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How to Cope With the Expectations of Our South Asian Parents

by Jabin Ahmed

Brief Background on South Asian Culture:

The South Asian culture places heavy emphasis on family obligations, self sacrifice, and loyalty to parents/elders. Although the term “South Asian” is used to describe a wide range of people from various religious, linguistic, social, and geographical backgrounds—the cultural expectations of family and parenting is very similar. How children, and families are constructed remain similar throughout the region- regardless of country, religion, and/or language. The culture promotes putting aside one’s individual personal needs to satisfy the expectations of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other extended family members. Parents are expected to devote their lives to their children, wives to their husbands, children to their parents, parents to their grandparents, etc. Major life decisions such as marriage, career plans, choosing an educational field, and living arrangements are to be approved by parents/elders before proceeding. Living arrangements often include adult children living with parents, and in some cases that includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandchildren. Maintaining a strong familial bond is extremely important and highly encouraged to protect cultural values and traditions. Being that this is the cultural norm for South Asia—it is seen as inappropriate and taboo to move away from this structure.

How Does This Impact Us? (American Children of South Asian Parents)

When our South Asian parents left their home countries they brought with them culture, traditions, beliefs, and practices that were passed on to them from previous generations. Despite living in a dominant individualistic society they raised us in a collective family structure. Many of our parents refuse to let themselves and us assimilate into the popular culture. In fact for the most part, many of our parents strongly hold on to cultural heritage and traditions by detaching from the dominant culture. Starting from clothing, food, entertainment, and social outings everything is to monitored and carefully managed. Despite their endless efforts and dedication in separating us from the dominant culture many of us are inclined towards integrating both cultures. We carefully select values and practices from both cultures to shape a life style that suits us best. This is often not as appealing to our parents as we would like for it to be.

Coping With Our Parents

As we slowly enter adulthood it becomes increasingly difficult to cope with the social/cultural expectations of our parents. Whether it be college expectations, marriage, choosing a life partner, living alone, buying a house, or choosing a career—it is a constant struggle. Regardless of how long our parents have lived in the United States they will always struggle to accept our integrated life style. Many of our choices will be rational, completely normal, and valid—but unfortunately our parents will not be able to grasp that. As we choose different lifestyles, and make choices that are convenient for our success, we have to understand that our parents may never fully support us—and that is completely okay. We can’t expect out parents to understand something that is completely unique to our experience. Just as we cannot fully grasp why they choose to adhere to cultural practices and values that prevent them from putting themselves first before others. For many of our parents our choice to choose happiness over their expectations will be betrayal, failure, and heartbreak. But regardless of how much your choices pain them you have to prioritize yourself. The expectations of our parents, society, and community are endless - no matter what you do, there will always be more expectations. Do yourself and the future generations a favor and end this generational cycle of self sacrifice. Ask for space, demand to be happy, fight to be self-loving!

Communicating Your Unique Choices with your Parents :

Not all parents will react the same, some parents may be open to change—and okay with hearing out your concerns. Regardless of how strict our parents are it is very important to make them feel as though they are included, and a part of our lives. If you’re struggling to be on the same page with your parents about a certain issue here are a few tips to help bring some peace to the household.

Take a Step Back

In my experience the first step towards resolving an issue with parents is to take a step back and analyze what you want, and what your parents want. Try to understand both perspectives, why do your parents want you to have an arranged marriage, why do they want you to become a doctor, what is their issue with you living alone, why are they so afraid to trust you? Why won’t they accept your boyfriend/girlfriend. Why is it important for you to make this decision?

Talk to Them

I know it’s almost impossible to talk to your parents about what you want, but you have to do it! Our parents grew up in a culture where no one ever questioned authority—but our parents are our parents—if it is done with good intention, and a soft respectful voice, you can get through to them.

Show Affection

Last but not least—show affection. Our parents are desperate for our affection in whatever way we can show it. Carry in the groceries, help cook, wash the dishes, take them out for dinner, lunch, or tea. Conversate—our parents are just as traumatized by the expectations as we are.

Lastly . . . Forgive.

Our parents have traveled far and made great sacrifices to make us the successful adults we are today. If they are not able to understand and support us in our choice to seek happiness, be independent, fall in love—then forgive them. They did not have the freedom of choice, the ability to choose, or the opportunity to fight—when we choose ourselves we have to understand that our parents did not have that. When we speak on behalf of our own personal needs understand that our parents were denied that. When we choose an integrated lifestyle that combines different values we must realize that we are putting an end to a system that has been intact for generations. The culture our parents carry, the expectations our parents have, has existed long before we were even thought of—and so it is extremely difficult for them to let go. Accepting change, and allowing differences would mean letting go of something they have preserved, and passed down for years. They have endured much suffering, and sacrifices—so allow them the freedom to grieve, to be angry, to be stubborn—forgive them for not supporting, and understanding.

References :

1. Sharif A. Ethnic Identity and Parenting Stress in South Asian Families: Implications for Culturally Sensitive Counselling. Files.eric.ed.gov. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ832723.pdf. Published 2019. Accessed January 14, 2019.

2. Strict Parenting: Not Just A South Asian Thing. India.com. https://www.india.com/lifestyle/strict-parenting-not-just-a-south-asian-thing-520902/. Published 2019. Accessed January 14, 2019.

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