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Oriental Orientalism

May 12, 2010

Some Issues in the Development of the Young Adult Second-Generation of Iranian-Americans by Behnaz Pakizegi, Ph.D. (published in the Fall ’92 & Spring ’93 issue of Pardis)

The young adult second-generation of Iranian-Americans was raised in varying degrees in the American Society, by parents raised mainly in Iran. What were some of the practices and values with which parents came to the U.S.? How did they compare to those in the U.S.? And what did the parents’ attempts at balancing the values and practices of two different societies mean for the development of the second generation?

A significant issue for the second generation has been that of cultural identity. Who am I? An Iranian, an American? What does it mean to be Iranian-American? The background of these identity questions lies partly in the parents’ feelings and perceptions of this issue. Many parents alternately vacillated between glorifying and vilifying Iran and the U.S. On the one hand, many parents felt a great deal of pride in Iranian culture and customs. It was partly because of this pride, that before the Revolution of 1979, most Iranians came to the U.S., not to say, but to get what was good about the U.S. (education), and then to return to the ‘best place in the world’, Iran. In a parallel way, the view of the U.S. was, and is, that it is not ‘cultured’, that its morals are loose, and that people here know little about human relations. Simultaneously, and in a contradictory way, Iranian parents looked down on themselves and up to the U.S. They considered themselves ‘backwards’, and Americans as ‘advanced’. To live in ‘America’ and to have their material affluence was an ideal for many Iranians.

For many of the parents, the above contradictory feelings and perceptions were part of a deeply felt ambivalence about staying in the U.S. or going back to Iran. Thus the second-generation was growing up in a family where one foot was in the door of the U.S., and one foot was out the door toward a return to Iran.

What did all this mean for the development of the second-generation? As the children were growing up in the American society, and becoming more and more ‘American’, they heard and sensed the double messages about who they were and who they were becoming. The second-generation’s dilemma often was to the extent that if they remained mainly Iranian to please their parents, they would be misfits in the American society. To the extent that, if they incorporated American ways, they would be disappointing their parents.

How their parents themselves resolved the conflict in their feelings about Iranians and Americans, had a lot to do with their children’s adjustment. The decision to stay in the U.S. helped resolve some of the conflict the parents felt. If the parents further developed an integrated view of both cultures (i.e. that each has both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects, rather than one culture being mostly ‘good’ and the other being mostly ‘bad’), they psychologically allowed their children to take more freely from both cultures and to forge a new identity as Iranian-Americans. If the parents could not form an integrated view, the children would feel pressed to choose one culture over the other. Some would become ultra-American and deny their Iranian heritage altogether. ‘Farhad’ would become ‘Fred’ and eat only hot dogs and hamburgers. Others would become ultra-Iranian. This could take a variety of forms. For example, they might have difficulty forming friendships with Americans. Or they might become super Moslems.

For the second-generation, the issue of cultural identity often took the form of how to balance one’s relationship with family and society. While this is an issue for all young adults, it is doubly so for the second-generation Iranian-American. This is partly because of the contrast between the parent’s background and upbringing in Iran, and the circumstances in which they raised their children in the U.S.

Parents of the second-generation grew up among an extended network of aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives, who were interdependent on each other for emotional as well as physical help. ‘Eating alone’ in Iran meant that the family of two parents and four kids did not have any visitors for that meal. In the U.S. it means a single person sitting in front of a T.V.

Being a good parent meant providing well for the physical needs of their children; i.e. the best food, clothes and housing one could afford. Education was highly valued, as well as raising children to be well mannered; i.e. obedient to elders, and with polished social skills. Other than these needs, the feeling was that children will grow up by themselves, in the context of relationships with adult relatives and peers (often cousins).

Parents of second-generation Iranian-Americans came from this background to a society where not only their relatives were not there, but the society emphasized work rather than relationships, friends rather than relatives, and independence, individualism and democracy rather than interdependence and obedience.

In the U.S., the parents, but especially the mothers who had the primary role of childrearing, felt a deep sense of loss and isolation. There was no one there to ask questions from, to get help from, to leave the children with. No one felt as good as a relative. They had to learn to replace relatives with friends. They wanted Iranian friends, but the absence of clear Iranian communities meant that they had to look for them, and friendships took time to develop. Fathers often got involved in the larger community sooner because of their work outside the home. Mothers, restricted more to the home because of the children, felt more isolated.

All this meant that the parents, and especially mothers, became even more emotionally involved and demanding from the immediate family, i.e. their spouse, and their children. Needs for warmth, support and help, fulfilled in Iran by many relatives, now had to be fulfilled by the immediate family. This was something exaggerated if the parents had difficulties with English. The children then became increasingly needed by the parents to navigate in the society.

The second-generation thus grew up in a family with a high degree of expectation of interdependence and obedience. In the meanwhile, the children were receiving messages from the American society (e.g. peers at school, T.V.) that the valued trait here is to be independent and individualistic. While the parents expected their children not to ‘talk back’ to them, society encouraged them to think for themselves and to voice disagreements. It is easy to see then how the issue of independence/interdependence would become a particularly significant one for the second-generation.

If parents were able to find fulfilling new avenues of support for themselves, they did not lean so heavily on their children. Friendships with other Iranians, and gradually with Americans, gave these parents new relationship and new sources of support, help and information. In these families, the interpersonal skills so well mastered in Iran, enriched their children’s lives, and provided them with good models. These children were given psychological space to develop in their own ways in the context of warm and close family relations, with the support of parents who were coping well with major changes in their own lives.

However, if the parents were unable to develop new ways of interrelating in the American society, increased demands were put on the children for the fulfillment of parental needs. Parental depression or self-involvement meant that children became increasingly evaluated in terms of how well they fulfilled their parents’ needs. A role reversal situation became more likely.

Instead of parents taking care of their children’s emotional needs, increasing demands were put on children to take care of their parents’ emotional needs. Children were often made to feel guilty if they wanted to be with other, or started to develop different ideas than the parents. The second-generation then had the choice of overt rebellion, giving in to parental demands, with subsequent restraint in individual development, or convert attending to their needs, while they kept the appearances for their parents.

Thus, second-generation young adult Iranian Americans have had to deal in significant ways with the issues of cultural identity and independence/interdependence in its bicultural context. They have had to do these in parallel with their parents who were also redefining themselves in a new culture. Many of our second-generation still experience a great deal of inner conflict about these issues. Others have come out of these years with a strength that comes from the resolution of difficult conflicts. They have proudly taken on the complexity of being Iranian Americans, without feelings like they have to simply choose on culture over the other. They have balanced the skills of interdependence with those of individualism and independence, rather than be hampered by overuse of one set of skills.

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