3 Issues Bicultural People Face — Part Three

The silhouette of two people’s feet walking side by side, a line between them
Photo by John Robert Marasigan via Unsplash

In part two of this three-part series, I discussed the vague, yet constant sense of otherness that often haunts bicultural people. For many of those living in the U.S., learning to function in a society that touts individualism while still respecting the collectivistic values of our parents is a challenging endeavor. Trying to adhere to both cultures can be frustrating and isolating; we are constantly aware that we are not quite [insert ethnicity here] nor quite American.

The best solution I’ve come up with as an early 20-something bicultural person is to strike a balance between our cultural identities so that we aren’t denying any part of who we are. In part one, I touched on a similar approach: the idea of cherry-picking the best traits from both of our cultures and using them to our advantage.

This final article focuses on the transition that bicultural children make from childhood to adulthood. It’s obviously something everyone goes through, but bicultural people seem to have a unique experience in this endeavor. Since beginning my own transition to adulthood I’ve found it more challenging than I anticipated, and realized that much of it has to do with my bicultural upbringing.

The transition to adulthood is scary, confusing, and difficult. A good chunk of your time is spent wandering around in the dark, hoping you make it out on the other side with some semblance of who you are and what you want to do in life.

Though I’ve just begun the transition, it has already been fairly taxing in a way that neither the people of my heritage culture or my American peers can fully understand. This is because as a bicultural person, I’ve grown up with two completely different ideas of adulthood.

Collectivistic cultures tend to regard someone as a fully grown adult only when they are married. They prepare kids for marriage from a young age — little girls learn to cook and clean so they can take care of the household and their future husbands, while little boys are encouraged to be brave, strong, and resilient so they can provide for their future wives and families.

Naturally, immigrant parents pass down this kind of grooming to their children, expecting them to only leave their household and make their own choices when they have a spouse. Of course, this notion of adulthood has a major disconnect with the American concept of what it means to be an adult.

Though American society is not an exception to raising kids to be good husbands and wives one day, the practice is outdated. Nowadays, becoming an adult means becoming financially independent, moving out of your parents’ place, and taking on a long list of responsibilities. You start to make decisions in spite of what anyone has to say, pursuing anything your heart desires.

As bicultural people living in the U.S, we’re obviously inclined to take on the American vision of adulthood, which offers the freedom that all 20-somethings crave. However, the children of immigrants typically face an additional, difficult step in the process: getting our parents on the same page.

It’s not uncommon for a lot of conflict to arise when bicultural people start to assert our independence and move away from our families. Our hunger for freedom comes as a shock to our parents, who value family and community over personal desires. They passed those same values down to us, so how could we reject that?

“Why would you not want to be with your family?”

“Why do you want to leave us? Aren’t we good to you?”

You try to explain your point of view, but it only irritates them further.

“That’s not the way we do things back home!”

“You’re being selfish! How could you do this to us?”

Reasoning isn’t working, so for the time being, concede and recoup. This is when the mental battle begins — another battle in the long-standing war of your two identities.

Our [insert ethnicity here] half will start to feel that maybe they’re right. Maybe it is selfish to want a life separate from your family, to want things that don’t necessarily benefit them. After all, they’ve done so much for us. We should be grateful to them.

As Americans though, we want to say screw that. It’s your life, why should they have any say in it? Why do their needs come before yours? Shouldn’t they want you to be happy?

The mental deliberation is exhausting, sending us through a rollercoaster of emotions — guilt for not wanting to sacrifice our needs and wants for the people who raised us. Shame for dreaming of a different life. Anger at the lack of support and encouragement. Loneliness when no one seems to understand.

It’s tough. At times, it’s enough to make you want to give all your dreams up and just do what your family tells you to do. Other times, you want to run in the other direction, away from them, and never look back.

Either way seems extreme.

Which way is right?

A road sign points in two opposite directions
A road sign points in two opposite directions
Photo by Pablo García Saldaña via Unsplash

Every situation is different, so let me say right off the bat that there is no right answer. For bicultural people living in abusive and/or toxic households, cutting ties with family and going your own way is most likely the best choice. For others, you might find that your goals align similarly to that of your family, so you might have little issue with living up to their expectations.

For the many bicultural people that stand somewhere in the middle, there is, of course, a middle path for you, though it is not easy. Not by a long shot.

I’m talking about compromise. Compromise, compromise, compromise.

It’s hard, but it’s sometimes necessary.

As a bicultural person in this middle ground, much of my time transitioning into adulthood has been spent compromising my needs and desires with those of my family. Ever since I was a kid, I dreamed of striking out on my own and living my life however I choose. I wanted to see what the world had to offer, and what I could offer it.

This was pretty clear to my family, but they always pictured I’d stay close to home and chase my dreams nearby. I’m sure they want to stay involved in my daily life even after I move out, although this idea runs counter to what I want for myself.

As frustrating as it is when we butt heads on how I’ll live my life, I’ve learned that I need to compromise in order for the two halves of my cultural identity to coexist. These negotiations usually never fully satisfy both of us, but something needs to give. Often times, I give up the little things — like the timeline of my pursuits or the means to go about it — but never my main objective. On the flip side, they forfeit their unreasonable expectations but retain the main standards they raised me with.

There’s always a little give and take.

At the end of the day, my family is the main tie to my ethnicity, and I can’t imagine living without that tie. But I can’t live my life catering to their every want and need. I have dreams worth pursuing, and it wouldn’t be very American of me if I didn’t give it a shot.

Compromise is a difficult path, and again, there is no one size fits all. But I’ve found that once we’re well versed in compromising, it’s a good way for bicultural people to push our boundaries without doing anything too extreme. This gradually eases us into adulthood while slowly getting our parents accustomed to the idea that we’ve grown and changed. In this middle ground, [insert ethnicity here] Americans can grow and blossom without denying huge parts of who we are.

We can exist here.

Bicultural people face a number of issues as we navigate life in a society with such different values than that of our immigrant parents. It’s crucial for us to recognize these persistent juxtapositions as we try to understand ourselves and who we want to become. Running with the theme of this three-part series, I find that the best approach to fulfilling both parts of our cultural identities is to adopt a middle-of-the-road mindset. This allows us to develop a diverse set of values and bring a unique mindset to the table, whether it be in school, work, or even relationships. It’s not at all an easy road to take, but in this way, we nurture the two halves of ourselves and learn to thrive in every part of our lives.

Thanks for reading!

Aspiring writer, electrical engineer & grad student. Putting my two cents out into the world.