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Asian-Americans Face Conflicts of Two Cultures - 2002-07-31

Many Asian immigrants to the United States are making their way to the northern part of Texas state and as their community continues to grow, so does the first generation of Asian Americans born in the U.S. They are being influenced by two cultures: the traditions of their parents and the customs of their American peers. It can be a difficult balance for both parents and children.

Shortly before school let out for the summer, dozens of Asian American students at North Dallas High School celebrated with a rousing performance of traditional Asian dance and music. Events like these are especially important to Asian immigrant parents, many of whom worry that their culture is being forgotten by their children. Mye Hoang knows this story well. "My parents came from Saigon in 1975 to Dallas with seven kids, and I'm the eighth child. I was born a year later in Dallas, and I was brought up here," she said.

Growing up in Dallas was difficult for Ms. Hoang. Although she enjoyed many more personal liberties than her older sisters and brothers, she said her parents were still very strict and protective. They focused her life around school and told her she couldn't sleep over at a friend's house or be a Girl Scout.

"I think for my parents, they had a distrust of Americans, and I think they desperately wanted to hold on to who they were and they didn't want their children becoming like Americans," Ms. Hoang said.

Movies became her outlet and eventually a career. She's a theater manager and the founder of the Asian Film Festival of Dallas. She especially related to the films of director Ang Lee, who's often portrayed Asian Americans leading dual lives: one to please their parents and one to please themselves. Now life is imitating art for Mye Hoang, who is engaged to a non-Asian.

"I'm planning to get married in less than four months and I haven't told my parents yet, and I'm not sure how it's going to play out. I know they're not going to be happy about it, and I'll probably be disowned for at least a little while because they're really desperate to hang onto their heritage," she said.

Many parents are also anxious for their children to excel in this country. Bhanu Ivatury, a clinical social worker from India, said it's the immigration factor. Parents who give up their home countries come to the United States with a mountain of pressure to succeed.

"Not only are you doing it for yourself, you're doing it for your children. So not only you are having this expectation that you have to succeed. But, you are having this expectation that your children must succeed. The children must do much, much better than what they could have done in India," she siad.

A lot of that means pressure to do well in school. Akshar Patel just graduated from Berkner High School in Richardson, Texas. He remembers his mother, an Indian immigrant, making him study a lot.

"All my friends would be playing basketball outdoors and they'd come knock on my door. 'Can Akshar come play?' And my mom would say, 'No. He's doing his homework.' And I'd always be mad at that. I wanted to go outside and play," Mr. Patel said.

Akshar isn't mad anymore. Now that he's been accepted to the University of North Carolina, he said all the work has paid off. And many children of immigrants grow up to feel the same way, according to Min Zhou, who chairs the Asian American studies department at the University of California at Los Angeles. Her research said exceptional grades and school achievements are so highly valued among Asian Americans because they're an objective evaluation that helps counter racism and discrimination.

"If you are the school valedictorian, if the school valedictorian is measured by grade point average, they feel that's something you cannot overlook, because the record is there and it's a lot better, so you have to give it to me. We never can predict what other people think of us subjectively but we can achieve whatever standard the American society sets," she said.

Professor Zhou said she's also witnessed a backlash from mainstream parents who feel Asian students are taking all the top school honors away from their children.

Social worker Bhanu Ivatury said she wants to see the younger Asian generation to succeed, but on their own terms. While she encourages young Indians to incorporate some of their parents' culture into their own lives, she also tells parents to be flexible with their children.

"I think the parents are slowly coming to accept what it ultimately required. 'Do I want my child's happiness or do I want to lose my child?' So, I constantly focus on that, you do not want to lose your child," she said.

Mye Hoang hopes her parents will feel that way, too, as she prepares for her wedding. "It makes me anxious because I really don't know how it will all turn out. They're also older, and that sort of makes me sad because I think eventually we will all come together and we will all reconcile, but I don't know when it will be or if it will be before they die," Ms. Hoang said.

Mye Hoang's story is not unique to the Asian community in Dallas. Throughout the country, many Asians here are working out such growing pains within their own families: are they Americans or Asian Americans? And in the broader American culture, they're trying to figure out how to keep their heritage alive in strong. In that, they are following in the footsteps of every immigrant community that has made American its new home.