Having lived in the United States for nearly thirty years and in various other countries, there is no other nation that compares to the diversity America embodies. It is not just a place where people of all different ethnicity coexist together, but truly integrate with one another. Sure, it still has more work to do when it comes to diversity issues such as racism and equal rights, but it is the best representation of how a multicultural society can function. With any culture, there are both positives and negatives, and America is not immune to this. For us, it is paramount that we take the best of both worlds approach when raising our two children. This is true for any multicultural parenting.
Within this melting pot, there is a subset of immigrants from Nepali descent, to which both my husband and I belong to. The Nepali culture is a collectivistic society where group values play a dominant role in day to day functioning. In contrast, the American society is very individualistic where the individual’s needs take precedence over the group values. Merging the Nepali and American cultures will surely present challenges in parenting. To optimize the best features of both cultures, the Nepali-American parent must employ the best of both worlds approach. This multicultural parenting approach will yield the best results in our children. It is not an easy task, but is attainable with perseverance and an open-mind. Here, I have outlined five concepts that I feel impact the Nepali-American household and can wreak havoc in the parent-child relationship if it is not appropriately understood and handled.
Interdependence is a common family dynamic in the Nepali parent-child relationship where as independence is encouraged in the American home. Children in the Nepali family have obligations to their family. Family members have clearly defined roles, and individuals need to act according to those role expectations in the Nepali home. Parent-child relationships are very tight in the Nepali home, especially between sons and their parents. Once a daughter marries, she becomes part of her husband’s family where she has very defined roles. According to the Nepali culture, sons are expected to take care of their parents in old age and extended family members such as grandparents assist in child caretaking. This family social structure in the Nepali culture is changing due to more women entering the workforce and children enrolling in daycare. Nonetheless, this interdependence is still prevalent.
In contrast, the American family members do not have such strict individual roles but relate to one another in an intimate fashion. Families tend to be smaller and usually consist only of the nuclear family, although blended families are increasing. This allows for a strong bond in the parent-child relationship. Children are encouraged to break away from the family and pursue an independent life where they assume adult responsibilities like having a job or going off to college, cooking and cleaning for themselves, and managing financial responsibilities just to list a few. These two opposing family structures and society at large, set up the perfect backdrop for family drama and conflicts when a Nepali parent is trying to raise a child in the American culture.
Now that the Nepali parents have decided to settle in America and make a future here, it becomes imperative that they try to compromise between the two cultures so their children get the best opportunities possible. The goal is not to reject the Nepali culture and become “Americanized.” Likewise, just immersing in the Nepali culture where you expose them to only Nepali people, food, language, and traditions in hopes that they learn about the American culture in school is not good enough. Our children have to be exposed to the “American people”, whatever their national heritage may be, as well as the American lifestyle. Additionally, the Nepali-American parent has to make genuine efforts in doing so.
If I could point to just one thing that would help a child get an edge in this wonderful nation called the United States, it is social networking (outside of Facebook, Twitter, and the like). Relationships matter in America. You will be surprised to know how early these social networks form and develop into lasting friendships. I would highly encourage you to take your child to the birthday parties that start very early in the school years. Perhaps, you can view this as interdependence on a different level than it would be in a Nepali home. The American saying: “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” kind of sums up what I am trying to convey here about interdependence in our social relations.
Respect is another important concept in the Nepali parent-child relationship. Filial piety means that children must respect their parents and their elders. There are no ifs, ands, or buts. Respect can come in many different forms in the Nepali culture. In the most basic way is using the highest level of the word you such as “hajur” or “thapai.” Greeting parents by bowing to their feet or offering your head for their blessing is another form of respect. Listening and following through on the advices from a parent would be another way of conveying respect. There are many ways a child ought to convey respect to their parent. This expectation creates conflict when Nepali parents are trying to raise children in America because respect is demanded in the Nepali home whereas in the American culture it is earned. For example, a parent who abuses their child is not respected, but feared which are two, very different concepts in America. However, in the Nepali culture respect and fear tend to go hand in hand.
So how does respect in the American culture look different than in a Nepali household? In America, people have to earn and maintain respect regardless if it is towards a parent or another elder, authority figure. This is in contrast to the Nepali culture where respect towards a parent or an elder is expected or demanded. Merely being in a position of power or using fear tactics does not grant someone respect in the American culture. Here, everybody starts at zero, which I believe is a beautiful thing. Being honest, friendly, assertive, and confident are some of the qualities that earn a person respect in America. Behaviorally, maintaining good eye contact and listening without interrupting are also forms of respect for Americans. However, not major concerns for the Nepali people.
You will often witness a Nepali forgoing good eye contact and talking on top of another Nepali without either one feeling slighted, unless of course, you are an Americanized Nepali. Perhaps, that should be a test of "How Nepali Are You?" :-) I guarantee this will not go very well in the American culture. As a Nepali-American parent, you have to first decide what respect means to you and find ways to teach this value to your child. It is very common for a Nepali parent to accuse their child of being disrespectful, when the child is just simply being assertive. Asserting oneself is in opposition to the next highly valued concept in the Nepali culture.
Compliance is another expected behavior from a child in the Nepali culture. When a parent tells their child to do or say something, whether it is a simple greeting or a career choice, compliance is expected or disappointment and conflict arise. Compliance implies that the person does not have much choice in the matter and this is not highly valued in the American culture. American parents want their child to adhere to rules and social boundaries, but they also encourage their child to challenge them if they seem unjust or nonsensical. To do this appropriately, an open line of communication is fostered between a child and parent in the American home so children can learn what is right and what is wrong. Whereas in the Nepali culture, challenging a parent or any other authority figure is a social taboo and can be a source of embarrassment for the family. Over time, a communication gap in a Nepali parent-child relationship becomes apparent.
I have often heard Nepali parents boast that their child does whatever is being told or expected of them. Therefore, is a “good boy” or a “good girl.” To this, I am first silently thinking: "Are you kidding me?!" Then, I think or sometimes voice that I want my child to challenge and question me. Otherwise, how would they learn to critically think for themselves and navigate a complex process called Life? With that being said, a Nepali-American parent would need to be mindful exactly how much their child challenges authority because Life does not permit too much challenging. A fine balancing act is in order here.
Saving face is highly valued and practiced in the Nepali culture. This is a sociological concept that means an individual does whatever necessary to protect one’s dignity and honor. A child’s behaviors reflect the family’s dignity and honor. The family will go to lengths to protect their reputation. This does not become a problem in Nepal because everyone is practicing this and saving face maintains harmony in the family system. However, this will undoubtedly create conflict in America because saving face ultimately compromises honesty, which is a highly regarded value in the American culture.
Honesty is the building blocks of trust. Without trust in the American home, the family crumbles. Maintaining harmony is more important than trust in the Nepali home. Nepali people are very patient and forgiving people, even though they may have been wronged very badly. Even by close family members. Living with extended families is very common in Nepali homes so maintaining harmony is very crucial to a smooth functioning household and saving face is a big part of this process. As a Nepali-American parent, we want both harmony and trust in our family. Fostering this in our parenting is trickier than one might think.
Some situations that may call for saving face in the Nepali home include: poor academic performance, negative parent-child relationship, marital discord, abuse, engagement in illicit behaviors like drug use, dating at a young age, disruptive behaviors, suffers from mental illness or a disability, etc. Ignoring, minimizing, and lying about such circumstances are common saving face mechanisms used and justified in many Nepali families. Furthermore, this inhibits them from seeking much needed professional help for themselves or their children. To an American, this seems outrageous and maybe even neglectful, but for a Nepali parent it is a way of preserving the family unit and dignity. The negative social stigma is too much to bear for the average Nepali family so saving face becomes a defense mechanism. This speaks volumes for societal self-esteem, confidence, and courage.
However, the Nepali-American parent would not want to compromise so much in order to save face. They would have to determine which situations call for saving face and which ones do not. The consequence of either saving face or not for each situation should be examined first. For instance, because dating is not encouraged at a young age (traditionally, even before marriage, but changing now) in the Nepali culture, your teenage child dating may be worthy of saving face, but not if your teenager is suffering from a mental illness like depression, which requires professional intervention and the consequences are too risky. But then again, depending on the individual family, who knows. If a Nepali-American parent wants to practice saving face, then it may be wise to do a risk/benefit analysis first.
Control is a very common parenting strategy in the Nepali home. This is a way to protect the child from harm, failure, save face, etc. Contrast this with the American child who is given choices to make their own decisions, encouraged to develop their own ways, and taught to take responsibility for their own behaviors. Since a child’s behaviors reflect the family’s dignity, parents are major stakeholders so they feel compelled to limit freedom to their child. Nepali parents view too much freedom as a source of problems in their children and family. It is not uncommon for Nepali parents in America to complain that there is too much freedom here and that contributes to our child going in the “wrong direction.” This is anxiety provoking so hence, the need to control the child or situations ensue. Like saving face, imposing control is another defense mechanism in dealing with internal anxiety. If this sounds like it is coming from left field, then consider when a person starts a new job.
The anxiety of not knowing what is expected of you at a new job compels the person to exert control over their environment like getting super organized and overdoing the preparation for the first few days. After some time has passed and you feel comfortable with the new job, the super organized you can now relax a bit. This is adaptive at a new job, but when you are parenting, it becomes complicated because now you will enter a power struggle with your child. Over time, this power struggle will ignite a whole host of unpleasant emotions and can severely damage the parent-child relationship.
What the Nepali-American parent needs to understand is that parental control is valued in both cultures, but how they go about maintaining it is very different. The Nepali parent uses strategies such as manipulation, shame, guilt, and punishment (physical, emotional, and/or verbal) to gain and maintain social control over their child. The American parent values setting boundaries and limits, effective discipline, self-expression, independence and self-reliance as ways of maintaining control in the family. This may sound counter-intuitive, but think about this statement: “the more you try to control, the less in control you feel.” Does this ring true for you? In other words, the more you try to hold onto your child, the more they want to be free since the American culture fosters breaking away from the family and becoming more self-sufficient. Given the cultural context, this is healthy and should be encouraged by the Nepali-American parent. Happy balancing the two cultures!