Caught Between Cultures—What Can I Do?
Is either your father or your mother an immigrant?
□ Yes □ No
Is the language or culture that surrounds you at school different from that in your home?
□ Yes □ No
“My family is Italian, and they openly express affection and warmth. We now live in Britain. Here people seem very orderly and polite. I feel out of place in both cultures—too Italian to be British and too British to be Italian.”—Giosuè, England.
“At school my teacher told me to look at him when he spoke. But when I looked my Dad in the eye when he spoke, he said that I was being rude. I felt caught between two cultures.”—Patrick, born in France to Algerian immigrant parents.
WHEN your parents migrated, they faced major challenges. Suddenly they were surrounded by people whose language, culture, and clothing were different from theirs. Now they stood out in a crowd. As a result, they may have been treated disrespectfully and may have become victims of prejudice.
Has that happened to you too? Listed below are some challenges that other youths in this situation have faced. Place a ✔ next to the one you find most difficult to deal with.
□ Ridicule. Noor was a young girl when she and her family emigrated from Jordan to North America. “Our clothes were different, so people made fun of us,” she says. “And we certainly didn’t understand American humor.”
□ An identity crisis. “I was born in Germany,” says a young girl named Nadia. “Since my parents are Italian, I spoke German with an accent, and the kids at school called me a ‘stupid foreigner.’ But when I visit Italy, I find that I speak Italian with a German accent. So I feel that I have no true identity. Wherever I go, I’m a foreigner.”
□ A culture gap at home. Ana was eight when she immigrated to England with her family. “For my brother and me, adapting to London was almost automatic,” she says. “But it was challenging for my parents, who had lived for so long on the small Portuguese island of Madeira.”
Voeun was three when she and her Cambodian parents arrived in Australia. “My parents have not adapted very well,” she says. “In fact, Dad would often get upset and angry because I didn’t understand his attitude and way of thinking.”
□ A language barrier at home. Ian was eight when he immigrated with his family to New York from Ecuador. After being in the United States for six years, he says: “Now I speak more English than Spanish. My teachers at school speak English, my friends speak English, and I speak English with my brother. English is filling my head and pushing the Spanish out.”
Lee, who was born in Australia to Cambodian parents, says: “When I talk to my parents and want to elaborate on how I feel about certain matters, I find that I just can’t speak their language well enough.”
Noor, quoted earlier, says: “My father tried hard to insist that we speak his language at home, but we didn’t want to speak Arabic. To us, learning Arabic seemed like extra baggage to carry. Our friends spoke English. The TV programs we watched were all in English. Why did we need Arabic?”
What Can You Do?
As the above comments show, you are not alone in facing these difficult challenges. Rather than deal with them, you could try to erase all trace of your cultural background and blend in with your new surroundings. However, such a course would likely offend your parents and lead to frustration for you. Instead, why not learn to cope with the challenges and make the most of your circumstances? Consider the following suggestions:
How to view ridicule. No matter what you do, you are never going to be popular with everyone. People who enjoy ridiculing others will always find an excuse to do so. (Proverbs 18:24) So don’t waste your breath trying to correct their prejudiced views. “Those who sneer at others don’t like to be corrected,” observed wise King Solomon. (Proverbs 15:12, Contemporary English Version) Prejudiced comments only expose the speaker’s ignorance, not the victim’s so-called faults.
How to deal with an identity crisis. It’s only natural to want to belong to a group, such as a family or a culture. But it’s a mistake to think that your worth is determined by your cultural or family background. People may judge you on that basis, but God doesn’t. “God is not partial,” said the apostle Peter. “In every nation the man that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34, 35) If you do your best to please Jehovah God, he will view you as part of his family. (Isaiah 43:10; Mark 10:29, 30) What better identity could you have?
How to bridge the culture gap at home. Parents and children in almost every family will have differences in viewpoint. In your case, those differences might be amplified—your parents want you to live by the customs of the old country, but you want to adopt the customs of your new home. Even so, if you desire things to go well in your life, you must “honor your father and your mother.”—Ephesians 6:2, 3.
Rather than rebelling against your parents’ customs because they don’t suit you, try to discern the reason why your parents respect those customs. (Proverbs 2:10, 11) Ask yourself the following questions: ‘Do the customs conflict with Bible principles? If not, what specifically is it about the customs that I dislike? How could I respectfully convey my feelings to my parents?’ (Acts 5:29) Of course, it will be much easier to honor your parents—to understand their thinking and express your feelings—if you know how to speak their language well.
How to overcome the language barrier at home. Some families have found that if they insist on speaking only their mother tongue while at home, the children will have the advantage of learning both languages well. Why not try that in your home? You may also want to ask your parents to help you learn to write the language. Stelios, who grew up in Germany but whose first language is Greek, says: “My parents used to discuss a Bible text with me each day. They would read it out loud, and then I would write it down. Now I can read and write both Greek and German.”
What’s another payoff? “I learned my parents’ language because I wanted to be close to them emotionally and, above all, spiritually,” says Giosuè, quoted earlier. “Learning their language has allowed me to understand how they feel. And it has helped them to understand me.”
A Bridge, Not a Barrier
Will you view your cultural background as a barrier that divides you from others or as a bridge that links you to them? Many young Christians have realized that they have an added reason for bridging the gap between cultures. They want to tell other immigrants about the good news of God’s Kingdom. (Matthew 24:14; 28:19, 20) “Being able to explain the Scriptures in two languages is great!” says Salomão, who immigrated to London when he was five. “I had almost forgotten my first language, but now that I am in a Portuguese congregation, I can speak both English and Portuguese fluently.”
Noor, quoted earlier, saw the need for evangelizers who could speak Arabic. She says: “Now I am taking classes and trying to pick up what I lost. My attitude has changed. Now I want to be corrected. I want to learn.”
Certainly, if you are familiar with two cultures and can speak two or more languages, you have a real advantage. Your knowledge of two cultures increases your ability to understand people’s feelings and to answer their questions about God. (Proverbs 15:23) “Because I understand two cultures,” says Preeti, who was born in England to Indian parents, “I feel more comfortable in the ministry. I understand people from both ways of life—what they believe and what their attitudes are.”
Can you too view your circumstances as an advantage rather than a liability? Remember, Jehovah loves you for who you are, not for where you or your family came from. Like the youths quoted here, can you use your knowledge and experience to help others of your ethnic background to learn about our impartial, loving God, Jehovah? Doing so can make you genuinely happy!—Acts 20:35.
“God is not partial.”—Acts 10:34.
If your peers make fun of your ethnic background, absorb their taunts while maintaining your sense of humor. If you do, they will likely lose interest in teasing you.
DID YOU KNOW . . . ?
If you master two languages, you may boost your chances of finding employment.
To improve my understanding of my parents’ language, I will ․․․․․
What I would like to ask my parent(s) about this subject is ․․․․․
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
● How can knowing about your parents’ cultural background help you to understand yourself better?
● Compared with youths without a multicultural background, what advantages do you have?
[Blurb on page 160]
“It makes me happy to be able to help others. I can explain the Bible to people who speak Russian, French, or Moldovan.”—Oleg
[Picture on page 161]
You can choose to view your cultural background as a bridge that connects you with others