Updated: Feb 4
Who Do They Think You Are?
Recently, I spent my evening leading a webinar about feeling threatened when miscommunication across cultural differences is present. The idea is that we are tied to our deep cultural beliefs that we have been raised with and when those norms come up against different values we may feel threatened and mistrust the people we interact with. This generally plays out between different identities in race and ethnicity. For me, this miscommunication across cultural differences happens much closer to home. Sometimes I come face to face with the reality that as a first-generation immigrant, my cultural grounding is still an enigma to me. When balancing two worlds, it’s difficult to know which one I truly stand in authentically.
Right after the webinar, my mother called and I was reminded that part of my challenge has always been that elements of the deep culture I was raised in counter my own values. So I feel threatened and mistrustful of the people whom I share cultural ties with. Talk about cognitive dissonance! In her weekly dutiful way she inquired about the status of my kids and the beginning days of school for my college freshman. Well, that’s complicated for me because my children have not taken the “traditional” and expected path to higher education.
It began with my oldest and now I see and hear similar responses from my 18 year old. So, when I honestly shared that truth, my mother’s overdramatic exasperation and shock triggered me. Her incredulous response carried the message, “How will your children ever survive and be ok if they don’t complete college and get traditional well paying jobs? What will people think?” Unlike most of the community and my family, I don’t prescribe nor hold on to the value of perceptions the way I have been raised to concern myself with. I do have expectations for my children’s education and see it as a means to opportunities and access, but I place a higher regard on my relationship with them.
South Asian’s like many regions around the world have a collectivist culture. It’s a deeply honored cultural value that drives us in the connections we have to family. We believe and live with family at the center of our decisions and involvement in major life choices. Not unlike the spirit of Ubuntu in many African cultures, “I am because we are”. That “we” includes extended members and even non-relatives and encompasses the multi-generational home and support system as an expected norm. Those connections also mean that we are tied to one another in rewards and in failures. Which leads to the dangerous value placed on outside perceptions of your children’s success and failures as a direct reflection on you as a parent, the family and the community you represent.
I struggle with how much value and emphasis is placed on perception because it impacted my relationship with my parents. Particularly my mother. Her desire to fit me into a mold that was worthy of sharing with others as successful created a discord that has maintained our relationship at a surface level. Despite the fact that I am a mother of four children, and have been in a successful and consistent career path for eighteen years, I am still defined by my formal relationship to religion. Her plan to raise me as a good Muslim girl didn’t pan out and nothing will beat that loss. She is convinced that she won’t be perceived by others as a good mother because she did not raise four dedicated Muslim children. She still has two, but that 50% success rate does not give you bragging rights to the family or community. Not that my mother wants to brag, but she does make comparisons of kids in our community who made different aka “better” life choices. Her periodic lamenting about how others can talk about their children and she can’t, indicates she would like the option to brag if she could.
Don’t get me wrong, I have made my professional and personal life about education and continual knowledge building. It pains me to see that the boys minimize the significance and power of completing school when it comes to having financial certainty in life. I understand the feeling of loss my mother struggles with then it comes to the vision I had for my children’s future and choices. However, my vision and my dream is just that, mine.
I can’t impose my dreams on my children and I can’t carry resentment and shame on them if they don’t see or experience the world the same way I do. I can only put my energy into what I control. This allows me to see the aspects of my vision they held onto and live each day. I raised loving, family oriented and thoughtful boys. Even as they remain guarded and tough, they care deeply for those that matter to them. That aspect of who they are impacts the mark they will make on the world more than the degrees they hang on their wall and the profession they choose. So my role as their mother has been to put our relationship above my expectations and dreams. I’ll reserve that energy for myself.