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  • Writer's pictureJaya Roy, M.A., M.S.W., L.C.S.W.108767

Why Building Bridges With Your Immigrant Parents Matter

Hands-down, the most common topic with my second generation clients is family of origin. Being second generation has its own unique challenges, such as trying to adapt and survive in the country we grew up in while our parents are often rooted and operating with the mores from their country of origin. This creates a confusing mix of holding westernized values of independence, autonomy, assertiveness with our inherited values of interdependence, harmony, survival, and family from our parents that at times seem at odds with our westernized values.

What makes it more complicated is that we are often told that our families are too enmeshed, lack boundaries, and that we need to assert our needs better. This further adds to the idea of western values as being healthy and superior, which can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, low self-esteem, and exacerbate internalized racism and colonialism. It also creates a wall between us and our parents, when there’s already a gap. The gap is a combination of different lived experiences and reality due to immigration, generation, and culture (culture being rooted in a generation, country, and family system).

This why we need to build a bridge. The idea of a bridge is to help shorten the gap between us and our parents, even if the bridge is never fully complete. Simply put, through expanding our critical consciousness (our understanding of the political and social impact on our experience) we can expand our compassion for each other. Because we, as second generation immigrant children, often see our parents through the lens of the country we grew up in, we struggle with understanding our parent’s journey of leaving their country behind to survive in a new place. For our parents, holding on to their culture is a lifeline to their sense of self.

In a similar way, our parents often have trouble understanding the challenges of being second generation (or 3rd culture kid). They might interpret our challenging of their values and practices as defiance versus us trying to adapt to our current environment that often depicts other cultures as too ethnic.

Growing up outside of our motherland (or parent’s country of origin) makes it difficult to wrestle and make sense of (sometimes) opposing worldviews. For example, for folks who grow up in family systems that are more passive (I like the word gentle or high context cultures), the idea of asserting any one individual’s needs over the other is considered rude. The attention to care and harmony can be a relaxing when everyone operates in this way (say at home or a cultural gathering) but when we take this practice into our western life (like our jobs) we come off as submissive, quiet, or uncertain. Frequently, our parents don’t know how to teach us how to reflexively adapt to the two different environments while maintaining our sense of self. When our immigrant parents assimilate to the country they immigrated to, they are adapting to a different culture (from their own) they opted into, while still having their country and culture of origin as an anchor. When second generation children adapt, we are assimilating into a culture we are (often) born into but doesn’t accept us the way we are. We have no anchor. This is why it has its own particular pain.

To start building that bridge we need to decolonize the lens in which we view our parents and ourselves because otherwise we will be forcing a specific value system is skewed towards judgement and paternalism (see white supremacy culture characteristics). How do we do this? We build our critical consciousness through exploring the funnel. The act of building this bridge through compassion is what is healing. Will our parents join us? That depends on many factors including their own individual leanings towards growing, learning, and evolving.

We can also learn to build a bridge (likely never to be fully completed) in a safe distance from harmful family members. By doing so we work on healing our internalized representation and experience of that family member, and choose the relationship proximity that feels right for ourselves.

In addition, by exploring the funnel, we can explore our own complex experience and conditioning of two (or more) opposing value systems. We can intentionally feel through the value systems that align with our world view and our interpretation of these values. Even if we have similar values as our parents, our embodiment of those values might look different because of our unique experience, generational evolution, and holding of multiple cultural systems. But that’s what is super cool about culture, it’s constantly growing and shifting as it is a reflection of our own growth and evolution.


My father makes me suffer a lot. Should I keep seeing him? | Thich Nhat Hanh answers questions

White Supremacy Culture Characteristics

Wikipedia Critical Consciousness

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