Being brought up in a migrant family can sometimes feel like being stuck to family members like superglue, for better or for worse. This strong sense of family is – I believe – due to the migrants putting so much emphasis on family and community when they migrated to Australia. It was a scary foreign place to them, with people of different customs. In many cases, it was safer to stick with their circle, which was to be protected at all costs.
While this superglue can have its up sides (like providing safety and security), a consequence of this is that it can sometimes be overbearing and claustrophobic. This can be the case especially for children born into migrant families, or children migrating at a very young age. As you grow into adulthood, your values, politics and ethics may differ from those your parents brought you up with. This conflict can be complex if there is a huge difference in ideologies.
“This can lead to real dilemmas for people - the desire to be themselves and the desire to belong and be accepted by their family."
Psychologist, Sian Khuman, who has over 15 years of experience working with family relationships comments on the matter.
Rigid family systems or family units with strongly held beliefs and expectations may “set up a situation where [a child] has less flexibility to express and explore being and doing things that are different from the family discourse”.
“This can lead to real dilemmas for people - the desire to be themselves and the desire to belong and be accepted by their family. This can also lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety and other [mental health] concerns [if the person is not accepted by their family].”
I lived my life according to what was expected: I studied business, married and had a child. But when I realised, many years later, that my beliefs and my lifestyle were not what I had chosen for myself but what was expected, I began to question my life and search for my own identity.
My misery forced me to begin a personal journey of my own to find out who I was and what I wanted from my life. This meant separation from my husband. If you originate from a migrant family where family is everything, you’d know that this is a decision that does not go down well with your immediate and extended family.
The push-and-pull between what my family wanted and what I wanted was traumatising for both sides. I had never lived on my own so, once separated, I would tremble in the night. I didn’t have anyone I could turn to that understood what I was going through. My identity was always my family, and when that was out of the picture it felt as if I was a cat with my whiskers cut off. But I could not go back to the way it was. I could not be what everyone wanted me to be. I had to be myself and I would pay whatever price to achieve this personal goal, even estrangement from my family.
But when I realised, many years later, that my beliefs and my lifestyle were not what I had chosen for myself but what was expected, I began to question my life and search for my own identity.
Looking back, I wish I handled it better instead of cutting my family off for a period of time.
Khuman advises others people going through a similar situation how to cope. The relationships professional says take time out and try to find a time that is not distracted with other demands, and speak from the ‘I” and be open to hearing their opinions and thoughts.
“Instead of being defensive, try and understand their positions while still holding true for you what you are expressing to them. They may not agree but be able to make sense of your decision. It may be an emotional conversation, so ensure you have some self-care strategies on hand.
“If the discussion is not working out well, decide whether you might need to hold off on continuing, and suggest to have another discussion on another day.
“The other option is to seek out a family therapist to assist in the discussion.”
Many people might decide against doing as I did and cutting family out because they fear family estrangement and having no one. And for a long time, for years actually, that’s how it felt. But you create new friends and communities. For me, it was the poetry community: their encouragement and support gave me confidence and belief. But all I really wanted was the approval of my family.
A friend of mine from a migrant culture, who came out as gay, once told me he went through a similar experience and knew how it felt to have disapproving parents: ‘I promise they will come around," he said. "At the time I didn’t believe him. But now, seven years after the ordeal, I learned he was right. They did.
I realised that they are not always going to approve of everything I do or say.
What’s great now isn’t just the fact that we reconciled, but that I am able to be myself and have them in my life. It took a lot of work and patience. I realised that they are not always going to approve of everything I do or say.
I used to take this so personally, and get deeply affected. I wanted them to accept all of me and approve and be proud of it. But recently I realised that it’s not because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t. They too have been traumatised and affected by their own experiences of migration. It is those experiences that moulded who they are.
So I have learnt not to take it so personally when they get upset and instead I take it with a grain of salt. I know they love me, and this is their way of trying to protect me. I want them to accept me but I have to accept them too. I have stripped the shame of letting them down, let go of the guilt, because it was not mine to take on. They had their dreams for me but it’s my life and I have my own dreams too.
The ground-breaking new six-part documentary series, Look Me In The Eye, continues on Wednesdays on SBS at 8.30pm. Each episode will be available to view on SBS On Demand after broadcast.
Koraly Dimitriadis is a freelance opinion writer, poet, filmmaker, theatremaker and the author of Love and F**k Poems.