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Generation Gap? Exploring intergenerational differences

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When immigrants and refugees make a home in a new country, the teachings they learned growing up play a substantial role in the way they live their lives, interact with others and, of course, raise their children.

But with their children growing up in this new country and adopting its lifestyle and culture, it is a struggle for parents to meld their traditional teachings with this new way of life. Likewise, their children bounce between the lessons of their ancestral culture and the societal norms of their home.

For six local Asian Americans of various generations, their stories tell of how their upbringings have shaped them, what they see of their peers and what their perspective are of the other generations, and the commonalities that transcend the barriers between them.

Identifying the Differences
For Marie Bui, like other first-generation refugees from Vietnam, fleeing her home meant leaving most everything behind, from her home to her material possessions. Keeping her family in tact became the priority. Family meant no one was getting left behind.

“The priority was taking care of the kids,” she said through an interpreter. “ ... Family needs to be together.”

Bui said she emphasized keeping traditions from the old country alive in her children. They were going to remember where they came from.

“When my children didn’t speak Vietnamese in the house, they were reprimanded,” she said.

Her youngest daughter, Vie Nguyen, said she grew up with a blend of Vietnamese and American cultures. Having come over when she was 7, Nguyen is a 1.5-generation Vietnamese American.

“I think we’re stuck in the middle of following our parents’ traditions, but you’re also absorbing the majority of your life her in America,” she said. “Which point do I follow with traditions, which ones can I bend?”

It was not difficult to find the balance between the two cultures growing up, Nguyen said. But when she became a parent, that all changed.

“(It wasn’t a big struggle) during my school years, but more so when I became a parent,” she said. “Now you’re filtering some of the cultures we want to hand down.”

The lessons she has chosen to pass along have gone to her daughter, 14-year-old Sarah, and her two sons.

“You have to be respectful of your elders,” Sarah said. “They teach us to not follow the crowd, be your own self. It’s you who makes your own choices.”

Twenty-three-year-old Shaina Vo, a second-generation Chinese-Vietnamese American, said she sees the lessons she received from her parents stems from a direct influence from their own upbringing.

“They (my parents) went through a lot to get to America,” Vo said. “They have their values and it’s reflected to us.”

Vo’s mother, May, said that there needed to be a balance when it came to raising her two kids. While she acknowledged that her children needed to adopt the American way of life, certain values from Vietnam, such as hard work, respecting your elders and not taking things for granted needed to be instilled into them.

“They are luckier than us because they were born here,” May said. “I always do my best to raise them. Even though we teach them the foundation of Vietnamese and Chinese cultures, I have to let them adapt to the American culture, so that they will blend in.

“But when they come home, they have to follow our culture.”

Importance of an Education
Ask any second-generation Asian Americans about what was their parents’ priority for them growing up and odds are the answer is going to be school. According to a study of 23,000 high school students in Wisconsin and California released by Psychology Today, the lowest grade the average Asian-American could get without being in trouble by their mother was an A-.

For Andrew Yeh, a second-generation Chinese American, simply getting an opportunity for a good education was not good enough – it was expected by his parents.

“(My parents told me) ‘we had to go through a war, we had to go through the communism in Vietnam and the aspects of that,’” he said. “’You get so many more opportunities than we do. You get a full education, you have to take advantage of a full education.’”

Having grown up in poverty and knowing the work it takes to move up on the socioeconomic scale, Vie Nguyen said she tries and instill that need for education in her own children.

“We may live a good life now,” Vie said, “but if you don’t study hard (and) have a good education, you will not have the same lifestyle.

“We had to work hard and they have to do the same.”

This lesson is not lost on her daughter, Sarah.

“If I’m doing homework or have a project to do, I always think that I know I’m going to get through it because I have to because of what they (my parents) taught me,” Sarah said. “Because if you don’t do good, you’re going to do bad in life.”

Vo agreed.

“It was always ‘focus on education’ – education was first,” she said.

But beyond studying, she said, it was about taking that education and applying it toward a career path that was desirable by the family.

“Always a doctor,” Vo said. “That was an impression from everyone, not just my parents. It was from my grandparents, aunts and uncles. It wasn’t only me (who heard it), it was my brother, my cousins, everyone.

“It was important to have doctor in front of your name, no matter if it was a dentist or cardiologist, it’s always a doctor.”

Both Yeh and Sarah say they are planning on pursuing a career in the medical field. Sarah said that her relatives would never tell her to go into medicine, but would indirectly suggest the idea.

“They say ‘you should try and go into this instead of that. So, you like taking care of sick people,’” she said. “(They would plant ideas) kind of like ‘Inception.’”

Vie said having her children become doctors and lawyers is nice, but it is not something that she forces on them.

“I think everyone wants their kids to be successful, something that’s stable,” Vie said. “Something that’s going to be good for them as a job. It’s not like being an actor and who knows next year what you’re going to do. Not something that’s short term and you can’t control.”

May said the drive to want her children to pursue a career in medicine or engineering stems from her own parents.

“We were raised that way, too,” May said. “My dad expected us to be that way, too. So it carries on from my generation to my kids’ generation. ...

“So blame it on grandma and grandpa,” she laughed. “Back in Vietnam it was every parents’ dream to have their kids become doctors and engineers and all that. I guess it’s a societal thing back home. If you have that career, it makes the whole family’s status rise.”

Vie Nguyen (left), Sarah Nguyen (right) and Marie Bui (front) share their stories as three generations of a Vietnamese immigrant family.

The Rebellious Spirit
For some Asian Americans, growing up with the parents’ high expectations from their parents has spawned a bit of a rebellious nature.

“Growing up as a kid, I had the question, ‘why do we have to follow this outline for you?’” Yeh said. “ ... We’ve been acclimated to this kind of routine that you have to study, have to study, have to study and you have to get the good grades and you have to become a doctor.”

Vo said her generation has more of an openness to exploring different facets of the world than her parents’.

“I think (we’re) free-spirited, more creative, having a free mind set,” Vo said. “The American mind set is open and different than theirs.”

Finding passions and not always following the most conservative route, Yeh said, is a common trait among the younger generation.

“You just find different outlooks of things that they don’t approve of, or things that you just really find a passion for,” he said. “And yeah, maybe you will start studying more, but you want to break that and have a little more freedom.”

It is the nature of taking more risks that Sarah said differs her generation with her parents’.

“We’re not as cautious as the adults,” she said. “We think about choices more, but I think the adults are more wise – they know better.

This perception of the world is something that May said she sees in her daughter’s generation.

“They think their own way,” she said. “In some circumstances, I have to let go. I have my reasons and they have their own reasons. If they decide, based on their own reasons, then the consequences they have to accept.”

Understanding One Another
For Sarah, she sees herself raising her children much the same way she and her brothers were raised.

“I always had this dream of them (my kids) growing up and I would be the hard but friendly parent,” Sarah said.

Yeh said as he’s gotten older, he has more of an understanding of his upbringing.

“They raised me putting in good intentions, but you don’t see those good intentions until much later on,” Yeh said. “You see that they want what’s best for you. You see that they want you to be successful.”

These good intentions, as well as the values passed down by his parents, have given him an appreciation of their efforts.

“We still owe our parents so much,” Yeh said. “If they become old and they needed our help, we would always be there for them like they were always there for us.”

Despite the younger generation feeling a pressure for success, in general, parents only want the best for them.

May parents with a Vietnamese proverb that her mother once shared with her, “Ngó lên, không bằng ai. Ngó xuống, không ai bằng.”

The meaning is, “Look up, and you won’t compare yourself to others. Look down, and there is no comparing others to you.” This proverb she now passes to her children, their friends and the next generation.

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