reshaping our biases and judgments.
Further, our parents are, for the most part, good people, and can appreciate the throughlines of the human experience that traverse geographic and cultural boundaries. Parents love to hear compelling, relatable stories of other parents, hard-workers love to hear triumphant tales of other hard-workers, etc..
Contrary to providing counterexamples that seek to challenge and dismantle some of their worldviews, this strategy seeks to reinforce some others. It helps them realize that attitudes they have brought from back home are not all completely obsolete in this new culture. Values they hold dear are relevant and productive too. They are not as alone in this new place as they might think.
Hold the Tension
When our parents express disapproval or judgment for something they don’t fully understand, it’s natural for us to disengage and change the topic. Upsetting our parents and pushing them to defensiveness by having a strong reaction makes us extremely uncomfortable too. We may not be equipped to handle the combativeness with grace.
Instead of changing the subject, however, choosing to hold the tension after correcting them or providing a counterexample can give our parents the time they need to process new information and reconsider their biases. We forget that we are steeped in this culture, and our cultural narratives are shaped by exceptionally dynamic resources like social media, classrooms, and youthful discussion. Our parents generally don’t share any of those luxuries in this new cultural context, and may require repeated exposure to concepts over long periods of time to properly update their beliefs.
When it comes to sociopolitical issues, a minefield if there ever was one, it’s important to engage and hear their side of things, fears and concerns and all, before refuting any argument. We’re socialized to take offense when faced with certain viewpoints, but in the context of our uninitiated parents, they’re usually oblivious to the social and cultural queues that tell them some belief could be harmful for someone else.
They believe what they believe because of where they came from, just like we do. Holding the tension and giving them a chance to re-evaluate their beliefs in real time can initiate long-term growth and understanding, if we are willing to take that first scary step into discomfort.
Repetition is the Father (and Mother) of Learning
It’s so common for us to feel like we shouldn’t need to repeat ourselves. If our parents cared, they’d know this about us already, after all. Repetition wouldn’t be necessary. It’s bad enough we need to say it even once, isn’t it?
Immigrant parents, like almost all parents, are the world experts in their kids until their kids begin participating in the world. There will be parts of you for which they will continue to be experts, but the complex and nuanced personality that develops around the infantile version they know well will always be opaque to them unless thoughtfully explained. No cultural anchoring point by which to understand all your new experiences exacerbates the issue.
This is the daunting part for us. It feels like an impossible, perhaps even redundant, task to explain who we are to the two people who have been around us the longest. But at the end of the day, we must. More often than not, our parents don’t realize they should be asking us questions to allow us to explain our deeper selves because they’ve never seen parents engage in discussions like that with their kids.
Parents parent their kids the way their parents parented them, and love expressed through genuine curiosity for who we are isn’t how our parents learned to express their love for us, even if that’s the love we so desperately want. With the emotional resources, tools, and awareness to recognize this, it’s our responsibility to give them the benefit of the doubt and reach out first.
Ultimately, it’s not their fault, and if we want things to change, we must be willing to dig up who we are and explain it, time and time again. If we are prepared to do this repetition, we will get frustrated much less and contribute much more to the healthy transfer of information from child to parent, reinforcing cultural norms of which they should be aware.
The Connection We Crave
Talking to parents can be the most challenging thing we learn how to do. Of course, the strategies I mentioned above may not work for everyone. Parents are just as complicated as we are, and so different strategies are going to work to varying degrees. Unfortunately, some parents may not be interested in grappling with discomfort for the purposes of connecting more with their kids, and for those situations, this conversation is moot.
There’s a game I’ve mentioned in this newsletter before dedicated to how to talk to our immigrant parents called Parents Are Human. These questions are another fantastic way of initiating discussion and creating cultural common ground that opens the door for further, more vulnerable conversation.
As immigrant kids, connecting with our parents can feel like a futile and insurmountable obstacle. But they are craving connection from us just like we are craving connection from them. Effort we put in to improving that relationship and committing to being seen in all our multifacetedness will create a bond that will pay us back in spades.