Acculturation Among Asian Immigrant Families

By Annie Sung, Assistant Teacher

On a visit
to Bing, Dr. Jeanne L. Tsai, assistant professor of psychology at Stanford, explained her study of how acculturation affects parent-child relationships. Specifically, how do children from Asian immigrant families adjust to their American environment while being raised by parents whose
values and beliefs may differ from those of most Americans? Tsai collected data from children with Chinese, American, and European backgrounds. She found that Chinese American youths who felt more Chinese than American were emotionally closer to their parents than those who felt more American. Conversely, Chinese American youths who felt less close to their parents also felt closer to
their peers.
Little research looks at how acculturation might influence the relationship between parents and children, despite the increasing number of immigrant families in the United States. In the year 2000, 8.6
percent of US family households (9.05 million households) included a foreign-born member, usually a parent or other adult, and 16 percent of children were being raised in such households. Often in these families, the parents are oriented toward maintaining their ethnic culture in the home, while the children are oriented toward understanding and functioning in the culture outside the home. Not surprisingly, these differences can result in
conflict between the generations.
To explore the roots of this conflict,
Tsai examined the attitudes of Chinese American youths. She gave participants
a questionnaire that probed their cultural orientation, producing ratings of how American or Chinese participants felt, and she administered the Inventory of Parent Attachment, which measures participants’ feelings about their parents. She went beyond participants’ self-reporting, studying videotapes for participants’ facial expressions and word choices as they described their parents.
The study did correlate parent-child
conflict with children’s sense of being “American.” Surprisingly, however, the increased conflict did not appear to decrease children’s social and psychological well-being. Although standard
psychological theory might predict more problems for children who felt more
cultural conflict, in fact, neither emotional distress nor behaviors differed between the groups reporting conflict and those reporting little such conflict.
To account for this surprising finding, Tsai hypothesizes that it is normal and adaptive for groups adjusting to another culture to break some ties with some individuals in order to form ties with other individuals. In the case of these children, the severed ties were with
parents and the new emotional bonds were with peers. In their everyday lives, the children found the cultural information of their peers more relevant, not that of their parents, so they adjusted and functioned in the new culture by aligning themselves with peers. Indeed, Tsai found in a follow-up study that children who felt more American, although less close to their parents, also felt closer to peers than other groups. In the future, Tsai may conduct longitudinal studies to chart how parent-child relationships change over time and to discover whether, given
time, children re-form close bonds with their parents.
•       •      •
Being like Jeanne Tsai, a child of
immigrant parents, I was naturally very interested in the effects of acculturation on family dynamics. It was satisfying to find my own experiences and feelings reflected in Tsai’s research, for my family relationships were also affected by the conflict I felt in acclimating to this new
environment. Tsai’s research can help me understand strains and conflicts in
immigrant families, including my own and others I encounter.

On a visit to Bing, Dr. Jeanne L. Tsai, assistant professor of psychology at Stanford, explained her study of how acculturation affects parent-child relationships. Specifically, how do children from Asian immigrant families adjust to their American environment while being raised by parents whose values and beliefs may differ from those of most Americans? Tsai collected data from children with Chinese, American, and European backgrounds. She found that Chinese American youths who felt more Chinese than American were emotionally closer to their parents than those who felt more American. Conversely, Chinese American youths who felt less close to their parents also felt closer to their peers.

Little research looks at how acculturation might influence the relationship between parents and children, despite the increasing number of immigrant families in the United States. In the year 2000, 8.6 percent of US family households (9.05 million households) included a foreign-born member, usually a parent or other adult, and 16 percent of children were being raised in such households. Often in these families, the parents are oriented toward maintaining their ethnic culture in the home, while the children are oriented toward understanding and functioning in the culture outside the home. Not surprisingly, these differences can result in conflict between the generations.

To explore the roots of this conflict, Tsai examined the attitudes of Chinese American youths. She gave participants a questionnaire that probed their cultural orientation, producing ratings of how American or Chinese participants felt, and she administered the Inventory of Parent Attachment, which measures participants’ feelings about their parents. She went beyond participants’ self-reporting, studying videotapes for participants’ facial expressions and word choices as they described their parents.

The study did correlate parent-child conflict with children’s sense of being “American.” Surprisingly, however, the increased conflict did not appear to decrease children’s social and psychological well-being. Although standard psychological theory might predict more problems for children who felt more cultural conflict, in fact, neither emotional distress nor behaviors differed between the groups reporting conflict and those reporting little such conflict.

To account for this surprising finding, Tsai hypothesizes that it is normal and adaptive for groups adjusting to another culture to break some ties with some individuals in order to form ties with other individuals. In the case of these children, the severed ties were with parents and the new emotional bonds were with peers. In their everyday lives, the children found the cultural information of their peers more relevant, not that of their parents, so they adjusted and functioned in the new culture by aligning themselves with peers. Indeed, Tsai found in a follow-up study that children who felt more American, although less close to their parents, also felt closer to peers than other groups. In the future, Tsai may conduct longitudinal studies to chart how parent-child relationships change over time and to discover whether, given time, children re-form close bonds with their parents.

•       •      •

Being like Jeanne Tsai, a child of immigrant parents, I was naturally very interested in the effects of acculturation on family dynamics. It was satisfying to find my own experiences and feelings reflected in Tsai’s research, for my family relationships were also affected by the conflict I felt in acclimating to this new environment. Tsai’s research can help me understand strains and conflicts in immigrant families, including my own and others I encounter.