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Bridging the Gap

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    Maryam is 13 years old and is the second oldest of six children. She has started to feel resentful about having to help out with her younger siblings, especially as she feels that her older brother is allowed a lot more freedom. She has also started to resent some of the strict rules placed on her – the fact that she has to wear Asian clothes whenever the family visits their relatives. She is proud of her culture and her religion is important to her but she sometimes feels caught between two cultures.

    Hassan is 15 years old and is the only son of Hibbah who came to the UK not knowing her husband and very little of the culture. Hassan is the sole source of her love and joy. Hassan feels that his mother puts pressure on him all the time and is constantly disappointed with his school grades. She goes between being overprotective towards him (not allowing him to walk to school with his friends) to being cross with him due? to unrealistic expectations. Hassan loves his parents dearly but feels that they just don’t understand him at all.

    These are stories based on families and situations I have encountered many times during my time as a community worker in an Asian community in England. I noted not just a generational gap that exists between parents and children from immigrant families (as there tends to be in all families) but also a cultural gap. This gap seems to become more pronounced the more the child develops and is perhaps most significant for the oldest child in the family. For example, this child may grow up hearing and speaking Urdu, Punjabi or Bangladeshi at home and mixing only with members of their own community.

    Once the child starts school he or she is subjected to a completely new world. Not only the language used, but the rules about behaviour and values may be different. The new adult role models may dress, think and act in a very different way. The confusion may not be on the side of the child only but also on that of the parents. I have constantly heard from mums that schooling in Pakistan is very different. ‘Teachers in England don’t discipline children properly.’ I have heard a number of times, ‘Look at this handwriting and spelling – how are they allowed to get away with it?’ (This may come from an alternative view that children should develop independent writing without necessarily correcting all of their mistakes)

    As they children get older they are subjected to ‘British values of tolerance’ which include views about sexuality that they are highly unlikely to have encountered at home. Teaching on relationships can be counter-cultural to any faith communities but perhaps most of all to Muslim communities where marriages are still often arranged to some extent and dating still regularly discouraged.

    Then there may be the different aspirations coming from home culture and school. I love the portrayal of the relationship between father and son presented in the movie Blinded by the Light. The father came to Luton from Pakistan to try to make a better life for his family. He has worked long hours in a factory in the hope that his children might get a good education and decent career while his son Javid is being encouraged at school to focus on his dreams of becoming a writer. He states that, ‘My hope is to build a bridge to my ambitions and not a wall between me and my family.’

    Dad’s response is not affirming. ‘I’m not your typical Pakisatani father who says you must be doctor, I’m saying lawyer, accountant, estate agent but a writer???’

    I have heard of the sacrifices made by many first generation immigrants with the basic aim of seeing children well educated. A friend was telling me only the other day about the time her parents-in-law left their large home in Kashmir, with lots of land and a high standing in the community to come to the UK to live in terraced home which involved experiencing racism and working long hours in poorly paid jobs. For them it has ‘paid off’ – their five children have all gone on to successful careers in different areas. But dreams for the next generation can be easily shattered when they choose to pursue what is not seen as a worthy career or when they achieve poor results at school.

    Finally, there may be conflict within certain cultures around the desire for girls to be educated but also to be protected and eventually to be married. A father may have various responsibilities placed upon him, to ensure that the children do not stray too much from culturally accepted ways of behaving, to make sure they do well at school and to make sure his children are married. One lady was telling me about the problems they were facing as a family of five girls. The older one had done well at school and also accepted the suggestion of marrying a relative in Pakistan which was proposed on a summer visit to their family but the older girls were less accepting of the idea. ‘They have their own ideas about what they want to do in the future and when and who they are going to marry,’ she told me. Although fathers can appear overbearing at times, this can be the result of the pressure they feel to preserve the family honour in a shame culture – they often feel disempowered by being in an environment which is in some ways alien to them, where children grow up being taught to challenge their thinking and this can result in an attempt to control through strict rules.

    The need to preserve honour for the family is far reaching. Even a more forward-thinking lady who works as a family worker was telling me how she felt about allowing her daughter to leave home in order to attend university. ‘It might be the best place for her to study,’ she said, ‘But how does it look that I have allowed my daughter to attend a uni three hours away from us where we have no control over what she does. All sorts of things might happen!’

    What is my/our response to this? First of all I see many positives in these situations. There is a richness in experiencing more than one culture and language which can inform and shape an individual in a very positive way. At the same time when I have listened to both parents and children discussing their frustrations and fears I urge them to communicate with each other openly – dialogue can allay suspicions and worries and create better understanding. Communication between teachers and parents is also important and both sides can benefit from working to understand the other better. And finally, we can consider being a listening and supportive mentor and friend in a way that demonstrates God’s own heart for individuals and compassion for their situations.


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