DEAR YA FICTION, NOT ALL DIVERSE TEENS CELEBRATE THEIR CULTURE(S)
By: Sonia Patel
In June, my husband and I took our two half Filipino-half Indian teenagers and their three half Filipino-half white cousins to a Little Simz concert in Chicago. Little Simz, a black rapper from England, delivered nothing less than powerful, feminist bars. Her inspiring lyrics seemed to light up Lincoln Hall’s dimness and hypnotize the eager crowd. My family and I head nodded, deep in the zone. And when Little Simz spit the words “the Philippines” in a hook, our kids, nephews, and niece exploded with pride, their fists thumping their chests then pumping high over their heads. I stood behind pressing my hand on my heart and smiling, overcome with a mix of awe and happiness for them. But then a thin layer of sweat formed on the small of my back. I peeled my shirt as guilt and grief took turns trying to tug the corners of my lips down.
Why can’t you be that proud of being Indian?
You know why.
Sure, but it’s not like you’ve ever been starving or had acid thrown on your face so get over yourself.
But things were bad in a different way.
I don’t celebrate my Indian culture. I never have. I don’t know how to because I was raised around it, not in it. Growing up, it was as if I was an outsider sitting in a dark theater watching our Indian relatives and family friends on the big screen like a Bollywood film. I studied the intricacies of my mom and grandmother’s daily Hindu worship of Thakorji. I noticed the way my mom lent a helpful ear and hand to everyone, despite some of her in-laws putting her down. I plopped down on the sofa next to my mom when she was engrossed in one of her pirated Indian movies depicting perfect, loving families. I was fascinated by the beautiful, intricate saris and gold and diamond jewelry Indian ladies wore to weddings and garba...the delicious, complicated food my mom and aunties made......the emphasis on hard work and education...the sacrifice to help my generation make it in America….
Still I didn’t feel Indian. I felt worthless. What no one knew was that at home, my family’s way of life, our secret culture, was that of isolation, conflict, and abuse.
Now as an adult I recognize the elements of patriarchy, misogyny, and intolerance long present on one side of our extended Gujju network but the culture of dysfunction (COD) at home was its own terrible beast. Simply put, my dad was a charming tyrant. My role was his wife. My mom was his servant. My mom and I existed, voiceless, to accomodate my dad in every way.
Instead of getting a shot at normal teen emotional development, I was in a perpetual state of anxiety to keep the peace at home, and then in my future relationships, even if that meant making poor decisions. Instead of having the opportunity to build my separate identity and self-worth, I learned that my only value was in pleasing my dad, and then men like him who similarly lavished me with attention in exchange for my emotional and/or sexual usefulness. And instead of developing skills to maintain healthy, nuanced peer relationships, especially with girls, I didn’t trust anyone.
Looking back I’ve come to understand that my family’s COD trumped any protective effects of my Indian background. Why? Because the COD was the lens through which I saw everything Indian. And since there wasn’t a single day of my youth that I experienced my Indian-ness independent of the COD, the two became inextricably linked for me. Being Indian was foreign to me yet I equated it with pain.
I’m not alone. Many of the diverse teens I treat who live in COD don’t have strong connections to their birth culture(s) either. Let’s face it—COD is universal. In my office, when these teens reveal their agonizing stories of abuse, neglect, parental drug use, parental mental illness, and/or other severe adverse childhood experiences, their mental suffering is similar regardless of their backgrounds. It’s true that they may manifest some culturally specific variations in symptoms, but there are undeniable commonalities in their negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. That and the medically proven trauma-induced brain changes are the same.
In order for youth to survive traumatic experiences that are out of their control, dysfunction can become hardwired in their developing brains. They can become stuck in survivor mode as COD clouds their vision and becomes the blueprint for future relationships, leaving them prone to an endless cycle of repeating and recreating what they’ve endured at home with others. This is largely why the buffering effects of their birth culture(s), such as positive relationships with extended family members or participation in traditional activities and religious practices, can remain out of reach.
It’s crucial to understand that these diverse teens are often alienated from their backgrounds because they never experience it apart from their COD. They are shoved onto different playing fields of development far apart from teens being reared in healthy families where culture isn’t shrouded in toxicity. So to expect all teens, particularly those from cultures stereotyped as nerdy and family-oriented immigrants, to rise above their struggles is unrealistic. More likely these vulnerable teens living in COD may have extreme difficulty making friends. Or, they may choose another family of “bad kids.” They may not be able to set limits with people. They may engage in repeated risky, quick feel-good behaviors (sex, drugs, alcohol, etc.) not condoned by their birth culture(s).
Let’s take fifteen-year-old Kaya (not her real name), a part Native Hawaiian-Filipino-Japanese girl who I began treating recently. She wants to feel connected to her family’s blended way of life but can’t. She’s spent her youth battling recurrent negative thoughts, flashbacks, depression, suicidal thoughts, and worthlessness. Our talk therapy to this point has given her insight into why her neural circuitry hardwired with depression and anxiety—it allowed her to survive the abuse. Her symptoms told her that the abuse was her fault, thus giving her a sense of control in a situation that’s been totally out of her control. It’s my fault. I’m bad. I deserve it. Why else would the people who say they love me the most hurt me the most? Why else would the people who’ve taught me cultural values of family, respect, and honor treat me and each other like this? She wants to feel pride when her family participates in Native Hawaiian activism but ends up feeling disgust. Her profound emotional burdens have denied her the mental free time to be a “regular teen.” She hasn’t dreamt about her future or romance or hobbies or college or achievement or the next party. She can’t help but feel like an imposter at family gatherings and traditional ceremonies. She hasn’t had a fair chance to form strong female friendships. She hasn’t been able to set limits with boys—she’s allowed them to push her around and she hasn’t been able to say no to sex like she wants to. She also hasn’t been able to come out as lesbian though she identifies as one.
This brings me to YA fiction. Obviously teens read for different reasons. Some of my diverse teen patients enjoy escaping the hardships of their lives by immersing themselves in YA fantasy, dystopia, or paranormal. Some are drawn to YA romance. There are some, however, who seek to find themselves in books. But diverse teens being raised in COD have a difficult, if not impossible, time finding themselves in existing YA fiction. At this time most of it celebrates different cultures. Most of it includes at least one functional parent who protects against the occurrence of COD and therefore makes it possible for the birth culture(s) to be appreciated.
Kaya hasn’t found herself represented. How can she when COD has prevented her from experiencing her birth cultures without bias? How can she when she feels distant and, at the same time, repulsed by her birth cultures?
When I was Kaya’s age, I couldn’t find any Indian or Indian-American YA novels. There are some these days but I can’t relate to any of them. That’s one of the reasons I wrote Rani Patel In Full Effect. It’s why I decided to keep writing (Jaya and Rasa: A Love Story, Bloody Seoul, and a fourth YA novel in the works).
Teens living in the complex dynamics of COD may not be able to see themselves in diverse YA fiction, including realistic bestsellers, that happen to be by or about people of their same background. To think otherwise—from my point of view as a child and adolescent psychiatrist in the trenches with vulnerable teens—is short-sighted, minimizing, and insulting to those in the midst of survival and in the most need of empathy from sources outside of the family.
YA fiction needs to expand its boundaries beyond safe, popular stories that affirm and praise different cultures. It needs to push past the expectation that all diverse teens can conquer adversity in a tolerable way. It needs to depict the ugliness of when COD hijacks birth culture. It needs to represent the unpalatable perspectives of teens who don’t have the luxury of enjoying their cultures and working through typical teen concerns. It needs to embrace painful reality, not just what’s convenient. It needs to champion these types of troubling diverse stories the way it does those stories that make people feel comfortable, content, and less guilty. Afterall, the Kayas of the world are worth it even if they themselves can’t feel worth it yet.