Living in Two Worlds


It's Friday. A girl comes home from school to her mother who greets her at the door. She dumps her backpack on her bedroom floor and her books spill out. The girl sees that she got a text from her friend, and she hastily texts back before getting a head start on her homework.


The girl grabs a moon cake from the kitchen that her mother had set aside for her. Her mother sits her down in the dining room to ask about her daughter's day. The daughter switches from texting in English to talking in Chinese. She tells her mother about her trigonometry test that morning. She neglects to tell her about her history class on women's rights and her modern art class, because she knows it would make her mother uncomfortable.


The girl tells her mother in rapid Chinese that she's done with her homework and mentions that there's a mandatory school function that night which she will have to attend. She asks her if she can go over to a friend's house to study in the meantime. Her mother refuses because she had arranged for a tutor to come over.


The girl puts on a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, because she knows her mother would approve, but secretly packs a crop top and shorts. She empties her backpack of books and puts in her change of clothes.


Her mother drives her to the school and drops her off. She tells her that she'll pick her up when the function is over. The girl tells her mother that she will call.


The girl finds her friend. She switches to English and tells her that she'll be right back. She goes into the bathroom and changes into the clothes that she brought. She now looks like all the other kids at the dance. She deeply loves her mother, and hates lying to her, but she knows that is the only way she'll understand. Avoiding the issue entirely by just "slipping out" is the only way she feels she can maintain her loving relationship at home, but still fit in with her schoolmates, who are themselves doing something that is supported by their parents.

In today's world, scenarios like this one are more than frequent. They're everywhere. Being born or living in a different country than the country your parents grew up in has become more and more regular. In the U.S. where the word "immigration" is often on people's lips, statistics such as nearly one-quarter of the 70.9 million children and adolescents under 17 in 2009 had at least one immigrant parent (Migration Policy Institute and U.S. Census Bureau) are often thrown around in the media. The untold story of immigration is the stress put on adolescents who need to simultaneously live in two different worlds.

When hearing these facts and statistics, my mind always jumps to these teenagers. It might be because I was not born in the U.S. and one of my parents is an immigrant, so I find myself thinking about what life is like for them.

In the home, these teenagers are brought up within the traditional culture of their parents. They eat their customary quesadillas, sushi, and xiao long bao, but even more than that, they're brought up with the ideas and values of their parents' cultures. Parents inevitably dictate what ideas and activities are suitable for their children. They hint at the life they want their children to lead. Even the most independent teenager is influenced by their parents.

However, as soon as these teenagers leave their house, these values and expectations begin to lose their meaning. Instead of it being something that unites them with others, these traditional principles create cultural boundaries between teenagers. Seeing this and desperately wanting to connect with others, teenagers cast off their identities and roles in the home and put on a new culture and set of values.

When outside the house and at school, teenagers are in another world. This modern world is defined by pop culture, slang, and the Top 40s list on iTunes. Values are altered and what's expected of these teenagers change. Their roles are now different and they find themselves shifting to fit this other world.

Sometimes, it's wearing clothes that are totally different. Other times, it's more subtle: the vocabulary that teenagers use, or the things they talk about. The shift from long sleeves to sleeveless. From "yes" to "yeah."

These teenagers change themselves multiple times a day to adapt to these different worlds. Of course this isn't something that they necessarily have to do. But it makes them fit in, and growing up, often that's the one thing that teenagers want most. Changing themselves multiple times a day, conforming to what their parents want, what their friends expect, gives them the ability to feel accepted both in their home and in their school.

These teenagers experience a unique stress, but in their eyes, it's worth it. They remake their identity and essentially become a different person to satisfy others around them, but in doing so, they please themselves. They exhibit a different set of values to belong to each environment. In most cases, these teenagers are not pretending to be something they're not. Rather, they are simply compartmentalizing -- willingly playing multiple roles in the drama of their life, adding an extra layer of stress to their teenage years.