Raising Children Between Cultures

How immigrant families become more resilient in the face of challenges.

“I started my life in Canada from zero, but now I’m so proud of my family,” Quyen Tu said, “My biggest treasures are my three children.”

Cheryl Song. Photo courtesy Chery Song

Tu and her husband came to Canada as refugees in 1981 after the Vietnam War. They resettled in Peterborough, Ont. A few months after her arrival, Tu, 23, was carrying her first child.

Language was one of the biggest challenges she faced. The six-month English class for newcomers didn’t cover vocabulary for pregnancy, so she struggled to explain to doctors how she felt. She would ask them to write down the words she didn’t understand and look them up in the dictionary at home.

The next feat was to balance the differences between the values with which she was raised and those of her new life in Canada.

“The most difficult phase was when the children were teenagers,” Tu recalled, “I knew it was impossible to stick to our old traditions, but being too liberal worried me, too.”

Tu found herself establishing new ground rules. “In Vietnam, when your parents scold you, you’re not allowed to talk back. We can’t do that here, so after telling my children, ‘I’m the mother, let me speak first without interruption,’ I told them,  ‘I’m willing to listen to you and learn from you if you are right.”

Cheryl Song, is a licensed early childhood trainer based in Burnaby, B.C., whose specialty is multicultural education.

“Accept the situation as it is and don’t try to go back to what used to be. That’s the first step [in bridging the cultural gap],” she advised.

From her 20 years of experience working with families who call Canada their new home, Song has witnessed how differences in culture and parenting styles, language barriers, and racism in the education system can widen the distance among members of an immigrant household. On top of that, she noted, they also face perennial intergenerational conflicts and the daily invasion of technology.

Song said a lot of parents coming here are not equipped to deal with the changes. “They think they can’t discipline their children, they can’t spank or yell at their children, but they weren’t told what to do. Some end up doing nothing.”

On the other hand, she saw that some, especially the Asian parents, became more controlling. This didn’t sit well with their children who met families in other communities and compared the way they were being treated at home.

Unfortunately, with endless tasks that cover everything from securing income to home maintenance, many newcomers do not have the time or the energy to listen to their children. Resentment simmers and can affect relationships. This can lead to more resistance when it comes to conversations about the family’s history and culture.

“A child is like a tree. Whether it flourishes or wilts depends on the grower’s care and guidance,” explained Theresa Tran, a teacher with the Toronto District School Board for more than 30 years. On weekends, she heads the St. Jane Frances Vietnamese Sunday Program.

Before COVID-19, she would organize a Tết (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) celebration at her school and invite students and faculty members of different ethnicities. “Through the festivities, I helped the students learn about Vietnamese traditions and improve their language, while introducing our culture to everyone,” Tran recalled. “The children felt proud to see other people enjoy Vietnamese food and embrace our values.”

While Tran believes in the merits of events like these, she still thinks parents play a primary role in educating their children about the family’s heritage.

“We need to have family nights or Saturday dinners. It seems so little, but it helps remind everyone of core values and ground themselves,” Song agreed. “A lot of this work takes time and patience.”

Brandon Pham did not understand his parents’ heartbreaking dedication to everything they did until he talked to them about post-secondary education. From the deeper conversation, Pham learned about his parents’ early days in Canada, their dreams and aspirations. (Pham is the marketing manager of this magazine.)

“… hearing how my parents came to Canada with very little knowledge of English and seeing where they are now. They’re more fluent in the language, they’re able to find jobs and raise a family from nothing. That gave me the inspiration and motivation to stay focused in my studies and my work,” Pham recalled.

Growing up in Peterborough, where there isn’t a large Vietnamese community, Julia Huynh, Tu’s youngest daughter, took a long time to want to learn about her identity. Eventually, her curiosity won out. “What were you like at my age when you were in Vietnam? What was that like?” she asked her mother.

Tu showed her daughter old photos of her relatives and shared stories about her siblings. For death anniversaries, she guided her children through the rituals, from preparing the offerings on the altar to bowing to the ancestors and praying. During Tết, Huynh donned the traditional ao dai and the family posed for photos with a yellow apricot tree, a symbol of renewal and prosperity.

Both Tran and Song stressed the importance of keeping the home language alive, because a lot of words in a country’s vocabulary are culturally embedded, and their meaning can get lost in translation.

Being fluent in English and Vietnamese allows Pham to easily navigate the two worlds he grew up in –  the Western world at school where he ate burgers and conversed in English with his friends, and his Eastern side where he slurped bún noodle and chatted with his parents in Vietnamese.

Raising Children Between Cultures - Lina Li
Lina Li and her mother. Photo courtesy of Lina Li

Likewise, Lina Li, a junior film student at Ryerson University, fully embraces her dual identity as a Chinese-Canadian, having spent her childhood split between the two countries. Li’s family came to Canada when she was three, but her parents sent her back to China for elementary school to learn the mother tongue for four years, after an unsuccessful attempt to teach their children Chinese in their second home.

Li said the experience broadened her perspective, allowing her to be more accepting. “When I came back to Canada in grade five, I had forgotten all my English and didn’t have any friends,” Li said. “Later, in my teenaged years, when I saw people alone, I would lend them a hand, because I knew how that felt.”

The road for many immigrant families is winding but rewarding. “They face challenges, but they also become more resilient,” Song said.

The children assimilate into the Canadian cultural mosaic, while also holding onto a sense of self that reflects their parents’ journey. “I’m not only Vietnamese, but I’m a Vietnamese woman, a second generation Vietnamese Canadian, a daughter of a refugee. There’s an intersected identity that is very nuanced,” Huynh explained.

Now as an artist and archivist, Huynh works to preserve Vietnamese history through family photos and home videos. In her film “Chúng tôi nhảy đầm ở nhà – We dance at home,” she used the footage from her father’s camera to share their unique experience resettling in Peterborough, a predominantly white town.

The parents, too, have changed to soften their edges and accept their children as who they are, not an idealized mirage from a distant home.

Raising Children Between Cultures - Lina Li's Short film "Have you eaten?"
A still from Lina Li’s short “Have you eaten?”
Photo courtesy of The National Film Board of Canada

Li’s short documentary “Have you eaten?” captures the intimate moments of a mother-daughter relationship when they make dumplings together. At the end, her mother went off script to add “I love you,” something she only started saying recently. Bold and assertive with an ambition to become a film director, Li is nothing like the demure and obedient girl her mother would like her to be, and that’s okay.

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This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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