Friday, April 16

Misunderstood Minority: American Acculturation Of Asian Immigrants And Their Children

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By Zishan Lokhandwala

Within the United States, there has been and is today only limited understanding of Asian immigrants’ assimilation into American culture. In fact, our understanding is essentially limited to the “mythico-historic record,” which tags Asian Americans as quiet and hard-working high-achievers, and ultimately leads us to label these people as the “model minority.” This label is especially misleading for students however, as it focuses solely on scholastic achievement while completely neglecting psychological functioning.  Asian American children reported the poorest levels of self-esteem and highest levels of depression among adolescents.

This poor psychological functioning can be explained by the immense strains on the parent-child relationship which immigrant life has produced, and the premier dynamic of this poor relationship is the cultural gap between the immigrant parents and their American-bred children. The younger and older generations tend to embrace the new host society differently; whereas the children greatly focus on adjusting to American society and “fitting in,” the parents primarily focus on “making the best of a new environment and retaining traditional family life.” The parents were raised in the motherland and were subjected to the ideals, morals, and standards of the Eastern World; the children in contrast “lack meaningful connections to their ‘old’ world” and thus, acculturate too much greater levels than their tradition-minded parents. This “generational dissonance,” as coined by Suarez-Orosco, not only generates poor psychological health among adolescents, but also perpetuates this state throughout adulthood.

Immigrant parents undoubtedly have different goal orientations than their “Americanized” children, and generally tend to structure their lives and the lives of their families around “instrumental” success. A Chinese immigrant summarized the three basic goals of Asian immigrants: “to live in your own house, to be your own boss, and to send your children to the Ivy League.”  Immigrant parents base their “standards of success” on the “old world” Confucian value system, which places heavy emphasis on education. H. Andrew Kim, a Korean immigrant parent, claims that only the Asian parents seem to show up to PTA meetings in his hometown of Fullerton, which clarifies the relative importance Asian parents place on the education of their children. The parents do not place the burden solely on themselves however; as first-year UCLA student and “1.5er” Dien Sun says, “My parents take my education very seriously, and they put pressure on me to get good grades.” Statistically, Asian American students have outperformed students from other ethnic groups in standardized test scores and grade point averages; this can greatly be attributed to the high academic expectations of the parents. However, in many cases these same parental expectations created great pressure for the adolescents and caused the children to exhibit low levels of self-esteem and high levels of depression.

Immigrant parents undoubtedly encourage their children to cultivate the “instrumental” aspects of American culture; however, “they are decidedly more ambivalent about their children’s exposure to the ‘expressive’ elements.” Just as American society has “defined” Asian immigrants through the mythico-historic record, Asian immigrants have “defined” American culture as materialistic and disrespectful, and thus, do not want their children to become immersed in it. Unfortunately for the parents however, immigrant children do typically embrace this “expressive” culture, and the result is a disharmonic acculturation rate among the immigrant parents and children. Generational dissonance strains parent-child relationships because it places both the parent and the child in a different state of mind and renders them both unable to understand each other. The children will behave in accordance to the American culture, which the immigrant parents see as disrespectful. For example, in Chinese culture it is regarded as insolent to make eye contact with an adult while speaking to them; conversely, in American culture, eye contact is seen as a sign of trustworthiness and “proper mannerism.” Thus, immigrant children will tend to make eye contact with their parents, only to be scolded for their irreverence.

Eye contact is a minor issue however, and pales in comparison to the larger issues that abound immigrant families, such as teenage dating and consumption behavior. Whereas Americans typically view teenage dating as a social norm, “Chinese parents consider dating in high school not only a wasteful academic distraction, but also an unhealthy, promiscuous behavior.” Furthermore, the parents often regard fashionable hairstyles and clothes as corrupt and “too American.” These issues clarify the generational dissonance within immigrant families – what is accepted as commonplace by mainstream American society is rejected by Asian immigrant parents.  More often than not, immigrant children conform to the mainstream ideals of the new country and are placed at odds with their parents.  As a result, children often lie to their parents, or simply leave them uninformed, as in the case with seventeen-year-old Mei who says, “[My parents] do not know that I am dating…or if I had problems with my friends, I would not tell my parents.”  The generational dissonance incurred among immigrant families has alienated the children, making them feel as if they cannot seek guidance from their parents. This ultimately cripples the parent-child relationship, and may in fact have drastic effects on the child’s psychological functioning in adulthood. Parent-child communication is crucial to a child’s psychological development. In Dr. Qin’s experimental survey, a lack of communication in the home provided a reliable indicator as to whether or not the child exhibited individualistic tendencies. The tendencies developed in adolescence are likely to transcend into adulthood.

Furthermore, the pressures implemented on immigrant children persist beyond adolescence.  Asian immigrant parents seem to suffer from a “white-collar complex,” meaning they push their children to enter highly reputable professions despite the desires of the child. Such is the case with Marcia Choo, a twenty-seven-year old “1.5er” whose father absolved her from his demand that she become a doctor as long as she promised to go to law school. One should note that the highly reputable professions that the parents seek for their children are not reputable in the sense that they provide a significant public service; but rather, in the sense that they provide financial security and are restricted by some standard of higher education (i.e. a post-graduate degree). For instance, becoming a fire fighter would be unacceptable to the parent, even though this particular profession is held in very high regard, in society. Writing is also an unsuitable profession; though it may require extensive education, it does not necessarily provide financial security. Whereas American children are encouraged to “follow their hearts” with regards to profession, Asian immigrant children are essentially encouraged to “follow the money.” From this perspective, it becomes very clear why the majority of Korean immigrants are doctors, lawyers, bankers, and engineers.

This tendency to encourage their children to join “white-collar” professions stems from the parents’ “old world” Confucian value system; this system indoctrinates the immigrant parents with a standard of success that differs from that of their “new world” children. Fifteen-year old Sally claims that “[immigrant parents]think you have to be academically successful if you want to be a successful person in life.”  While the parents judge the success of their child, and ultimately the success of their parenting, through an exclusively instrumental “old world” viewpoint, the children “are prone to evaluate themselves…by the standards of their new country,” which measures success from a multi-faceted viewpoint, and ultimately champions personal fulfillment with a selected profession over financial security and educational status.

Often times however, the desires of the child are replaced by the desires of the parent. Immigrant parents have undoubtedly made great sacrifices emigrating to the U.S. and all of these sacrifices are made in the name of family.  The children are well aware of this, and consequently feel obligated to fulfill the parent’s wishes that they enter a white-collar profession.  Marcia Choo states that she has an “overwhelming sense of burden and responsibility to become a lawyer” because it is her father’s wish.  Furthermore, white-collar professions validate the parents’ sacrifices, providing “proof that their choice to immigrate, and the struggles that came with it, were not in vain.” This obligation to validate the family’s immigration inevitably forces many “1.5ers” and second-generation immigrants into professions that they do not wish to be in, which ultimately causes unhappiness and may even lead to depression. Moreover, entering a profession that one is unhappy with may trigger feelings of inadequacy; recall that while the immigrant parents judge success through “old world” instrumental standards, the children use the “new world” standard, which champions satisfaction with one’s profession over social status.

It is evident that the “cultural gap” incurred in immigrant families can have everlasting effects on the children’s psychological health in adolescence as well as adulthood.

The foremost consequence of this “cultural gap” is a failure, or perhaps unwillingness, to communicate among immigrant parents and their children. “In homes where parents attempted to understand their children’s world and valued communication, a very different dynamics in the parent-child relationship were evident;” the children did not exhibit individualistic tendencies compared to the children who did not sufficiently communicate with their parents. Furthermore, parents who communicated with their children generally displayed different attitudes towards their children’s education “they expected their children to have a purpose in life…and to contribute to the society.” They also univocally opposed “achieving for achievement’s sake.” Therefore, it can be reasonably assumed, that these parents would not pressure their children into “professions” simply because of the standing, they hold in society. The psychological stresses associated with second-generation immigrants are much less severely experienced in families with parents who communicate; thus, these stresses should be much less detrimental in adulthood. The keystone aspect of the problems associated with immigrant family life is communication – an inability to communicate in due course brings about psychological instability within immigrant children. And while Asian Americans are likely to retain their title as the model minority, we should note that, despite primordial ties and an eastern work ethic, many suffer psychological disturbances that cannot be compensated for by corporate success.


About the author

Zishan Lokhandwala is a third year law student at U.C. Berkeley School of Law and has a B.A. in Political Science from UCLA. Zishan was a co-director of both, the Men of Color Alliance at Berkeley Law and the Southeast Asian Law Students’ Association.

Zishan is passionated in issues relating to food access and Americans with Disability Act (ADA) rights. He works closely with the Safe Paths of Travel (SPOT), a non-profit for ADA compliance. Zishan is also spearheading a new grassroots organization to raise awareness about “The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.” For more information about the author, email  Original publisher: Prospect Journal UCSD.


The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Asia World Media as an organization, its affiliates, partners, employees and clients.

Editor’s Note: This article was previously published in Asia World Magazine 2015 Winter Issue.