He was 11 years old. He was skinny and tall, with a head full of thick black hair and bright eyes. He always had the sweetest smile and was curious about everything around him. From the time he could talk, every sentence always began with a “why.”
Looking back, everything seemed more straightforward then. When children are little, the most important decisions revolve around bedtime, food, and taking them to the park. But as they grow up, we as parents navigate so much. The list is endless for a public or private school, soccer or tennis, PBS or Nickelodeon, piano lessons or choir, store brands, or organic. As a parent, you are constantly making decisions for your child, and as the years go on, they become more complex.
As a young Indian mother, a framework and pattern of parenting were familiar to me. There were fundamental human values to impart to our child, of course, along with Christian values and teachings, but there were also many cultural values that I wanted my child to learn. Unfortunately, it was not that easy. As an Indian parent raising a child in the United States, everything seemed more complicated than “regular” American parenting. Every decision I made conflicted with the culture of the country I was raising my child in. Everything was emotionally draining and complicated, even simple decisions about clothing choices, food, and school activities.
As immigrant parents, you adapt to the culture and community around you, but your children live in the space of duality. They spend 8-10 hours in school and school-related activities where their formation is American, and then they come home where they are surrounded by Indian parents, culture, and values. This dichotomy exists for their entire lives. They cannot get rid of it even if they try, and trust me, most immigrant kids do. As a result, many learn to walk the balance between both cultures, letting one out and hiding the other at specific times and situations in life. When they are home, they are immersed in one culture, and when outside, they are immersed in the majority culture. As a result, many can struggle with a form of Acculturation stress. Psychotherapist Li Ng Lam” Ph.D., says, “Acculturation stress results in a pervasive sense of not being understood, feeling invalidated, feeling invisible, of feeling like you have to hide a part of yourself constantly.”
Children of immigrants live in the limbo space between two cultures, belonging to neither. They cannot fully put roots in either culture. They often must choose between one or the other, which causes tremendous conflict because they are never accepted fully. This results in immense strain on familial relationships and parenting. The journey is not easy, and the pressure can lead to stress and anxiety. The high expectations of parents and the intergenerational stress formed can cause our children to lose their identity. So, what can we do about it?
As parents, we did a few things that hopefully have helped our children, who are now teenagers and young adults. But, disclaimer here, we did not have a plan! As I have worked on this essay, I have had to go back to the early years of parenting to figure out how we raised our kids. Most of the time, my husband and I joke about how the seat of our pants parents us! We had no clue what we were doing, but something worked, seeing as we have raised two bright and interesting humans!
From the time they were young, we often spent time around our kitchen table and had hours of conversation on topics ranging from culture, politics, religion, and movies. Nothing was ever off the table! We encouraged our children to be open about their feelings and share everything. If there were topics we did not know much about, I researched them, and we discussed them the next day. Complete honesty here; we allowed our children to have social media. We monitored screen time when they were little, and our high schooler still had to leave her phone before bed. Somehow, they have managed social media well. I do not claim to have all the answers regarding technology, phones, and social media, and neither my husband nor I have any special powers in monitoring our kids.
I often wanted to avoid conflict with my teenagers, but as a parent, I was aware that if our children did not learn about some of these issues from us, their parents, they would be learning about it from someone else or Tiktok or Instagram. We wanted the opportunity to share our perspectives and views with them. We welcomed their beliefs and encouraged dialogue. These were not easy. Sometimes it ended badly, and we had our doubts. However, those long conversations allowed our children to engage with us as adults and understand us better.
Children of immigrant families need their parents to engage them well. If we don’t, they will seek it outside, and we lose the ability to share our experiences with them. I grew up as an immigrant, and my third culture upbringing influenced how I raised my children. On the other hand, my husband grew up in the same home as his father and had rooted for generations in the same town. We bring different perspectives to the table, and our children have benefited from hearing stories about their great grandparents and many childhood memories.
Our children grow up with different ideas about life and the world. Growing up in a cross-cultural setting with different influences challenge, change, form, and impact them differently. It’s hard for immigrant parents to bring up complicated topics, but we must.
As immigrants, sometimes we are unsure of where we stand or what we believe. Life often goes on, and we do not always consider our choices or why we make them. That’s how it was for us. We did not necessarily consider the impact of the decisions we made for our children when they were younger. Life was charming, and God was faithful, so we never questioned what we did or why. Immigrant life is often about doing your best with what is in front of you. You come from another country. You are thankful for the opportunities and are required to be a good immigrant! In his book The Good Immigrant, Nikesh Shukla says, “To be an immigrant, good or bad, is about straddling two homes while knowing you don’t belong to either.”
The other part about being an immigrant is that you don’t talk about it. You work hard to integrate and move into society and be accepted. You avoid sharing your struggles and challenges with your community. Yes, they are your community, but you never want to be seen as the family who is not getting it right! So, keep your struggles to yourself, be it in your marriage and parenting! A stiff upper lip and a willingness to keep working hard are what we do well. And as a Christian immigrant, you never consciously think about the tension you are called to live in. We claim to live by the Christian faith, but as immigrants, we never allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
We also raised our children with a blend of their communities of origin (in our case Indian ) and our local communities. We ensured they had the familiarity of growing up around other Indian families, uncles, aunties, and friends. Today, our children have a sense of belonging in the Indian community they cannot find elsewhere. Our Indian young people can bond over butter chicken and naan while sharing the common complaints of their immigrant parents and all the SAT Prep classes they have to take. They already had strong ties with their cousins and family, but they needed the Indian community.
Most importantly, though, we spent many hours in prayer. If we had raised our children in the familiarity of our country of origin with the people of our origin, I would not have turned to God as much as I have in the last 21 years. Scripture verses that I had memorized as a child would come back to me when I found myself praying for my kids. I cannot overemphasize the importance of prayer as we parents raise our children. There is no substitute for it, and when suffering comes, and it usually does in some form or fashion, we fare better if we lean into God, trust Him and ask Him for wisdom to navigate it. Saying we trust God is easy but acting on it is more challenging.
As immigrants, we navigated worries and challenges over issues that might seem weird to an average American family, making leaning on God all the more critical. American counselors and Pastors could not give us answers that were culturally accurate for us. Every decision had to be weighed through the lens of faith and culture.
As an immigrant, my faith and culture are intertwined. My culture has formed my faith in many ways, and parenting was no exception.
Parenting is one of the journeys in life which is the most rewarding and the most refining. God brings us to our knees repeatedly. We see the reality of who we are and how much we need God as we try to shape and mold our children. I will not argue that immigrant parenting is exponentially more complex when compared to raising your children in their country of origin. Still, it is more nuanced, challenging, and reflective and requires a parent to find the balance in multiple areas.
It is finding the ability to walk in the tension, to walk in the in-between space where our children see themselves and can raise them to be well-rounded adults who have found their identity firmly in their faith and culture.
Middle school seems so far away now, and that little boy has now grown head and shoulders taller than me. Nineteen years old, still with bright eyes, his questions have evolved into opinions on people and situations. Life brought challenges along his way, and he endured some rough seasons. At every point, I had to ask myself, “Are the decisions I am making the right ones for my child or me?”
I am very aware that our parenting journey has not ended. There are more seasons ahead and other lessons to be learned. Cultural contradictions are part of the DNA of our family. We will always walk in the in-between space, and we have learned to embrace that. The tension helps us get stronger and build resiliency.
Our Lord was the perfect immigrant. He left His heavenly abode to come and live life among us. He lived a full life in the in-between place of being fully human and fully God. As immigrant parents, we work hard to serve and sacrifice for our children, but what they need more than sacrifices is for us to engage their questions of doubts, fear and teaching them how to be embodied in their dual cultures and community. It’s not an easy path to walk, and sometimes, picking a side might seem easier, but it is rewarding, and I have found that it is spiritually refining. One could also argue that perhaps it is one of the ways God has called us to live. Life in the liminal space, walking the balance between two worlds teaches us resilience, compassion, awareness and we are often bridge-builders.
There have been many days when I have wanted to give up on my culture and the way my identity was formed. It seemed easier to walk away from one and just soak myself into another. It would have been much easier to parent that way as well! But I don’t want my children to move into the next generation having lost a part of themselves. They would never know their roots, their ancestors, their communities of origin and they would have lost a huge part of their culture. How could I send them out into the world without that grounding, without that awareness and rootedness. A lack of that awareness would leave them floundering and lost. My children will always be a part of two worlds but that is their greatest strength. To be conscious of the nuances of life and walking in the in-between and trusting in God through it will always be their place of rest.