“when a cousin questions
where I’m from, my tongue
becomes a salmon, pink and floundering.
as if an answer could be found in a lifetime.”
Trying to Find Home by Juliet Lubwama 

Being an immigrant teen in America comes with many complicated experiences, internal and external. It can often feel overwhelming to navigate a new and unfamiliar space, while simultaneously balancing your relationships to your culture and family. It’s common to feel alone in this experience. 

Who are immigrant teens?

To me, being an immigrant teen can encompass many different things. If we’re speaking in numbers, one in four children were part of immigrant families in 2021 – which is about 18.4 million kids. These might be children of parents or grandparents who were immigrants. In 2021, 2.5 million children were foreign born themselves.

These differing distances from immigration itself can create varying experiences for each individual. But I’ve found that there are many similarities running through these differences. 

In my case, I was an immigrant myself, but came to America at age five – young enough that my dream-like memories of Iraq and Syria could be wiped away without consequence. 

It’s a unique position to grow up in a place that is completely separated from your culture, in distance and way of life. Being part of an immigrant household can bring dissonance into many aspects of life. Dissonance happens when you are expected to be two different things at different times and in different spaces. This delicate juggle often brings you to a place where you feel like neither one or the other. 

You become two broken halves. One general example that can bring up this tension has to do with individualistic vs. collectivist cultures. America is highly individualistic, placing value on what the individual wants, what the individual’s aspirations and dreams are, and how to eventually separate from the family unit. My culture is collectivist, similar to many others. The value focuses on the group – on family, tradition, dependance, and hospitality. 

My story: 

My family, the four of us, immigrated from Iraq in 2008, escaping from war, death, fear, and hopelessness. My parents wanted nothing more than to offer me and my sister everything they never had. 

And they did. I never needed food. I never needed shelter. I always had toys. I went to great public schools. Even though my parents constantly struggled with money, I never felt it. 

The difficulty with my parents’ way of parenting in America came from their need to protect my sister and I from anything different from our culture. They wanted to take their home with them. They wanted to carry Baghdad around in their pocket. Some of their fears were valid, but others felt extreme, irrational, and cruel to my younger self. I understand their behavior in retrospect, after many years have passed. But then, all I felt was anger. 

Their fear of my sister and I losing our culture manifested in several different behaviors: I wasn’t allowed to see friends, I wasn’t allowed to have social media, I wasn’t allowed to date – prohibitions that I never saw my American friends experience to the same degree. 

The first time I was free to hang out with friends outside of school (and without my parents lingering in the background) was Junior year of high school. You might be thinking that I missed a lot, but I in fact didn’t. I did date, I saw friends, I had social media – I simply lied about all of it, living in a state of constant anxiety about being found out. 

This prolonged state of secrecy still affects me today, even as a college student living on her own. And that secrecy became necessary due to the dissonance between my parents’ cultural expectations and my need to connect as a teen.

What is identity conflict?

Each individual experiences identity conflict in different ways. To me, it involves a feeling of dissonance within who you are internally and who others expect you to be. 

Why do some immigrant teens experience identity conflict?

Oftentimes, your family expects you to continue embracing your culture, your language, your “values.” But, if you grow up in an environment that often opposes those views, you might be affected, shifted, changed, or morphed into something that doesn’t quite fit into your parents’ or your peers’ expectations. You might resonate with values that cannot coexist within both identities, thus creating dissonance. 

Identity conflict might make you uncomfortable sharing aspects of yourself with your family. Strikingly, my peers expressed this feeling of isolation within their families when we spoke about this issue. 

One interviewee stated “I felt like I couldn’t talk to my mom about anything.” The other interviewee echoed this sentiment, saying “I realized I couldn’t lean on my parents.” Hearing this myself was validating, because the largest amount of dissonance I experienced manifested in always being too afraid to simply confide in my parents. For me, this dissonance was due to the intense contrast of our cultural differences. 

At times, it felt like I wasn’t even their child, that I couldn’t possibly belong to this family. I didn’t feel connected and embraced by our culture in the way they did. My identity began to crack, crumble at the edges, and everyone else around me was made of a solid, confident, unbreakable frame. 

What happens to your cultural identity as a teen immigrant?

Not growing up in the country that your parents grew up in immediately creates a large difference in relatability to your parents. It has taken me a long time to come to this realization. You can’t relate to what they experienced, and they can’t relate to the new experiences you’re currently having. 

From the teen side of this duality, your cultural identity starts to become muddled. You might not feel a sense of complete belonging within your culture. A common example of this is losing your language of origin as you grow up learning English in public schools. Perhaps you struggle to communicate with members of your family that don’t speak English. This can further complicate the way you identify with your cultural identity. It is especially difficult as a teen to be going through these complications. Your identity is just starting to form, and there aren’t many explicit resources to help support and confidently form a non-traditional cultural identity. 

Cultural dissonance with your parents

I remember my dad telling me that when I first started school in America, I would come home crying every day. I was upset that I couldn’t understand anyone and they couldn’t understand me. Personally, I don’t recall this memory, and it breaks my heart that it was such a salient one for him. He had to move to a new country for safety, and then wasn’t even able to help his daughter learn English. This is an experience that I’ll never have. 

This story began to give me an understanding of the vast distance between us and why it’s even there. We both learned early on that he couldn’t help me with my new, unfamiliar problems, so I stopped going to him, and he stopped trying to help. I’m sure this happened not just with language, but with many things I was experiencing for the first time. 

Cultural dissonance with your peers

Growing up in America, I was able to find resonance, friendship, and fulfillment that I didn’t feel in my own culture. But, there was always an underlying current, a feeling of not being completely at home in my “American” life.

A common experience involves bringing home-cooked food to school and getting battered with questions: What is that? Why does it smell like that? Why does it look weird? Sometimes, I wouldn’t even know the answers to these questions. How was I supposed to know the ingredients in dolma? Or why my “sandwich” was so long, so full of cream cheese and za’atar? Or what the English word for “date” was? I experienced this frequently, due to my mom being passionate about packing my lunch every day. 

This used to be a horribly embarrassing and frustrating experience. Now I am endlessly thankful that I never had to soak the visible grease off of a pizza slice for lunch.  To experience dissonance in your cultural identity is to exist in a space of half-knowing. A floating, transient state of confusion and disconnect. 

How does cultural dissonance affect mental health?

It is common to find lots of stigma around mental health in various cultures. In my culture, people don’t talk about mental health at all. And when it is, it isn’t treated like a real issue that affects people. 

I didn’t have that education growing up. I didn’t have emotional conversations with my parents. I never shared my mind with them, and this was a suppression that built up and stuck. This suppression, along with the cultural dissonance that was discussed earlier, piled up and became difficult to deal with. The constant lying to my parents, the fear of being found out, the lack of feeling fully understood, the frustration at having to experience something that others around me didn’t – it often became too much. For me, these struggles manifested in anxiety, feelings of anger, and a sense of hopelessness. 

In a discussion with one of my high school friends, we reflected on the trajectory of his relationship with his mom. He thought back on his struggle with mental health during the first two years of college, saying “I couldn’t talk to my parents about it and that was really frustrating.” This lack of mental health awareness can be extremely isolating without proper social support (friends, teachers, mentors, etc.) 

Dealing with distance 

As a junior in college, I haven’t lived with my parents in three years, and I’ve only been recently chipping away at the distance between us. Not physical distance, but emotional. I’ve leaned on silence as a tool for so long, that I’ve lost the ability to connect with them as people. I recently had a conversation with my mom, where she confided in me about her mental health when she was younger. I finally felt like we were just two people experiencing life, instead of a mother and a daughter. 

This was a conversation I wouldn’t dream of happening even a few years earlier. I felt validated, I felt empathy, and I felt extreme guilt. I realized that her environment didn’t allow her to express these emotions, thus she didn’t express them to me. I realized that many of her behaviors in my childhood were a product of her own fear, and I had held her at such a cruel distance out of anger at these behaviors. I realized that she is the only mother I have and will ever have, and I want to have a deep relationship with her. And it might take years of chipping away at that distance. 

My friend recalled a similar breakthrough moment with his mom. One day, he just sat down with his mom and “talked to her for hours and hours.” These conversations continued to happen for them. He expressed learning so many things about her, the way she thinks, and who she is as a person. Through that experience of simply talking, he found so much love for her. That love began to fill the holes left from past anger, resentment, and all the cumulative effects of cultural tension and dissonance. 

Healing the dissonance through resonance

Where can we find comfort while experiencing cultural dissonance? This question can be especially difficult to answer if the people around you have not had the same experience. But, I believe that a good friendship can foster incredible healing, even if the person can’t truly understand what you’ve gone through. 

I’ve personally found comfort in the friendships I found in school, through marching band, theater, and now A Capella in college. Social support is the number one healer. 

In the conversations I had, interviewees commonly brought up social support. One of my friends said “I just feel like we would all explode if we didn’t have at least one person in our lives that we trusted. . . having that reassurance that you’re not insane gave me so much peace.” She specifically said “I would very much lean on my music teachers.” Her music teachers were so important in maintaining the social and emotional support that she didn’t feel she could get from her parents. 

On the other hand, it is equally as valuable to foster healing within yourself and the things you love doing. Personally, I found a lot of joy in reading, physical movement, and music, and I made sure that I always had some kind of outlet with me. It might not seem like much at the moment, but having a good book and some headphones at family functions can be a kind way to tell yourself that you’re allowed to check out if you’re feeling overwhelmed. My high school friend also found healing within himself, saying “I did a lot of internal work on my own . . . I started so many habits.” For him, these habits included journaling, and reading books on different topics of interest.  

Honoring the culture, holding the hurt

How do we honor a culture that has caused so much hurt without running away from it? 

One of the most difficult questions that I’ve had to work through has to do with embracing my culture, while also acknowledging the hurt I’ve experienced through my culture. How do we connect with our culture, without suppressing the negative things that have come out of it?

What gives me comfort is knowing that the hurt caused was often not intentional. I have held a lot of anger, and hatred at times, towards my parents. It’s easier to hold onto that anger instead of thinking about them as complex, delicate, multi-dimensional people that are going through this life at the same time as me.

Holding space for the good and bad is a constant process, and a cyclical one. However, talking about the process is a good place to start making it easier.