Immigrants’ Children: Dealing with Your Foreign Parents

by Anoja Muthucumaru

Growing up a child of foreign parents, you realize that you’re the different one.

Living in Canada, kids have two different worlds of expectations and possibilities. They have perspective on Canada, from both their peers and their parents, and definitely challenges arise. Along with the challenges, there are also benefits to being raised by immigrant parents.

I got the chance to talk to three Canadians who, like me, grew up with immigrant parents. We all have different traditions, but our struggles are similar.

Ashley is in her final year of a professional program and her parents are immigrants from two different islands in the Acores (in Portugal). "My paternal roots are on the island of Terceira and my maternal roots are on the island of Sao Jorge."

She says, "In our household, we spoke and were taught Portuguese as our first language, we ate traditional Portuguese cuisine, listened to Portuguese music, and attended Sunday mass without fail, as religion is a big part of the Portuguese culture, among other things. Being a child in this household, I automatically assumed that every other child spoke Portuguese and had the same cultural atmosphere. Even though I was born in Canada, I myself felt like an immigrant because I did not know many basic words in English. I was accustomed to speaking in Portuguese. Not until I started school and began to make friends did I realize that my cultural household was not the norm."

Like children everywhere, children of foreign parents think that everyone grows up in the same way, for example that everyone understands their language.

I was as surprised as Ashley, on the first day of school when I could not communicate with my teachers or my classmates. I just assumed everyone spoke my language. After learning English, I tried to pick up on Canadian cultural norms and secretly watched Britney Spears’ music videos to learn the dance moves. Soon I was blending in and my differences were not that obvious to my peers.

Other than my skin colour, I was a chameleon. But at home I was far from what my friends would call ‘normal’, I was different. When I came home from school, I spoke in Tamil, had rice and curry for supper and watched Bollywood films avidly. I was living two lives, one with my parents, and another at school. Like me, children raised in two different cultures are bound to have conflict as they reach adulthood.

To quote rapper Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff, “parents just don’t understand.” These lyrics are relevant to all kids, everywhere, but for kids of immigrant parents they are even more powerful. Parents help their children build the foundation for their social, political and cultural values, but immigrating means adapting to the values of the new country. The differences in the value system of parents and the value system in Canada tend to make parents confused. Keeping the values from their place of origin alive in their children becomes difficult, because their children have adopted many Canadian values that might conflict. Parents just don’t understand their children as they thought, because the children have been living two different lives in one country, right under their noses. But the challenges faced in immigrant households, from my observation, create adults with perspective and a strong work-ethic. Before the children of immigrants can grow into adults, they must learn to balance the expectations and values of their parents with the values they have learned to embrace in Canada.

Many of the challenges manifest themselves in high school. Regardless of ethnic background, kids always have a rebellious phase. For some kids their rebellion might be their first boyfriend, or staying out late. Another might be choosing not to become a doctor or lawyer, as their parents expected, but become an activist and artist.

Many immigrants in Canada come from poor countries, and this is true for Devina who is from the Philippines and attending York University. Her parents emigrated from Manila to Canada in 2002. She says, “I worry about problems that common kids shouldn't worry about, like food, shelter and finance— all adult-related concerns. My parents are tight about money. Luxuries are rare and strictly for special occasions." Children of foreign parents from poorer countries tend to worry about their family's financial condition. This can be a burden, because there is never really enough money, but it does create children who truly understand the value of a dollar. Many times their financial worries motive immigrant kids to get part-time jobs as soon as they can.

Even with financial concerns, one of the most constant things across the board with all immigrants is the importance of family. Devina explains how, "All holidays must be spent with the family. No exceptions. It's nice, yet at the same time it's always celebrated the same way/routinely; when I do want to go out with friends to celebrate, I can't or it will have to be rescheduled. Family always comes first."

Children of refugees, or children of parents from places where they have high crime-rates and social injustice, tend to be a socially conscious group. Volunteering with kids whose parents are refugees, I noticed that they tended to volunteer and were socially active; they didn't consider their background as a reason for their engagement. But, being a child of refugees instills a social consciousness early on in life.

Children of refugee parents also have to deal with the eccentricities of refugee parents; like irrational fears of kidnapping and the obsession with crime in Canada. Rajesh’s parents came to Canada from Sri Lanka in 1994, when he was just a baby. He jokes, “My parents are always telling me about the crime happening in Canada, like random crime.You know: 'A boy got stabbed waiting for a bus, be careful.' Why is she telling me this, I wonder. How will this benefit me?"

Refugee parents tend to stress about crime in Canada and, from my observation, are less trusting towards friends, relationships and charities. As a result, simple things like going to the movies with friends or hanging out at the local mall become long discussions with bargaining and promises made, even for nearly-adult children.

The relationship between coping with parents’ cultural expectations and embracing the new county is a frequent and unique challenge that immigrant communities, families, parents and kids confront in Canada. We’ve all heard of different marriage traditions in various communities of immigrants: marrying your cousin, arranged marriage, and so on. And then there is the way it’s commonly done in Canada: you go on dates, get to know someone, live with them, and then get married. Marriage is where the differences between the two value systems of family and Canada might be most common because the traditions of the family might not correlate with the desires of the children. In some cultures the parents give their children independence as they reach eighteen or even sixteen. But many immigrant families are still active in their children’s lives till the point of marriage. It’s almost as though they aren't considered adults until they are married.

Even with all these difficulties, having immigrant parents connects children to their cultural background; and that's something you can’t put a value on. Even with what the children would describe as “quirks” in their parents, the perspective and values of foreign parents creates exceptional adults, with wide perspectives. The issues mentioned in this article are things many children of foreign parents deal with and can overcome, if they work at it. Many children of foreign parents end up having to choose what to take away from their parents’ way of life, and how they incorporate their parents’ culture into their Canadian sensibilities.