Cultural identity a challenge for children of immigrants






arrow-redFaiza Mehboob, centre, is a second-generation Pakistani-Canadian [Photos courtesy of Faiza Mehboob]

By Tara Sprickerhoff

OTTAWA — Faiza Mehboob’s life is full of contradictions. She’s part of a sorority, yet abstains from alcohol. She lives in an apartment by herself, yet lets her sister know she is home every night.

Mehboob is one of a number of youth in Canada who straddle two cultures, living at home in one culture, while working and attending school in a completely different cultural context.

She is what academics call a “second-generation Canadian,” meaning that while she was born in Canada, her parents immigrated here.

 “I feel like I am living a double life. I’m a certain person here, and when I go home I conform to a different person there. I don’t do it intentionally.”

– Faiza Mehboob

The Canadian Council on Social Development suggests that foreign-born youth and second-generation youth will make up a quarter of the Canadian youth population by 2016, while Statistics Canada predicts that nearly half of Canadians above the age of 15 will have at least one immigrant parent by 2031. Who are these Canadians? And what are the challenges they face?

“Youth of all cultures face challenges,” says York psychology professor Richard Lalonde who studies the social identity of second-generation Canadians. He says that second-generation youth, particularly those with parents from eastern backgrounds, can experience conflict in reconciling the Euro-Canadian culture they experience at school with the one they experience at home.

Mehboob is no stranger to this sense of conflict.

“I feel like I am living a double life,” she says. “I’m a certain person here, and when I go home I conform to a different person there. I don’t do it intentionally.”

A lot of it, she says, comes down to the amount of freedom she has attending school at Carleton University in Ottawa, while her Pakistani-Canadian family lives in Toronto.

At home, she is required to be home before sunset, when the daily Muslim Maghrib prayer takes place, she dresses even more modestly, and is “constantly asking for permission to go places.”

Some of this follows her to Ottawa, where her sister calls to make sure she is home every night.

Still, Mehboob does adhere to many parts of her parents’ culture and religion. She refrains from using alcohol and drugs, eats only Halal meat, and has never had a boyfriend.

“It sucks because I don’t want to be living two separate lives. If I could have one and have it be accepted by both cultures it would be great.”

Mehboob makes sure to not show her legs in public, always wearing long skirts, pants or dark tights.

Mehboob, right, wears a traditional Pakistani dress, next to one of her sorority sisters.

This conflict of values puts some second-generation Canadians in a “bind,” says Lalonde.

“On the one hand, they’ve adopted, or are at least knowledgeable about, the mainstream norms they’ve been developing in Canadian society for a while. On the other hand they are mindful of the norms of their family and their cultural heritage,” he says. “It’s like ‘What should I do? Should I follow what my Canadian way of thinking directs me to do, or should I follow the way my heritage directs me?’”

Mehboob, however, is the first to say that she loves her family, and that without them being open to different experiences, she wouldn’t be alone at university in the first place.

For her though, the second-generation “dilemma” comes to a head over the topic of marriage.

“Parents want cultural continuity,” says Monica Boyd, the Canada Research Chair in Immigration, Inequality and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. This can result in tension between parents and youth.

Mehboob says her father is “adamant” about arranged marriage, but Mehboob and her older, already married, siblings have all pushed successfully to choose their own partners. Still, there is the pressure to be married, she says.

While Mehboob says she wants to find a partner who shares not only her Muslim and Pakistani background and also has the same religious and cultural values, she is also looking for someone in tune with western culture.

It’s proving more difficult that she thought it might be.

Mehboob also worries about her children losing her cultural heritage.

“I hope I’m a tool and a resource for religion and for culture for my kids, but at the same time I feel like I might be a better tool for western culture for my kids than for a Pakistani cultural representation,” she says.

Regardless, Mehboob wants to find a way of balancing the two cultures in her life, a “happy medium,” as she calls it.

“Our parents don’t understand that we need to live our life and that we’re not living in the same country, living in the same culture, living in the same social society as they grew up in,” Mehboob says.

“The values that we have, yes they are religiously and culturally tied to us but we also have another value set that we need to take into account too. You don’t just come to Canada and then keep acting like you are in Pakistan. That’s not how it works.”

This article has been edited from a previous version

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful article! Thank you for sharing your personal experiences, this article was very eye opening to the transition and life balance that those of other cultures feel adapting to Canadian culture.

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