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File photo of young Indian American girls preparing for a traditional dance during the Hindu festival of Diwali, in New York City. Author Amit Roy Shah says that addressing our children’s understanding of their bicultural identity is important because the research shows that children who are able to identify with their bicultural identity — their culture (being Indian) and the culture of mainstream society (being American) – experience less confusion, isolation, and alienation in school and in life. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

It is very challenging to raise bicultural children. Bicultural children are children who are a part of two (or more) cultures. This notion of being in-between cultures can feel like you are stuck in the middle, being neither here or there or, as the scholar Gloria Anzaldua puts it, feeling like you are on “both shores at once.” As a second-generation Indian American, I know I have always been able to relate to the acronym of being an ABCD (American-Born Confused Desi) – and I’m sure many of our children may feel this way as well.

Addressing our children’s understanding of their bicultural identity is important because the research shows that children who are able to identify with their bicultural identity — their culture (being Indian) and the culture of mainstream society (being American) – experience less confusion, isolation, and alienation in school and in life. They are more self-confident and perform better in schools than children who reject one of their cultures. Children who can learn about the American culture without losing their Indian heritage have a much better understanding of the world that they live in.

In many first-generation Indian families, parents may prioritize preserving Indian cultural values, without taking into account that their children are also learning a very different set of values. Indian parents tend to place an emphasis on family, collectivity, and gender roles. They may emphasize making decisions for the larger good of the family.

However, the Western culture places an emphasis on the individual and being independent. In this way, the values of collectivity vs. individuality are in direct contrast with one another. In schools, children are often told to make decisions based on self-interest. Teachers and counselors tell children to make their own decisions about hobbies, electives, and/or majors based on what they like or what they are passionate about. This often leads to a generational and cultural gap among Indian American parents and their children.

It is important to have conversations around what it means to be Indian AND American. When these conversations do not occur in the home, children are often left feeling confused about who they are and they may even decide to choose one culture over the other. Many Indian American children feel that their parents’ expectations are outdated and/or unrealistic. When their children do not listen, Indian American parents feel as though they are “selfish” or that they are becoming too “American.” Many times, Indian parents may believe that their children are not showing them the respect that they deserve. Often times, it is merely miscommunication on both ends.

Many Asian American children have discussed the intense pressure they feel to choose a career in the STEM Fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and/or Math) or Business regardless of their self-interest or aptitude for that profession. Furthermore, Indian women are often closely monitored and receive less freedom than men because their roles are tied to the honor or ‘izaat’ of the family. Women are viewed as central to preserving the cultural traditions of their family. Yet, in schools, they are told that they are equal to men and should not be treated differently.

Unfortunately, these cultural conflicts have led to higher rates of suicide for Asian Americans. Asian Americans are much more likely to commit suicide than the average American. In the end, because conversations about what it means to be Indian and to be American have not occurred in many households, many Indian American children feel like they cannot please their parents or themselves. As a result, they feel alienated and withdrawn from both their cultures, their families, and their peers.

It is important to acknowledge that many children don’t have a clear understanding of what it means to be “Indian” and “American” because there is no fixed definition of this. Every family has their own views and/or thoughts about this. The research confirms that everyone has their own version of what it means to be a “good” Indian. To some, being a “good” Indian means wearing Indian clothes, speaking the language and going to Indian cultural events. For others, being a “good” Indian means prioritizing family and taking care of elders.

Everyone constructs their own understanding of their Indian identity based on their experiences and their personal understanding of their cultural heritage; thus, the technical term for this is ‘personal ethnic identity’. Through conversations, children can begin to understand how they can be part of both cultures. Some parts of their culture are observable, such as dress, language, food, fashion, and the media (e.g., Hollywood/Bollywood). However, other parts are more abstract, such as the values (e.g., prioritizing family, education) that stem from each culture.

There will be circumstances or situations in which children may decide to place a value on the greater good of their family – and other situations in which they may choose to do something because of their self-interest. It doesn’t mean they are less “Indian” or less “American” because of their choices. It only means that they have figured out what it means to be an Indian-American by negotiating between the hyphen and as a result, they are able to make more thoughtful decisions based on who they are and what they believe in.

Helping our children develop an understanding of their bicultural identity will help them make better choices in their lives. By developing a bicultural identity, children are able to pick and choose from both cultures that are a part of their lives. They learn to negotiate values that significantly vary and contrast with one another. This provides them with a very unique vantage point. Children must constantly negotiate and re-negotiate what it means to live in-between two different worlds. Through this process, children will learn how to make decisions more confidently and with a better understanding of who they are and who they want to be.

How to Address Bicultural Identity with Children:

  1. Ask them what it means to them to be Indian? Brainstorm their ideas first. Then, extend their understanding by having conversations about Indian values, beliefs, and worldviews.
  1. Ask them what it means to them to be American? What do they see in society as American? Discuss the American Dream. Discuss individualism, equality for all, and being achievement-oriented. There are also characteristics such as being assertive, competitive, and honest. Google “American culture” for a list.
  1. Read books that help children understand their bicultural identity. This will help you naturally have more conversations about bicultural identity with your children. As they read these books, they will have more questions for you about what it means to be Indian American in the world. For example, in the picture book, ‘Same Same But Different’, the author explores similarities and differences between growing up in India and the U.S. by way of letter exchanges through two boys, Kailash and Elliot. In a more recent Young Adult book, ‘When Dimple Met Rishi’, two Indian American teenagers in California, one from Atherton and one from Fresno, are set up by their parents to meet at a coding camp in San Francisco. In true Bollywood style, they hate each other only until they fall in love!

Kitaabworld.com, the first South Asian niche book market, is a great place to explore these types of books. Here are some recommendations from their co-founder, Gauri Manglik, based on age-group. Check them out.

Picture Books (2+): Same, Same But Different; Harini and Padmini Say Namaste; Hot Hot Roti for Dadaji; Neela Goes to San Francisco; Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas.

Chapter Books and Middle Grade (6-12): Where Am I From?; Many Windows: Six Kids, Five Faiths, One Community; Aru Shah and the End of Time, Save me a Seat, The Whole Story of Half A Girl; Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh; Karma Khullar’s Moustache; The Grand Plan to Fix Everything; The Problem with Being Slighly Heroic; Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood; Mission Mumbai.

Young Adult (12+): When Dimple Met Rishi; My So Called Bollywood Life; Saints and Misfits; Damselfly; Jaya and Rasa; Enter Title Here; Bombay Blues; You Bring the Distant Near; Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary.

For more book recommendations, see Kitaabworld.com’s broader South Asian American Experience collection.

(Dr. Amita Roy Shah is an author, educator, and entrepreneur. She is an adjunct professor at San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif., in the Department of Child and Adolescent Development. She is the author of ‘It’s Time for Holi!’ and ‘Lights, Camera, Diwali!’ She is also the founder of hybridparenting.org, an online platform to empower parents to invest in the cultural well-being of their children. She has a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a master’s degree in education from Pepperdine University.)

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