Print Edition - 2019-04-21  |  Free the Words

Complex identities and the future of our children in a global society

- TEJENDRA PHERALI

Apr 21, 2019-

There are more than 200 million people living as migrants, globally. Cultural transition from home to the host country involves tensions around the way migrants adapt to their new identities. Immigrant children, or children of mixed race/ culturally mixed parents, face conflicting demands from both their heritage and values of the host society. This may sometimes lead to confusion and isolation. It is therefore important to understand how an immigrant engages with identity issues such as beliefs, values and aspirations.

Agnes Szabo and Colleen Ward, in their paper Identity development during cultural transition: The role of social-cognitive identity processes (2015), mention that immigrants’ critical engagement with their own and others’ views leads them to adapt new identities to suit the environment of the host country and hence, gain higher

self-esteem and confidence about who they are. On the contrary, the unwillingness to consider alternative viewpoints and resistance to adapt new identities leads to vulnerability to cross-cultural difficulties and identity confusion.

Take the example of Pumpkin, who was born in Japan to a French mother and Japanese father. When she was growing up, Pumpkin’s parents decided to give her the best possible exposure to her dual heritage. On the one hand, she was raised as a Japanese girl who was expected to express deep politeness, obedience and respect to elders whilst on the other hand, she was equally trained as a French girl with curiosity, criticality and outspoken character. Now, she lives as an adult with dual identities as a French-Japanese woman. Having lost her mother at an early age, Pumpkin’s father made every effort and necessary arrangements to raise her as a confident fearless young person who is immersed in the French way of life while still being brought up in Japan. At the age of eighteen, Pumpkin was sent to France alone to be educated where she mastered French language and graduated with double degrees at a French university. She speaks French and Japanese fluently and has an excellent grasp of the English language, having graduated recently from a prestigious British university.

Pumpkin has a unique identity and taste for life, which resembles neither entirely French nor Japanese. But as she spent her 20s in France, her emotional affinity and comfort of adulthood stem from the French

culture. When she is in Japan, people find her more French than Japanese despite her native Japanese character and in France, she is reminded of her Japanese identity. She feels that the nationalist attitude in Japan implicitly discriminates her for not being an ‘authentic Japanese’, for example, bowing and apologising for little things relentlessly, serving drinks to men, being obedient, accepting the views of seniors at work unquestionably etc., which she finds eccentric and refuses to follow as cultural norms. Unless her Japanese friends know her closely, (when they do, they find her absolutely lovely), they are usually scared of her manners, which are un-Japanese. She is now employed by a private organisation in Japan that immensely values her outstanding international exposure,

academic qualifications from prestigious institutions in Europe and absolute professional command of three languages. But she thinks the Japanese establishment doubts her loyalty and misrecognises her nativeness. Yet, she is happy and proud of having dual nationality, despite all the complexity and dilemma, as it makes her feel unique and special.

As an immigrant parent in Britain, the above example encourages me to reflect upon how our children develop their identities while they are growing up in British society. Our children are regularly exposed to Nepali festivals, cultural celebrations and socialisation, but are also strongly influenced by British cultural values and ways of thinking, thanks to their their schooling, friendships and the television. Some years ago, when my parents were visiting us in Liverpool, I asked my then eight-year-old son in front of my parents, ‘Would you like grandparents to live with us for ever, buddy?’ He loves them, and had a very close emotional bond with them, but he replied, ‘It is up to them, daddy, they can live with us if they want but if they decide to go back to Nepal, that’s also fine by me.’

In European societies, a child will normally live with their grandparents for occasional short-term child care, during holidays or perhaps when they are raised by a single parent—not permanently. But also, logically speaking, my son thought that it is up to my parents to make a decision on where they want to live. But this is not what we wanted to hear. We would like to have heard, at least for our own emotional satisfaction, that our children show absolute love and respect to elders in their expressions and behaviour even though that may sometimes be superficial.

Our children are caught in the middle of parental demands to succeed academically and professionally in Britain whilst firmly embracing our cultural heritage. In the UK, we largely live in our own communal bubbles when it comes to socialising. Parents usually do not have close family friends from other British ethnic communities. As most of us spent a large part of our adult lives in Nepal, we do not have the depth and breadth of social and cultural capital situated in the British society. We might be successful professionally and financially, but our social status and ways of life are largely defined through the lens of Nepali cultural heritage and are limited within the Nepali community, bar very few exceptions. This will have serious implications for the ways our children’s identities are shaped.

We should accept that our children will grow as half-British and half-Nepali. This means that they will challenge some of our traditional practices that are outdated and decontextualised and, therefore, problematic. We need to engage in critical conversations with them about our cultural practices, which can promisingly offer an opportunity for us to reshape our own perspectives and values.

Reflecting back to Pumpkin’s story above, it is important that our children have a clear understanding of their hybrid identity; ability to explain who they are; and a sense of pride of their Nepali heritage. Like for Pumpkin, this kind of upbringing will enable them to capitalise on their heritage to flourish in their lives in a global society.

Pherali is an associate professor in Education and International Development at University College London. He can be reached at t.pherali@ucl.ac.uk.

Published: 21-04-2019 11:27

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