Parenting in a Foreign Society: An African American Immigrant Struggles to Reconcile Two Cultures

The World Bank estimated in 2010 that the US was the fifth most popular destination for African immigrants. If you factor in the fact that Africa’s working age population is projected to double by 2050, there are many indications that the African immigrant experience in the United States is not a temporary one.

Many Congolese immigrants that I’ve spoken to have told me of their problems disciplining or harnessing their children once they are exposed to American culture. The differences in parenting, I’ve discovered, are not just limited to the Congolese immigrant and refugee experience, but are indicative of the African immigrant experience as a whole.

This audio piece tells the story of one Burundian parent from New Hampshire and his struggle with the question: How do you discipline your kids in a completely foreign environment?

Do You Sugar-Coat Your Immigrant Experience?

I heard a really interesting piece from WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show where a young immigrant from the Congo named Danielle discussed how difficult her life is in America and how she feels she must lie and “sugar-coat” her situation to her family back in Africa.

Danielle, who lives in New York, had to move to a homeless shelter with her family after her stepmother lost her job. She suffered from the strict rules of the shelter and was embarrassed to explain her situation to her friends at school (“I didn’t want people to see me as a poor person.”)

“When I first came here, I was surprised. I thought everything was just perfect – but it wasn’t,” Danielle says on the show, and says that she lies to her mother back in the Congo, telling her that her life is better in America than it is in reality. “I don’t tell her that I live in a shelter.” She was so miserable that at one point she thought she might want to return to the Congo.

“When new immigrants come to the States they expect a new life… and sometimes what you get is a new life that you might not have expected,” says Kim Nicols of African Services Committee, who also appeared on the segment.

Click to listen to "Being Honest about the American Dream"

Click to listen to “Being Honest about the American Dream”

The idea of sugar-coating the immigrant experience to family and friends back in their native country seemed to strike a chord with the Lehrer audience. The show opened their phone lines to hear from listeners, and got lots of responses.

“I came here during a very traumatic time in my country’s history,” says Idina from New Jersey, who came to America from Liberia at age 13. “But I did realize that my situation was 100 times better than anyone’s situation in my country.”

But the other two callers echoed Danielle’s sentiment that life in America was not congruent to the experience they were expecting. People from home expect you to have money just because you’re in America, says Sulemon from New York. Felix on Staten Island agreed: “You can’t tell them the truth… if you aren’t making it in America, you will be seen as a failure.”

I’m interested in hearing how other peoples’ experience jive with Danielle’s. If you’re an immigrant from the Congo, what do you tell your friends and family back home? What do you say when things aren’t going so well?