ERIC Identifier: ED306329
Publication Date: 1989-00-00
Author: Ascher, Carol
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban
Education New York NY.
Southeast Asian Adolescents: Identity and Adjustment. ERIC/CUE
Digest No. 51.
Over the last years, the adjustment of adult refugees has tended to be
evaluated by two elementary standards: economic sufficiency and proficiency in
English--minimums for survival in a new land. Similarly, the adjustment of
student refugees has been judged by how well they do in school and their fluency
in English. Yet, refugees of all ages know that they need far more than jobs,
grades, or even English to feel at home in their new country. They must be
accepted and respected by the native population, and must adapt to a new culture
without relinquishing the heritage that had been fundamental to their
development so far.
ADOLESCENT REFUGEES OR REFUGEE ADOLESCENTS
from all the Southeast Asian ethnic groups have adopted the dress, hairstyles
and manners of American teenagers. Like many newcomers, they first take on the
outward cultural traits of their American peers. Yet, internally, particularly
among those who arrived in the United States as adolescents, the ethnic identity
of Southeast Asian youth remains strong and specific: they see themselves as
Hmong, Khmer, Vietnamese, Sino-Vietnamese, or Lao. Not only do they rarely make
friends with American students, but they have few cross-ethnic friendships with
other Southeast Asians (Goldstein, 1985; Peters, 1988). For example, Vietnamese
youth who participate in gangs do so largely among themselves (Peters, 1988;
Rumbaut & Ima, 1988).
Whether refugee teenagers are considered successful Americans or problem
Southeast Asians, it is important to realize that they are operating out of four
identity systems that at times overlap but more often are in conflict:
o Southeast Asian
o adolescent Adolescents who migrated after the age of 11 have suffered
particular stress. This is because they simultaneously had to pass through the
developmental crisis of "identity formation," characteristic of adolescence, and
the historical crisis of becoming a refugee (Nidorf, 1985).
Southeast Asian students have a reputation
for having positive attitudes toward education and doing extremely well
academically. In reality, though, not all students are excelling, often because
of school-induced problems, such as indiscriminate age-grade matching, poorly
designed and staffed English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) programs, premature
mainstreaming (often into low-achieving classes), and general insensitivity of
the school system to their special needs (Goldstein, 1985; Peters, 1988). Coming
from much more authoritarian education systems, Southeast Asian students can
also sometimes see their American schools as having no behavioral limits, and so
become discipline problems (Wehrly & Nelson, 1986).
The significant influx of Asian immigrants and
refugees over the past decade has led to anti-Asian sentiments, and even acts of
violence around the country (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1988). No
different from their elders, white, black, and Hispanic students can be
extremely intolerant of the new Southeast Asians (Peters, 1988; Rumbaut &
Ima, 1988; Wehrly & Nelson, 1986). In some cities, name-calling and other
taunting has provoked Southeast Asian students to fight back, and Vietnamese
students have a high rate of school suspensions caused by self-defense in such
situations (Rumbaut & Ima, 1988).
This prejudice against Southeast Asians creates a vicious cycle. When
Southeast Asian students feel hostility from native teenagers, they either act
out, become apathetic, or turn all the more determined to preserve their
cultural identity--any of which, not surprisingly, leads to further
nonacceptance (Goldstein, 1985).
THE PACE OF ASSIMILATION
Peer pressure on immigrant
students is even greater than on the American-born. Southeast Asian adolescents
quickly take on the outward cultural traits of those around them--at the expense
of their own cultural heritage. At home, these new traits often cause friction
within families, who rightly want to preserve some of their own traditional
School counselors can help refugee youth slow the process of assimilation to
a rate acceptable to both them and their parents. Teachers can alleviate peer
pressure by working with all students to help them understand cultural
differences, and by using multicultural teaching materials and methods (Yao,
SYMPTOMS OF STRESS
Although school personnel have expressed
a need for better clues to stress symptoms among their Southeast Asian students
(Wehrly & Nelson, 1986), these adolescents often manifest problems in ways
that look American: gang behavior, drugs, suicide, alienation, family conflict,
poor achievement in school, the adoption of extreme dress and makeup. In
addition, Southeast Asian students can show stress through depression,
somatization, withdrawal, and, in the extreme case, psychotic symptoms
(Nicassio, LaBarbera, Coburn, & Finley, 1986).
Whatever the outward manifestation, it is important to understand that the
underlying causes of refugee students' problems may be their particularly
stressful experiences both in Asia and in this country. These experiences
o pre-immigration factors, such as their ethnicity, class status,
and general cultural values;
o migration factors, such as their time of departure, and their
escape, camp, and migration experiences, and
o post-migration factors, such as whether they now live with
their own family, how different their new environment is from
the one they were used to in Southeast Asia, and the
reception of the host community (Nidorf, 1985). Not surprisingly, Southeast
Asian adolescents who emigrated with their parents, or are in foster care with
other Southeast Asian families, do better in school and are much less depressed
than are those adolescents placed with American families or in group homes
(Porte & Torney-Purta, 1987). School personnel should also be aware that,
while refugee youth may have coped well during their initial post-settlement
period, the trauma, hardship, and stress of disruption and resettlement may show
up later, after the basic needs of safety, housing, jobs, and language are met
Involving parents in the school can help
decrease the tension between the culture of the home and that of the school.
Schools can also offer special sessions to acquaint parents with the school
system. Unfortunately, many school projects have failed because there were no
native language speakers. To be successful, parent involvement efforts must be
spearheaded by bilingual personnel. So far, schools have created ties with
parents through afternoon and evening ESL and high school equivalency
certificate classes, parent-teacher conferences, multilingual newsletters and
handbooks, and theater trips. Because the Hmong and Lao, who have little formal
education, are the least likely to be involved with English outside the ESL
classroom, special efforts may often be necessary to get these parents involved.
Conferences with bilingual teachers are particularly important.
Although Southeast Asian refugee youth may look
a great deal like any American adolescent even when they show signs of stress,
it is important to remember that their lives have been extremely different, and
that the stress of adjustment continues to be great long after their survival
needs have been met. Like all teenagers, these refugees are struggling to
develop an adult identity, but those who have arrived in the U.S. during
adolescence must also work through the trauma of being refugees.
Goldstein, B.L. (1985). Schooling for cultural
transitions: Hmong girls and boys in American high schools. Doctoral
dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI.
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Diseases, (174) 9, 541-44.
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