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“Long walk to emancipation” – the struggles of the cursed generation

February 12, 2023

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that I am a child of migrants who crossed the seas and came to a nation providing futuristic opportunities, seeking to live a relatively better life, whatever that might look like for any individual.

This however does not take away from the fact that these are unceded lands, on which our indigenous fellows live, breathe and suffer generational trauma due to colonisation. I write with this in mind, and will be covering generalised opinions from the perspectives of South Asian youth born and raised outside of their parents’ homeland.

Culture is interchangeable with identity for many of us. What defines a culture?

Is it a language, attire, religion, history? Or is it all of those and perhaps more?

Moving one’s life from one country to another, across the seas, and away from what is familiar, comes with its own challenges. Challenges which are faced with an unsettling anxiety around identity and the concept of home. With this anxiety, comes a vigorous need for control – where the offspring of migrants seem to become the target. Though they grow to learn and adapt in some ways to the multicultural and westernised environment around them, many ideals remain conservative. Dressing to fit in, changing their accents and discovering new foods unfortunately doesn’t change their mindset about family dynamics and futuristic growth.

An inherent desire to attain a sense of accomplishment, is often displayed through the control of children in many forms. Here, culture plays the role of an agent.

Living their dreams vicariously through their children, in an attempt to create and achieve an ideal world outside of their places of upbringing, migrant parents force culture in many shapes and forms. Whether it be through the arts, religion, or language, these are some ways in which migrant parents exercise control over their children.

When a child becomes capable of identifying their individual preferences and attempts to express those needs, the child is suppressed. They are told that it is unacceptable to question their elders, and that their elders know best. The fundamental curiosity and emotional requests of a child are dismissed. Trust and respect are demanded on the basis of age, with very little returns which demonstrate trustworthiness for the child.

Children are often told, even into their adulthood, that they are incapable of making their own decisions. The executive decisions are forcefully made by parental figures, in most aspects of a child’s life in a South Asian household. The lack of independence to think and behave of their own volition causes children to rebel against their controlling parents, leading them to engage in risk-taking behaviours, unhealthy relationships, and suppression of emotions. These are just some consequences of emotionally unavailable parents who forget to consider their children’s ideas and thoughts.

Social practices and ideals passed off as cultural norms, which are actually patriarchal norms, are enmeshed into the daily lives of South Asians. This aggressively impacts the upbringing of children, their views of themselves, their perceptions of the world around them and subsequently their identity.

One of the most common deficiencies in these kinds of families is the significant difference in treatment between males and females. Gender roles are effortlessly programmed into that of the minds of young children.

The upbringing of children in migrant households further engrains patriarchal practices and enables misogyny by teaching discrimination of genders under the guise of traditional values.

Commonly, male children are enabled to exercise authority, their needs are catered to particularly by their mothers, they are excused easily for any troubles or inconveniences they cause and they are more readily accepted for their choices and decisions.

To complement this, female children in the household are groomed to adjust to their male relatives, most often by their mothers themselves. This passing on of patriarchal practices unfortunately takes place by women more outwardly, and is forced on their daughters as a way to prepare them for the next phase of their life – marriage and settling into their in-law’s family, where they are expected to continue suppressing themselves or uphold self-respect, in order to please those around them and maintain the honour of their households.

This being said, it is a generalisation of what can be seen predominantly in the cohort that is being discussed. However, there are outliers and exceptions.

Stereotypically, due to the restrictions and limitations placed on migrant children, rebellion often manifests in the form of curiosity for freedom. This freedom most often being exploration of that which is shunned in South Asian households – alcohol, nightlife and all things associated with certain taboos and stigma. This often leads to unsafe practices and irresponsible decision making. Should children be exposed in small amounts to everything which exists, they may be able to better gauge and decide what they wish to engage in, and reach out to their parents for support and advice. The authoritative stance however, which most migrant parents carry, does not allow for a safe space and open communication channels to be established.

Disciplining and punishment in the form of excessive yelling, screaming and physical violence seems to be prevalent in migrant-households. Something which is frowned upon, especially corporal punishment, but widely accepted in South-Asian households. This violation creates the impression on children that they cannot trust their parents, and that the consequence of opening up will be aggressive punishment. Volatility and emotional instability displayed by migrant parents pushes children to believe that they must tip-toe around their parents, forcing them to further move away from them and all things associated with them.

A balance in presenting as friends as well as supportive parents is imperative to creating a strong bond with children. This power dynamic though, is what causes a drift between children and their migrant parents.

Constant questioning of children’s abilities to again establish and maintain authority showing “who’s boss” leads to self-doubt in children, and developmental issues. This translates in the later stages of life when parents suddenly expect independence, and find that their children are incapable of tending to themselves. From simple tasks such as paying bills to big life-changing decisions like finding a life partner becomes unbearably difficult for many. Migrant parents often use this as ammunition to say that they’ve done everything to protect their children and serve them, however the disservice really lies in that they did not allow for their children to pick up life skills, or hone into their own potentials to become confident and self-sufficient individuals.

The narrative that they moved here for a better future for us is what migrant parents use, and feel entitled to control our lives and expect that we display ourselves as a perfectly manufactured product of their wishes and desires.

Did they not move here for themselves to have a better future too?

What need is there to hold this decision over our heads and make us feel responsible, when we did not have a choice or say in being brought into this world in the first place?

Children do not choose to be born. Parents choose to give birth in order to typically keep their bloodline alive, and therefore owe it to their children to ensure they are safe, cared for, and sufficiently provided for. Material necessities will not suffice and the consideration of emotional and psychological wellbeing must be accounted for. The lack of acknowledgement that this decision was theirs based on their needs, shows egocentrism and that parents have not grown.

Though these behaviours which parents display are unjustified, delving into their past, their upbringing, their triggers and related traumas can provide context as to why they are this way.

Some factors which play a part in this complex generalised psyche include: the lack of awareness that they have not overcome the hurt they may have faced, the inability to accept that they are also flawed and have committed inexcusable deeds (as a result of their past experiences or personality issues), the denial that they are capable of provoking their children and causing further harm by invalidating their experiences and feelings- all contribute to a toxic cycle in which we all get stuck.

Cultural conditioning in the South-Asian subcontinent barely allows for elders to be held to account, as it is taught that they are not to be questioned, giving them the audacity to seem on par with God.

Openness to acceptance and accountability are drivers which may create space to instigate change, in combination with psychological assistance to address intergenerational issues.

This may be the healthiest, but most challenging and confronting way to break the cycle.

Due to the probability being incredibly low that migrant parents will agree to any of this, the burden of acceptance and finding closure falls on the children. A mission to answer the unanswered, to make sense of the voids and find some peace in the scary abyss that is this parent-child dynamic.

Can we accept that this is how it will be, and understand that there are reasons for which it is this way? The degree to which acceptance is embraced is contextual and not relevant to all situations, however along with that acceptance, breaking away and emancipating allows for children to be the best version of themselves that they can be – for themselves and for those around them.

Without addressing generational trauma or acknowledging that our migrant parents have unresolved issues and conflicts, it is impossible to break the cycle. Breaking the cycle of these dynamics, patriarchy and unreasonable cultural and societal norms is challenging, and can often sever relationships between the two generations.

This work is however necessary, to ensure our future generations are not affected intensely by the same issues and traumas.