An Integral Approach to Diversity

Alzak Amlani, Ph.D. • Psychotherapy, Consultation, & Workshops
220 California Ave. Ste. 120, Palo Alto, CA 94306 • (650) 325-8393
3821 23rd St. San Francisco, CA • (415) 205-4666
Anxiety & Depression
Reducing Stress & Meditation
Meet Alzak
Lectures & Workshops
Work of Robert Johnson
Upcoming Book

Honoring Your Culture; Shifting Your Culture

Here you'll find an article on East-West psychology, and numerous questions & answers on cultural issues.


Migrating from a culture where one's family has lived for centuries can be a challenging, bewildering, as well as a creative and growthful experience. Leaving one's home, extended family, culture, and country is a period of life that encourages reflection and exploration into one's roots, present encounters, and aspirations by telling one's stories and engaging in dialogue with one another. Becoming bi-cultural in the West, means acknowledging the sense of dividedness common in integrating two vastly different civilizations with some conflicting values and lifestyles. To what degree is one's racial and cultural identity sustainable while living fully in the present culture? What are some primary psychosocial differences between South Asian and North American cultures? How does our upbringing and childhood influence us and therefore the culture, and vice versa? The following article, conveys experiences, theories, and conjecture based on cross-cultural research by various psychologists, sociologists, and educators as well as my own experience and insights in working as a psychologist with South Asians in California. To differentiate between the two cultures their contrast is highlighted, yet most individuals and families fall at different points in the spectrum of Eastern and Western models of human development. Pondering these differences promotes self-understanding. Clarifying some of the psychological underpinnings of a society assists in resolving conflicts between men and women, parents and children, bi-cultural relationships, as well as groups and communities.

The all-gratifying mother

By broadly observing Indian and American families from the lens of Western psychology, we see two very different psychological models. In India the role of the mother in raising a child is paramount. She provides tremendous physical and emotional contact and closeness to the child. From birth till the age of about four, the mother is all-gratifying to the child. The various needs of the children are attended to immediately to relieve stress, aloneness, and anxiety. The child is held more often and may even sleep in the same bed as the parents. The mother's role includes preserving and passing on the various familial, cultural, and religious traditions necessary for family cohesion and continuity. The mother is parenting from the ideal of the all sacrificing, selfless mother. Mother isn't just one individual, but often a collection of people (extended family--aunts, grandmothers older siblings, and maids), who care for the child and symbolize the archetypal Mother. The common separation of children from adults witnessed in America, is minimized in India, and children are included in most activities throughout their lives. Traditionally, there is a de-emphasis on the conjugal marital relationship, encouraging the mother's primary emotional investment in the children, especially the sons.

Incorporating the other in myself

In most cases independence and individual desires of the child are discouraged. Parents are often less focused on the specific needs of each child, and therefore will usually not support the son's or daughter's assertive expression of their own will. The well-known, "No" of a two-year old in America--a way for the toddler to start gaining independence, is greatly discouraged in most South Asian families. This begins to prepare the child for close extended family relationships throughout life--a strong value in Eastern cultures. In certain families the boy is so cherished that he may be treated as a little prince or the center of the family, allowing him to become quite self-absorbed. Obedience to the distant and disciplinarian father-authority actually enhances the mother-child bond, especially the boy to his mother.

The tremendous involvement of the family in the child creates a person who has deeply internalized the expectations of elders, culture, and religion. One is not raised primarily to live for self and follow one's own desires and dreams, but instead include and even fulfill family and cultural expectations. Extended family becomes the dominant center of a person's life. Shaming is often used quite successfully in moral formation, controlling behavior, and conforming to rather well-defined hierarchical role-expectations. Elders frequently influence, if not make many major life decisions including education, vocation, and marriage. These decisions are locked into place by strong communal norms. The well known and expected American crisis of adolescence isn't as widespread, and is often prevented. The strong sense of independence, separation, and aloneness, more common in Western cultures is minimized, and an Indian may feel much more tightly woven into the family's fabric to live close-knit, interdependent relationships. South Asians incorporate the other more fully into their psychological make-up. Thus they often respond and expect more from each other. Rather than thinking of oneself as an individual "I-self," one feels more like a collective "We-self." It is as if parents, siblings, and tradition are living inside oneself.

Western self-reliance

In the West, especially North America, the emphasis is instead on individual expression. It begins with the child having a hospital birth away and separate from home and family. Cribs, car seats, and individual bedrooms train the child to become autonomous and independent. The mother's optimal role is seen as lending strong emotional support and presence to the gradual psychological separation from the maternal figure. The goal of parenting is to help the child become self-reliant In the American model both "overprotective" and "emotionally unavailable" mothers are considered to interfere with the child becoming his or her own person. Although the child is aware and responds to the parents, it is of a much lesser magnitude than in South Asian societies.

Self-reliance, self-assertion, self-actualization, and much open, verbal self-expression is promoted in the West. In adolescence an American has to make numerous choices-personally, socially, educationally, and morally. The American teenager is actively involved in self-creating an identity, an "I-self" supported by "American individualism." A youth is expected to function apart from the family in a variety of situations, in a highly mobile society where there is considerable shifting of job, social relationships, marriage, and place of residence. The individual is more or less on one's own, and must learn to become one's own person, and go do his or her own thing-at least compared to more traditional cultures, such as India. The teenager participates in various organizations, clubs, and groups and begins to focus greatly on relationships outside the family. Thus, in American psychological make-up the individualized "I-self" is dominant, with the "Familial-self" or "We-self" residing in the background.

An unsupported nuclear family

Due partly to American individualism and industrialization since World War II, extreme trends have rapidly replaced community. There has been a decline in nuclear and extended families, one-wage earner households, mothers working in the home caring for children, and geographical stability. It is estimated that 58% of American children spend a great part of their lives in single-parent homes. The traditional extended family living close by is rare, leaving the nuclear family virtually unsupported. In the nineties it was estimated that about 75% of all American mothers worked outside the home. As a result the number of infants in day care has increased 45% since 1980.

The family and cultural systems in place for centuries have been pulled apart in a few decades. These differences and changes have many ramifications, especially for people who are bi-cultural. Balancing traditional values and lifestyles that foster stability, continuity of history, language, religious practices, and a sense of belonging to a community, while assimilating and acculturating in the West requires active exploration, learning, and help. People are conflicted between modern perspectives and traditional values, that may seem oppressive. If ignored these issues increase the divide between people, adding to the cultural and generational gaps evident in immigrant families. Pursuing this integration with awareness is a worthwhile endeavor, allowing us to accept and embrace important aspects of our heritage and personalities into happier, more creative, and balanced lives.


Questions & Answers

Western I-self vs. the Eastern we-self

Q: In a previous issue of India Currents you wrote an article about the Eastern we-self and the Western I-self. I was born in India and came to the States when I was 14. I think I identify as an Indian, but have many Western values that are in conflict with my upbringing. Sometimes, I feel I don't belong in either culture. How can I begin to resolve this conflict?

A: Explore the Eastern and Western parts of your personality and lifestyle. How are you more like your parents versus your American peers. As a bi-cultural person, you won't belong to any one culture, unless you decide to strongly live out only one side of yourself. Do you want to do that? The Eastern we-self is a person whose identity includes his family more deeply, naturally compromising and deferring to family wishes. There is more togetherness and less freedom. The Western I-self is a person who identifies more as an individual, apart from family, concerned with self-desires. This allows greater freedom, but also more isolation. Bi-cultural people face the tension of both perspectives within themselves.

If you can't be of one culture exclusively, then you have to create a third, which is a synthesis of the two. This is a new identity, which includes Eastern and Western values. Currently, westerners are seeking more community and connection with elders, as they face the loneliness related to individualism. Easterners are trying to separate from enmeshed families to honor and live out personal desires in this culture.


Mother's guilt or children's obligation?

Q: I am a mother of five children and originally from a village in Rajastan, India. We have lived in the U.S. for twenty years. Although, my children were all born in India, they are quite American. My husband and I gave our lives for our children. We just assumed that our boys would be supporting us by now. They have mentioned it, but haven't done anything about it. I know in this country they have their own lives, but I am often angry and sad about it. I can't seem to get over this disappointment.

A: Having lived in India, a family-centered culture, with expectations that male children will provide for the family and elderly, this is not an uncommon disappointment. Although, every system has its problems, it seems to work well in India. Your boys are Indian-Americans, where this is no longer the norm. You have a few options here. Firstly, they are living in an individually-centered culture where the previous generation is not as well taken care of as themselves and their own children. You are caught in that change over and are the sacrificial generation.

Do you truly have a financial need or is their financial support symbolic of care? Do you feel uncared for by them? Sounds like you are reluctant to ask your sons to help you, thinking they should know better and offer help on their own. Take a risk and talk as a family about parental needs? This would be a valuable discussion, because it is very likely that your sons do you want to help you but are caught in living their separate lives


To Date or not to Date?

Q: I am a first generation immigrant from India. My sons, 16 and 14, who are born and raised in the U.S. are asking to date girls in their schools. I don't believe in dating so young, but I also don't want to come down as the heavy Indian parent. What is the right thing to do?

A: You sound like you are approaching this dilemma in a thoughtful and balanced way. Dating is a sensitive issue evoking deeper questions of cultural values, lifestyle, intergenerational and interracial differences, independence, and letting go. You were raised in a culture where respecting and following your parents' wishes was highly regarded, over your personal desires. It probably felt very natural for you. Your boys are living in a culture where choosing their own girlfriends and mate is the norm. By stepping into American shoes, where independence and personal desires are prized, you can approach your boys more skillfully. They are simply following the strong messages of this society. Yet, you also know some of those messages are destructive.

In most cases boys are not mature enough to begin dating at 14. Developing friendships, personal interests, and integrating parental values is a greater priority at 14. At 16, they are more emotionally mature, well into high school, driving, and thinking about going away to college. They have more fully integrated parental values and can choose girlfriends that reflect your standards. If they date while still living with you, it's an opportunity for them to discuss their experiences with you. Thus, they can learn from you and you'll feel much closer to them. In various ways you can teach your children what kinds of relationships are healthy as they grow into their teens. Take time to explain your point of view and be sure to listen to theirs. If they are dating it's important that you get to know the girls and their parents. Don't be afraid of setting appropriate rules regarding dating.


Myself or my Husband?

Q: My sister-in-law has come to live with us temporarily while job-hunting. Everyday, as she encounters the challenges of acculturation and finding her first job, I feel like I am reliving my early painful years in the U.S. Meanwhile, we are so involved in counseling her that I find my relationship with my husband is on hold. We never have a quiet moment alone to enjoy each other's company, or talk about ourselves. As much as I want to be there to help my sister-in-law, I am beginning to resent her indefinite stay. What should I do?

A: The early years of migration and settling can be difficult. Given the difference in your level of acculturation compared to your sister-in-law's you will each have quite different expectations of each other. Even if she respects you she may not realize your need for privacy and time with your husband. Since your husband is her brother, she may be more dependent on his help. The hectic American lifestyle requires quiet time for couples to reconnect and enjoy each other. With the added tension of your sister-in-law, if you don't make your marriage a priority, the intimacy between you will decrease and you will start fighting more.

It appears to me that you are overly-involved in your sister-in-law's life. To never have time with your husband and to put your marriage on hold means you are not approaching this issue in a balanced way. This is not helpful to anyone, including your sister-in-law. She doesn't need you all the time, so pull back and give her a chance to resolve her own challenges. Is your sister-in-law connecting with other relatives and community support? She needs to do that so you don't feel as responsible. Encourage her to reach out to community help which will be part of her acculturation process. You and your husband can gently explain the new way you want to be with her, and help her make a positive transition to the states.


From Migration to Well-Adjusted

Q: Last year my in-laws moved in with us from East Africa. We moved into a bigger house and were looking forward to this, especially since my son would have his grandparents around while he was growing up. But things have not worked out as we expected. My in-laws are not able to accept the way of life here. They are often depressed and reminisce about the good life they left behind with servants, cooks, a social life, etc. I do not know if they will ever come to terms with living in America! For my own sanity I need to make sure that they are adjusted. What should we do?

A: A major migration especially for elders who have lived in East Africa or South Asia can be quite an ordeal. The pace of life in East Africa is much more relaxed, dominated by various types of supportive relationships. Adjustment to the Indian-American lifestyle often takes two years. To help them adjust you can get them connected to the Indian community in your neighborhood. In addition to relatives and friends, this would include the Indian cultural center, temple, mosque, or church, shopping areas and restaurants where they can enjoy the sense of community and activity they probably miss. Continue to appreciate them and make them feel useful and wanted in your home, simultaneously help them become more independent. When they learn to drive they can more easily partake of enjoyable activities such as taking classes and reading interesting literature, joining a gym or taking up some recreation, and getting involved in their grandson's life more fully.

There are benefits and drawbacks to every culture and country. They have a few choices: They can begin their adjustment process by appreciating life here, accepting some of what they miss, knowing they can vacation to East Africa soon. They could choose to return back where they have roots and the "good life", or spend 6 months in America and the other 6 in East Africa. Your sanity should not depend on their adjustment. Their reactions and preferences are ultimately their choice and not under your control. Do your best as a concerned and caring daughter-in-law and then let go of the outcome.


My Baby or My Mother-in-Law?

Q: I had a baby recently and my in-laws came to help us out. They are a great help, but also a problem. My mother-in-law decides everything about the baby...what kind of diapers, clothes, etc. we should get. She says that she knows best as she has raised three children. My husband does not see this as a problem, but it is driving me nuts. I want to know the best, yet unhurtful, way to tell her to stop interfering.

A: Sounds like you are dealing with three main issues in this challenging situation: 1) a dominating mother with inappropriate boundaries; 2) a husband who doesn't know his priorities or isn't acculturating; and 3) your difficulty in holding your power as a mother and wife. Your mother-in-law is either behaving from a very different cultural or family system or doesn't know her particular role. You need to define her role as a grandmother, and your role as the mother of your child. Your are the primary caretaker of your baby, making the decisions and taking full responsibility, not her. You know your baby better than anybody else, and your baby relies on you for the best care.

While respecting his mother, your husband needs to support you, his wife and mother of his baby, rather than deferring to his mother. Sounds like he is still under her control in a way that undermines your position in the home, and you confidently parenting your child. This is not healthy for your baby, the marriage, and even your mother-in-law. Ideally, your husband should be setting the limits with your mother. You can both sit down with her and kindly explain how you feel when she takes over your role. She may not be aware of what she's doing and how it's affecting you. Your clear and firm communication will set things straight. Your baby will then trust you and feel safer with you as his or her mother.


I'm Gay; Should I tell my parents?

Q: I am 28 years old and I am gay. My parents are very old and traditional and would freak out completely if I told them about my sexual orientation. They have struggled very hard to give me a good life and education and I don't want to disappoint them in any way. But I cannot imagine getting married just to please them. I have been evading the marriage question for some time now, but I am feeling very guilty about myself. At times I feel it is better that they die, so that I don't have to tell them anything. I am so torn, please help me.

A: Being gay today and coming out to your parents is often a very difficult process. You have the added complexity of your parents age and the cultural divide between you. Fear and guilt are primary feelings when telling parents about following your sexual orientation. You have to do this carefully by getting good support and honoring your own timing. From your question and actions it sounds like you are quite clear that you don't want to be heterosexual and get married to a woman. Don't assume that your parents will "completely freak out" if you they know you're gay. It is common for parents to use guilt to have children follow their wishes; don't be crippled by this. Even the most obedient children will disappoint their parents in some ways; this is part of growing up and becoming an individual. After the initial shock, many South Asian parents remain loving and come to accept their gay and lesbian children. Do your brothers or sisters know? Come out to them first and see how they react. In most cases they will be understanding and can be your allies.

There is a brochure you can pick up from any Gay and Lesbian Center called, "Coming Out to Your Parents." It will answer many questions and help you build courage. Additionally, join a gay support group, or organization where you can meet other gay people who have gone through a similar experience. Being gay is not a recent Western phenomenon, but has been a form of relationship since humans came into existence. The Indian culture has many examples of positive same gender love in literature and art. You and your family need to know this, for your happiness and theirs.


Coming to America: Delighted or Depressed?

Q: I moved here from India two months ago. I feel that I have been uprooted from where I belong. Everything seems so alien and foreign. This feeling leaves me depressed and I am finding it very difficult to adjust to the new surroundings. My husband sees "coming to America" as a great opportunity in life and cannot relate to how I feel. This makes me more isolated. How can I cope?

A: The alienation you feel is not uncommon, especially after leaving India where you are so woven into family and community. Two months in America is a short time and you are still in the grieving stage. The culture in the U.S. can leave many people feeling lonely and living with lack of meaning. The strong focus on materialism and independence, although alluring, doesn't foster deep relationships and sense of joy more easily felt in India. Your husband is probably excited about advancing his career and enjoying a prosperous life. It's easy to get lured into the material dream, but it isn't everything. He'll have to work hard and much of the focus will be on money.

Identify what you loved in India and see if you can create some of that in your life here. This may include friends and meaningful activities. Get clear about your values and what's important in life for you. Share that with your husband. Outer success is only half the picture; true success is being happy within. Make sure you both visit India so he can re-experience some of the good aspects of life there. Finding balance in your life is where you'll be most happy. Give yourself 12-18 months to decide whether you can happily make your home in America.


I Want to Date!

Q: I was 15 yrs. old when I moved to the U.S. and now I'm 21. Since my critical teens, I grew up here in the U.S., my views are similar to American culture on dating. I want to date, but I'm not allowed to. I also feel uncomfortable talking to my parents about how I feel because they don't think the way I do. They want me to listen to them, but I want to have my own life. So, should I date without telling them, or what should I do?

A: Your question, "to date or not to date," has several important issues in it. Since you have not stated, I will assume you have moved with your parents from a South Asian country, such as India. You are dealing with acculturation and intergenerational differences, lack of communication, and varying views on dating and marriage. Your parents position and concerns are based on their heritage, where parents usually choose a mate for their child who is suited for the entire family. In most cases, the child is happy with this arrangement. This eliminates the complexities of dating, common in this culture, which your parents probably fear. Nevertheless, since you are more Westernized you have a conflict.

You need to find out exactly how they expect you to meet your mate. Will they never allow you to date, even when you're older? Will they pick someone from India for you to marry? Are you interested in any of their suggestions or plans for you? If you really want your own life, as you say, you will need to rouse up the courage to start communicating with them about these serious concerns. Have a sibling or other relative who is supportive be with you during this conversation. You'll soon find out what level of honesty your family is really interested in. Parents almost never think the way their kids do, but that doesn't imply they can't hear your feelings. Even if parents don't agree with their children immediately, they will think about another point of view and often consider other possibilities. This may take some time.

If your parents are adamant about your not dating, no matter what, you'll have to decide if you're willing to pay the price to do what you want. If you date and decide to tell them, expect them to get angry, induce guilt, and withdraw from you. This is often temporary until they realize it's not working. Then they will start considering other views and begin to focus on what makes you happy. Reassure them about them about your maturity and level of responsibility.


Too Scared to Divorce

Q: At the age of twenty my boyfriend from India wrote me a marriage proposal. I agreed, mainly to gain independence from my parents. We've been married 15 years and have two young children. Throughout the marriage my husband has been cruel towards me, is depressed, and has trouble communicating. I've been very unhappy for 15 years and feel very guilty about wanting to leave. Although, I don't want to live with him, I am too scared to divorce him. What should I do?

A: You have been living in a very challenging situation for many years. Ideally you needed to solve some of these marriage problems earlier on, before you had children. You probably tried, but found little or no support from your family, if not shame and guilt for exerting your needs. Marrying to gain independence from your parents doesn't support a solid marriage. You would naturally then become dependent on your husband, giving him the power your parents had over you. Some marriages can work with this hierarchy, if there is cultural support and you have your appropriate power in the family. The Indian culture places less emphasis on the conjugal relationship and more on the extended family. There is an expectation that having children will dissolve the marital conflicts. In the U.S. where the nuclear family is dominant, with partners needing each other for support and companionship, couples have to work harder in their marriage.

Either direction you take is going to be a difficult one: Staying in the marriage sounds imprisoning and difficult to bear. Conversely, leaving your husband with two young children is a daunting task, especially if he is cruel towards you. You have some serious issues to work out and are going to need professional help. Explain to your husband with strength and clarity that he needs treatment for his depression and must to learn to communicate with you and the children to build a healthy marriage and family. Secondly, he needs to know how his cruelty and depression are affecting you and that you and the children can no longer tolerate it. You may need to do this with a counselor or psychotherapist.


Lesbian or Married?

Q: I moved from India with my parents a few years ago. I am in my early 20's and just finishing college. My parents are now considering the marriage proposals that have been coming in. I have not dated any man and have little interest in marrying one. I think I am more attracted to women, but haven't had any experiences. I feel pressured to get married to please my parents, yet I know I won't be happy. I feel really stuck.

A: It's clear that your parents are operating out of the traditional Indian model of arranged marriages, where the husband would fit within the extended family. Your identity would be highly defined by your family, jati, and religious orientation, creating a very cohesive family and community structure. You, as an Indian-American, are beginning to explore and self-create an identity, perhaps as a lesbian woman. This is not an easy dilemma, in any family, but is a loaded one with traditional Indian parents. You are walking the bi-cultural tightrope.

I would take this a step at a time. You have two major priorities at present: 1) Have your parents stop their search for a husband. Are you ready to disclose that you may be a lesbian? If not, then simply tell them, for various reasons you are not ready for marriage at this time. This should ease some of the pressure. 2) Take the time you need to get to know your relationship/sexual preference more fully.

Talk with people you trust to help you explore these questions . There are also various South Asian Lesbian and Gay organizations which have groups for people who are questioning their sexual identities. Hearing other people's stories may help you explore and tell your own. When you feel more clear about yourself, it will be easier to respectfully communicate these aspects with your parents.


I Want to Protect My Son

Q: We have recently moved here from Pakistan. We have two children, eight and twelve. The twelve year old is very mischievous and difficult to control. My husband works as a mechanic all day long and comes home tired and short tempered. When our son misbehaves, my husband starts hitting him quite hard. So far, he hasn't caused any serious injuries, but I am worried. My husband says all disrespectful boys need a good beating, otherwise they will never learn to respect their elders. I feel powerless to protect my boy from this.

A: A man beating up on a young child can be scary not only for the boy, but also for other family members. In the U.S. this is considered child abuse and if reported to Child Protective Services, can lead to losing your children. Does your husband know the legal consequences of his aggression? If not, then you need to clearly state this to him. Are you afraid if you confront him then he will hit you too? You may need other family members and friends you trust to help you stop the violence. Your husband must be quite unhappy if he gets this angry.

Do you know why your child is misbehaving? Your husband's hitting may have something to do with it, among other important reasons. Children raised in America will not be as agreeable and obedient as children living in Pakistan. This is not the child's fault; he is being consistent with the culture you have raised him in. Additionally, he may be missing his life and extended family in Pakistan. If your son needs disciplining there are effective and safe ways to do this. You can take away privileges, give him time out, and set up a reward system. This should be done with understanding and love.


This site ( is solely owned and operated by Alzak Amlani, Ph.D.. All content is reproduced in good faith and remains the intellectual property of the author(s). All content is copyrighted 2001 by the author(s) unless otherwise noted.

Honoring Your Culture;
Shifting Your Culture
Questions & Answers
  Western I-self vs.
the Eastern we-self
  Mother's guilt or
children's obligation?
  To Date or not to Date?
  Myself or my Husband?
  From Migration to
  My Baby or
My Mother-in-Law?
  I'm Gay; Should I
tell my parents?
  Coming to America:
Delighted or Depressed?
  I Want to Date!
  Too Scared to Divorce
  Lesbian or Married?
  I Want to Protect My Son