Migrant parents in Australia face a unique set of challenges in raising a family.
Children who are raised away from their parents’ home country feel both the pressure to assimilate to being Australian and the burden of fulfilling their parents’ desires to maintain a connection to their roots. In practice, this results in children having mixed views about or disassociating from their own culture and heritage. In many households, this results in two sets of cultural identities living under the same roof.
With their home country’s cultural identity still embedded within them, parents feel more rooted in their beliefs and values. In contrast, their kids are keen to grasp what their new home country has to offer to help navigate the only environment they know. The identity tug-of-war constantly pulls parents and kids and can cause a gulf in understanding if left unaddressed.
Age can be a factor in the adaptation as well. Younger kids adapt quickly to the new environment, but teenagers might face the problem of alienation from one or both cultures.
Challenging and exciting at the same time, raising a child with a complex identity bridging two cultures is a learning process for both parents and the kids alike.
Hanuman Chalisa in English
Lord Hanuman, the monkey-god, features in the Hindu epic the Ramayana.
Indian-Australian father, Rahul Agrawal says he wanted to teach his six-year-old the Hanuman Chalisa in an exciting way. The Hanuman Chalisa is a Hindu devotional hymn dedicated to Lord Hanuman. The text is originally written in Awadhi, which is an Indian language.
The Hanuman Chalisa is a holy text in the Hindu culture, and people believe reciting its forty verses helps one de-stress.
“I grew up learning all the forty verses of Chalisa, and I wanted my son to learn it but [also] understand it as well,” said Mr Agrawal.
Though curious to learn, Mr Agrawal’s son Arjun couldn’t maintain his attention towards the text because of its language. Like many kids growing up in Australia, Arjun can’t speak Hindi or Awadhi well.
“Little kids have a short attention span and they will easily lose interest if they don’t understand it,” said Mr Agrawal.
“While I was teaching my son Hanuman Chalisa I realised he wanted something with pictures and in English because he is more comfortable with the language.”
“So each night I would teach him four lines. I would write the lines on a whiteboard and explain it to my kids,” Mr Agrawal added.
Soon Mr Agrawal realised his friends wanted to teach their kids the text and started sharing it online with them.
“I searched for it, but I couldn’t find any English version of the text, so I turned my little project around and published the book,” said Mr Agrawal.
This is not the first time Mr Agrawal has tried to connect his son to his Indian roots.
“We as parents talk about Indian culture to him and explain it to him so in his mind he has a lot of (positive) regard about India. He has an impressionable mind, so (I hope) whatever he learns now will stay with him.”.
The Agrawal’s want their kids to have certain values and appreciation for their culture.
As a norm, traditional values of respect, honesty and dedication are taught to almost every kid in Indian schools at an early age. Most Indian religions and cultures teach their students to respect their elders, be honest and pray regularly, among other things.
Mr Agrawal teaches the same values at home to his son. When he first migrated to Australia, he would speak with his son in Hindi.
As his son started going to school in Australia, he got more comfortable with the English language.
“We still talk to him in Hindi at home; it’s been years since we are doing this. He responds in English but at least he does understand the language.”
“He is a curious child and wants to learn about his heritage. I just need to make sure he can maintain his attention,” Mr Agrawal added.
Arjun goes to a Christian college in Melbourne where he gets his hands on western culture and at home, he learns about India.”
Rahul Agrawal with his son Arjun holding copies of the translated Hanuman Chalisa
“Differences are bound to be there because he is growing up in a totally different environment than we did but that doesn’t mean he can’t take pride in his origins.”
For parents, the task of helping their children maintain a connection with their culture is time-consuming but worthwhile. “My wife and I are working but we take out time from our schedules to teach our kids,” said Mr Agrawal.
It took Mr Agrawal six months to do his research and write the book. It can be bought here.
“I started teaching Kathak because not many in Melbourne did.”
Kathak dancer Sumona Bhattacharya from Melbourne wanted her daughter to learn Kathak as well.
The word ‘Kathak’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Katha’ meaning story. Kathak dance was performed by ‘kathakars’ or storytellers and is a North Indian dance that dates back to the 1500s.
Known as ‘Guruji’, which means teacher, by her students, Ms Bhattacharya started teaching Kathak to her daughter Ramona when she was a little over four years old.
“I wanted my daughter to learn Kathak but it was 2008 and there weren’t many schools teaching the classical style dance form,” Ms Bhattacharya said.
The idea of starting a school for Kathak took shape when a friend suggested it to her.
“My friend said, ‘just start a school’ and I said ‘what do you mean I should start my own school,’ but then I thought about it and that’s how Ghungroo School of Dance came in.”
“It’s been 12 years now,” Ms Bhattacharya said.
Sumona’s students performing Kathak on stage
Ms Bhattacharya started this school and soon realised that many parents wanted to teach their children classical dance to make them feel closer to the roots. She makes sure her students know the historical and cultural aspects of the dance.
“It’s not just about music or steps, it is more of an art which connects everyone to their roots.”
“For example, you can show the story of Radha (and) Krishna (Indian Gods) through hand movements and dance,” Ms Bhattacharya said.
She also adds that dance can’t be forced on anyone and if children don’t wish to learn it, they will not.
“Look, resistance comes when there is force. Parents can’t force art on their kids but telling them the importance will definitely spark their motivation.”
“I try to tell my students the varied benefits of classical dance in their daily life, and there are many. Classical dance is great for maintaining your body posture, keeps your legs and hands working and also builds strength and balance,” Ms Bhattacharya added.
Family Counsellor advises minimal control of children
Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner Rathna Senthil Vel says people go through different scenarios when they migrate to a different country.
“Suppose an Indian adult migrates to Australia, they always consider themselves as Indians living in Australia, whereas children consider themselves as Australian with an Indian origin.”
“Similarly when toddlers migrate, they can adapt easily at that stage as opposed to teenagers,” said Ms Senthil Vel.
She said a child goes through multiple stages and calls for parents to be more patient.
“Many migrant parents who grew up in a close-knit family in their home country want the same for their kids. Here they end up pressuring the kids.”
“They have to let kids go a little bit. See it’s like kite flying, you have to let it lose then only it will fly high.”
“I know parents get worried and they want their kids to be safe but there is no set book for parenting, it has to be dynamic.”
Rathna Senthil Vel, family counsellor
She wants parents to adapt themselves. In a country that focuses a lot on individualism, restricting their children is not a good option.
“Once the child starts going to school then the major difference comes up. Parents can’t stick to the old school style of parenting and these are the challenges they face in primary school.”
“In the high school years, different challenges come up for parents. Children want to experiment, they have peer pressure and want to get life skills,” she said.
She adds that every parent wants their children to reach their full potential and be in a safe environment.
“A migrant parent shouldn’t restrict their child to their own culture, let them make friends from different cultures and let them learn.”
“Also, it is important that you be with your child, go to their events. It gets hard as a migrant and people are often working but it is necessary to take out time for your kids.”
In the end, Ms Senthil Vel added, “It’s worth it.”