In the 1990’s my Nigerian parents hopped on a plane and immigrated to Britain, bringing their culture with them and aggressively planting it in the middle of an unsuspecting town in the North West of England. Despite the obviously non-Nigerian setting (i.e. a lot of rain, pound shops, white people etc.) my parents were eager to recreate their West African home to quell a homesickness that may have made them return otherwise. That meant doing things like turning up the heaters as high as their bank balances would allow (but to be honest this wasn’t done consciously…my parents were just always really cold) and connecting with other members of the African community to build a sort of cultural support network. Inside our house wasn’t much of a different story – our cupboards were stocked with my dad’s preferred brand of gari and my sisters and I each had a closet full of Ankara garments sewn by our mother, a woman who would never miss the chance to proudly parade her work using her walking mannequins (otherwise known as her kids – thanks mum). My parents possessed a strong, clear cultural identity that they were eager to share with us in order to keep us connected to what was important to them.
Many second-generation immigrants from a range of backgrounds will recognize similar gestures in their own homes. These gestures can be a way of satisfying parents’ own needs while introducing their children to a culture that they love and appreciate. In my opinion, it was hardly unintentional that we were encouraged to live in a manner similar to how my parents did so that we too could share in the delights that their countries had brought them. I would see a mirror image between the actions of my mother adorning a 6-year-old me in clay beads and the mothers in the villages teaching their little girls to tie a headtie on their heads before church – for some parents to pass their culture from parent to child is simply a gift they want to give. Overall, there is something both precious and undeniable about the effort immigrant parents go to connect their children with the environments that have nurtured and loved them so dearly.
However, this can sometimes leave a sense of being stuck in the middle – what do you do when you feel that you’re not enough of either your background and parent’s culture and that of the society in which you live?
We can see the value in introducing culture to further generations. However, often both first generation and second generation immigrants feel the weight of the “requirements” of different cultures. For immigrants themselves, this may be whether they’re fully engaging in indigenous cultural practices and passing them on adequately. For second-generation immigrants, this can be knowing how to engage with the practices of a western home environment while respecting practices of an indigenous environment that you might not have really experienced enough, leaving you stuck in some kind of cultural limbo.
Sometimes there’s an urge to condemn parents who are more reluctant to introduce their cultures to their children, when in fact this can be a means of survival. In societies such as Britain, there is immense pressure on those of foreign backgrounds to “integrate”; more often this takes the form of “assimilation.” So when looking at the current consensus on the need for immigrants to adopt “British Values” as a means to combat issues such as extremism and intolerance, we should take it with a pinch of salt. It would seem in this multicultural society, cultures that do not fit into the societal norms of white British society are scrutinised for the supposed differences that a multicultural society should very well contain. Not only that, but for those of the second-generation, issues of racism, bullying and marginalization can leave an urge to repress any sight of “otherness”.
Overall, we shouldn’t have to live with the insecurity of not feeling “ethnic enough” or the parallel of feeling “too ethnic” – how we appreciate our cultures or weave them into our lives is for US to define, not for the government, not for society or anyone else. We are living at a cultural, societal and often moral crossroads where both sides may not completely match up, but that’s OK.
Your cultural behavior shouldn’t have to validate anyone’s expectations but your own. Culture is usually about tradition, unity, and family. Your interpretation of culture is how you see yourself within that.
By Christine Ochefu
You can follow Christine here on Twitter
I’ve had some of these same feelings except as a Filipina in the USA!