Virginia M. Tong,
"From today on, call me Amy!"
With this simple, but dramatic pronouncement, Hui Ling took an American
name. In that moment, her outburst also marked the beginning of a
complex emotional journey for the both of us. Amy and
her sister Mei Ling, had recently arrived from China. Amy
enrolled in our high school as a junior, her sister as a freshman. Although the sisters initially had a difficult time adjusting to the ways of the American school system, they studied hard and earned average grades, progressing to just-above-average marks by the end of their first academic year. By senior year, Amy was excelling in her school work and looking forward to experiencing college life.
I took special interest in Amy because I admired her courage in coping with the demands of a new country as well as finding friends with whom to share this new life. Having researched the acculturation process of recent Chinese immigrant youngsters, I was well aware of the problems of being a native-born Asian in American society. I knew that Amy, coming here as an adolescent, would face many emotional risks in her quest to find an identity in her new homeland.
During Amy's first year with us, it became evident that emotional distress was brewing. As Amy's computer education teacher, I observed her behavioral ups and downs, and discovered the sychological pain she was experiencing as she attempted to become "American."
Sometimes academic study or losing oneself in an interest provides a sanctuary from the world's worries, letting one sublimate negative energy or mask emotional setbacks. This may have been the case for Amy. She began to visit my classroom much more than the other students in our fter-school
computer program. For several months, like clock work, she visited the program whenever it was open to students wishing to explore their interests, complete class assignments, or play computer games. While others worked together in small groups, Amy always sat and wrote alone.
I became increasingly concerned as I watched Amy labor silently for long periods of time on the word processor. I also monitored her behavior in my daily word processing class to further study her pattern of isolated behavior. While Amy never missed class and kept up with the assignments, she remained detached from others. She would come to class punctually, work diligently, and leave promptly at the end of the period, but always alone. Then suddenly, Amy stopped coming to the after-school program. That troubled me. When I inquired about her absence, Amy told me she had to work after school. I told her that she was welcome to join us on days when she was not at her job.
My concern for Amy continued to grow. During
the school day, she would start up friendly conversations about any topic,
with any adult who would interact. Oddly, she found humor in nearly
everything, laughing loudly and otherwise over-reacting to what was happening
around her. I wondered if this new behavior evidenced troubled thoughts
that were starting to overwhelm her.
One day, as I worked with Amy at the computer, I casually looked over her shoulder and was dumbfounded by what I saw...the many scattered thoughts of a very unhappy young woman
My concern for Amy now over-ruled my convictions regarding personal privacy. One afternoon when the students had left for the day, I inserted Amy's disk into the computer and called up her writings. While I had suspicions, I was unprepared for the intensity of what I saw. To my astonishment, Amy seemed to be suffering from extreme depression. Her writing revealed the misery of an adolescent who felt totally isolated in a world where she shouldered problems alone. No one was there to provide support and guidance. At the heart of Amy's anxiety was an ever-expanding
poor self-image. Comparing herself with her socially skilled and very pretty sister who captivated the attention and admiration of other peers. Amy perceived herself as being ugly and unpopular.
Dating and having a boyfriend are important signals
of acceptance for adolescent girls in North America. Amy felt that
her appearance, combined with her shyness and lack of conversational skill
made her undesirable to potential boyfriends. Amy was also becoming
increasingly jealous of her
younger sister and progressively more frustrated with life in America. In her native country of China, she had friends in whom she could confide, and was in familiar surroundings where she could find comfort and support. To Amy, America was an overwhelming place, so much so that thoughts of
self-hatred and destruction were scattered throughout her writing. I knew that immediate steps had to be taken to respond to Amy's troubles, so I sought the advice of our school guidance counselor.
For a while, we decided to make Amy my "computer assistant." This would allow me to keep a concerned eye on her while helping her to build her self-esteem and confidence. The counselor would, with my cooperation, be introduced to Amy, develop a friendly relationship with her, and invite her to drop by to talk about life in China and America.
Finding other ways to help Amy consumed my thoughts.
During conversations, I let Amy know that I valued what she said.
I sought ways to boost her self-esteem (e.g., including her in decision
making discussions, asking her opinion about software reviewed for possible
use in our program).
These strategies seemed to work. With her new responsibilities as my computer assistant, Amy evolved into a strong role model for other students. She tutored and assisted others who were less skilled and gave new immigrant students the advice, emotional support, and courage they needed to make adjustments to their new lives in America... something she never had. Amy enjoyed her new role. Shortly after assuming her duties, I noticed she had found a steady group of friends. Her writing became more positive and optimistic. Over time, she continued to make adjustments and progress in her struggle to become "Americanized" while maintaining much of traditional behavioral patterns.
Making Sense of Amy's Quest
Amy's story is not unique. It reflects a social adaptation process common in adolescents who have recently immigrated to North America from other countries and find themselves searching for ways to understand what life here means to them. Coming to America means loosening the emotional attachments to old friends and giving up the security of a familiar way of life. Often these teens experience disappointment due to unfulfilled expectations regarding their new life in America. In essence, they must undergo emotional adjustments as well as cultural ones.
Looking closely at Amy's situation, several emotional
stressors can be identified. Her actions stemmed from a complex combination
of cultural factors as well as the usual adolescent development sources.
On one hand,
Amy was caught between the values and beliefs of two worlds. Her traditional
Chinese culture stressed that from an early age individuals are responsible
for handling their own concerns. Seeking emotional support from others,
acceptable in the mainstream American culture, was new to her. The Chinese
culture also teaches that one should maintain privacy. Discussing one's
troubles with individuals outside the family is discouraged as publicly known
inadequacies bring embarrassment to the family.
Initially, it was difficult to detect any struggles in Amy because she
hid her emotional turmoil in the stoic Chinese manner. The more expressive American style of dealing with emotions was undoubtedly perplexing to her. However, she managed to combine the two diverse cultural styles by maintaining outward calm while telling another (i.e., the computer) her
Another source of emotional turmoil stemmed from
the trials of just being a North American teenager. Amy believed
that dating and being accepted as one of a popular group were measures
of her self-worth. This typical adolescent preoccupation, combined
with inter-cultural anxiety, complicates, and compounds the emotional stresses
our immigrant youngsters experience
Adolescents are primarily concerned with discovering,
exploring, and establishing their own identity. Self-image is based
on their values and beliefs about the world, and the perceptions they sense
others hold about them. In this regard, Amy's self-worth was closely
linked to her feelings of
social adaptation to America.
Strong self-esteem certainly makes the acculturation
process less traumatic. However, all young people who come from another
country must, to some degree, deal with two competing cultural orientations
and two separate value systems regarding "appropriate" adolescent behavior.
When developing their individual self-image, these youngsters are compelled
to consider both systems. They are pressured by elders to remain
loyal to the beliefs of their native culture and yet they are attracted
to the ways of American adolescents. While wanting to fit into the
mainstream, they feel an
obligation to maintain the values of their heritage. Amy, like many immigrant students (Tong, 1996), maintained a strong sense of cultural loyalty while adopting many new behaviors. Giving up one's ingrained native behaviors and values is not just difficult; at times it is unrealistic.
The bicultural and bilingual nature of adjusting to America creates complications. These youngsters may question whether speaking English and becoming American, compared to speaking their first language and behaving in their traditional ways requires giving up too much change in their sense of self. While immigrant youth realize the importance of finding a new identity in North America and incorporating many of its ways, they are uncertain as to what degree each culture should become a part of the new identity (Tong, 1996).
The socio-psychological and inter-cultural stresses experienced by our immigrant youngsters require that we implement strategies that facilitate their adjustment to life in North America. One approach to ease students' psychological adjustment is to help them cultivate a relationship between
their first and second cultures wherein these cultures are perceived as being symbiotic and complimentary rather than competitive. The process of blending cultures helps our youngsters create a new "cross-cultural identity" (Tong, 1996).
A cross-cultural identity involves a blending
of values, behaviors, and languages from the youngsters' native and new
cultures. More explicitly, these youths adopt some aspects of the
lifestyles and values of the new culture for use in the mainstream while
maintaining their first cultural
lifestyle and values for intragroup use (Schumann, 1986). Assisting these adolescents to recognize and understand the strengths, similarities, and differences within and between the two cultures helps them better adjust, and consequently better appreciate their new lives in America.
The role of educational and mental health professionals
is one of providing immigrant adolescents with opportunities to explore
and understand the process of negotiating between two cultures, consequently
assisting in the creation of their own personal cross-cultural identities.
appreciate both cultures helps immigrant youngsters avoid the emotional frustration and conflict that results if they are forced to choose between the separate and conflicting value systems.
Tailored and sensitive school programs that address socio-psychological influences on the adjustment of immigrant youngsters need to be developed. Toward this goal, changes must occur at many levels of the education hierarchy (McIntyre, 1996), especially at the school building level where teachers and administrators--those who interact most intensely with our youngsters--must become more strongly committed to developing cultural sensitivity and competence.
The following modifications can help youngsters progress
along the path to development of a cross-cultural identity:
o Organizing large schools into mini schools or "houses" in order to counteract student feelings of alienation and anonymity.
o Initiating smaller classes in which students can more intimately relate to teachers and be encouraged to discuss their adjustment process.
o Promoting group work so that students are able to interact,express and hear opinions, and form friendships while learning.
o Providing leadership opportunities so that immigrant youngsters gain experience in guiding others.
o Organizing student discussion groups in which cultural differences can be explored for their positive value.
o Forming school culture clubs that are open to all youngsters
o Holding professional development workshops for faculty and staff to sensitize them to cultural diversity and immigrant adjustment issues, and promote cultural competence in teaching.
o Creating student outreach centers where-in adolescents can receive counseling and discuss cross-cultural identity issues.
Additionally, many materials are available for teaching
individuals about each other's cultures and are easily adaptable to multicultural
school environments. For example, "culture assimilators" (Fiedler,
Mitchell, & Triandis, 1971; Brislin, Cushner, Cherrie, & Young,
1986) provide a series of
realistic episodes involving certain cultural behaviors, with each episode describing a cross-cultural misunderstanding. Students attempt to select the correct reason for the conflict from the possible explanations listed. An answer guide provides information regarding the plausibility of each
Teachers, counselors, and students can also prepare
"cultural capsules" that provide a brief description of one particular
difference between the American mainstream and another target culture.
The class presentations are typically accompanied by magazine pictures,
photographs, drawings, singing, poetry, and other audio-visual enhancements.
Many field-tested instructional units that compare various groups to the
American mainstream have been available for some time. They include
South American Hispanic (Miller, Drayton, & Layton, 1979), French (Miller
& Loiseau, 1974), and Mexican (Miller & Bishop, 1979). Using
these models, students can then develop their
own locally pertinent "cultural capsules."
Teachers and counselors can expand on the "cultural capsule" technique by creating simulations (Singh, Ellis, Oswald, Wechsler, & Curtis, 1997), often in the form of teacher-written and directed skits that encompass a few of the cultural capsules on a chosen topic (e.g., greetings, body spacing, touch). With practice, students should be able to provide the background information necessary for writing skits, thereby actively involving themselves in cultural research and intercultural understanding. An example of this technique is provided by Meade and Moran (1973).
The future of our society depends on providing an optimal education to an increasingly diverse student body. This task demands bridging cultural gaps, diffusing racial tensions, and promoting harmony among people. Our hopes for the future lie with our youth. If we have the courage to learn and teach about different cultures and their ways (including our own), we can promote this cross-cultural understanding in our adolescents. This understanding requires helping our newly arrived youngsters develop a sense of what they value about their first culture and how this can be balanced with what they see as valuable in their new country.
The goal is to have these young people realize that their sets
of cultural values can exist side-by-side allowing them to function in
the two worlds that demand their allegiance. Building on this awareness,
we can instill in our native-born and immigrant youngsters an appreciatively
new dimension of
cultural understanding, a blending and acceptance of both their cultures.
References can be found at the end of this page.
Dr. Virginia Tong is a faculty member in the
TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) graduate
program at Hunter College of CUNY. She writes and presents widely
on issues related to acculturation, the teaching of English, technology
use in teaching English, and English language learners with other educational
issues (e.g., disabilities, incarcerated). She can be contacted
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