Cultural Competence Is Not a Luxury

I recently did an informal survey of my child-of-immigrant friends, asking about the worst thing they hid from their parents when they were teenagers. A few of their responses:

–  “Secret boyfriends.” (This and “secret girlfriends” showed up 8 times, far more than any other response.)

–  “Sex.”

–  “A cellphone I bought myself when I was 17.”

–  “Bad grades.” (This showed up twice.)

–  “Talking on the phone before my parents came home, so they told me that they worked for the phone company and read all of my conversations.”

–  “Drinking.”

–  “Going to a friend’s house to work on a group assignment, and instead going to the movies/mall/watching tv with said friend.”

–  “Mail-ordered myself a dozen ducklings and included a letter from a ‘penpal,’ aka neighbor, with the money order. Denied any knowledge of said penpal or involvement with duckling procurement, and so got to keep them.”

–  “Sneaking out of the house at night to go to a party.”

–  “Sneaking high school boyfriend in my room through the second story window in the middle of the night.”

–  “Scandalous outfits.”

–  “I got a tattoo on the back of my neck and my mom saw it as she was fitting me for my hanbok. She tried to rub it off with her finger.”

–  “Bleached my hair blond, then covered it up by dyeing it back to black using a temporary dye so it slowly went back to orange/blond. ‘I dunno why my hair keeps getting lighter every time I wash it.’”

So many of us have stories like this, of things we hid from our parents because they were from another time and place and they simply didn’t understand what American high schoolers did. (Mine was talking to boys for hours – HOURS – on AOL Instant Messenger while my parents thought I was writing papers. The Internet opened up a whole new world of evasion possibilities.) Reading these stories made me laugh until I cried, so tickled was I by my friends’ ingenuity and the memories of shenanigans forgotten.

It never occurred to me that these kinds of things could be construed as anything but what they are: the developmentally appropriate behavior of teenagers, particularly teenagers with parents from other cultures. It never occurred to me that they could be interpreted as signs of flawed character, as evidence that one is capable of dark and devious things.

But then I started listening to Serial, and I learned just how seriously these things could be misread – and how significant the consequences could be.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

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