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The Acculturated Families

“Since we arrived, his behaviour changed. He is always on his phone commenting and checking other girls’ photos, he told me that I needed to lose weight to look ‘sexy’. He never helps me around the house but he expects me to work and share 50% of our expenses. In my home country I was a homemaker and I never worked but now I feel pressured to contribute financially.” 


“She is so westernized that I can no longer recognize her as my wife. She talks to strangers online and she waits and counts number of likes she gets on Facebook after posting her picture and then she obsessively reads the comments about her beauty. In my culture, we do not allow women to put their photos as their profile picture on social media but she never listens and I regret the day that I came to this country.” 


“They want to control everything about me, the way I talk, the way I dress, whom I talk with, and it makes me so mad that I feel like ending my life, I’m in a prison, literally. They have such weird ideas like not making friends with boys, I mean who tell their daughter not to talk to boys? All my friends do. I feel embarrassed in front of them, and sometimes I wish I could go invisible.”


Migration to another country can be a source of joy and great stress as well. Coming from a war affected country, it is relieving to know that your life is no longer in danger and you are in a safe place now. However, interacting with new country’s citizens who differ from you in so many ways such as physical features, eating food, dressing up, listening to music, and other belief systems can be both exciting and hectic. For example, if a person is passionate about music, the new country can offer a wide range of music genres to explore;  for a person yearning for higher education and not having had access in their mother country, receiving such opportunities in the new country can be a delightful experience. The sociocultural differences can be thrilling to learn new ways of navigating life for better adjustments but sometimes the differences can be clashing with personal identities of individuals, families, and groups.


According to Berry, Poortinga, Segall, and Dasen (2002), acculturation is when a culture changes due to contact with another culture.  Many immigrants, both as individuals and groups, go through the process in varied forms and degrees. The experience varies from person to person – for some it would be a behavioural change such as new ways of dressing up like the dominant culture, while for others it would be a belief change such as rejecting some of traditional values of the original culture which no longer serves them any purpose in life. However, change is not always easy and it often comes with stresses, such as relationship conflicts that can lead to family problems and marital dissatisfaction and in a few cases leading to disorders like anxiety, depression, and suicidal behaviour.


Mostly people do not intentionally make the decision of cultural change. The process can be subtle, gradual, or even accidental without the changing person’s knowledge but it is often people around them that observe the person’s changed attitude and behaviour.  For instance, in the above example, the husband describes his wife’s changed behaviour since they arrived in west while the wife may have not noticed. Thus, change comes unannounced and unnoticeable for the persons themselves while family members who are not going through similar processes often disagree or complain about the person’s changed behaviour.


Sometimes change is discouraged or even resisted by a partner, family members, or groups and as result the changing person might feel alienated or stigmatized within the original culture. For example, the teenage girl in the above example is feeling like a prisoner and the consequence of breaking the rule, which in this case is cultural beliefs, and it can lead to harsh criticisms or even punishments. In extreme cases, the person could be shamed for their acculturated self and therefore it might lead to unfortunate consequences such as substance abuse, suicidal ideation/behaviour, and other forms of mental health concerns resulting from social isolation and rejection.


To prevent such outcomes it is important to understand cultural change and its varied forms. Berry et al., (2002) identify four types of acculturation or cultural change and they are assimilation, separation, marginalization, and integration. Assimilation is when people embrace the dominant culture and reject their own culture while separation is rejecting the dominant culture and holding on to one’s own culture. Marginalization is when a person rejects both dominant and their own culture while integration is accepting and incorporating the two cultures together. According to the authors, most studies found that integration was preferred form of cultural change due to positive outcome of psychological and sociological wellbeing of the persons. In other words, people who maintain some elements of their own culture while adding some of the dominant tend to be more satisfied with life in general and their overall adjustment in society.


However, the concern is that not everyone goes through the same process at the same time and therefore couples and families can end up with conflicts. Identifying the level of acculturation and understanding it within a couple’s relationship and family unit is the first step towards solving problems. Members can get together in a safe environment such as therapy to discuss and negotiate their differences and open up about their expectations.


If you are struggling with such issues in your family, book your appointment with your therapist today.


Khobi Attai, MA, specializes the areas of cultural adjustment, acculturation, and communication, as well as a variety of other subjects. For more information on Khobi and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.