7 Ways How South Asian Culture and Being a Second Generation Canadian Intersect
Updated: Mar 5
***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical, legal, or health advice and is not a substitute for mental health services
Why is Speaking about Second-Generation Canadians and South Asian Culture Important?
This topic is as sensitive as it is crucial to bring into the light. Speaking about culture and race in the context of the challenges we face can be difficult. We may be worried about offending our families, communities, and other important people in our lives by raising these issues. However, not talking about it can also affect us mentally and emotionally.
The very things we need to explore and reflect on for the sake of our own mental health are some of the topics that we keep closest to our chest – as a result, we continue to suffer in silence with an internal battle that no one knows about.
It’s time to break the cycle and start talking about some of the key areas that connect South Asian cultural influences with how second-generation Canadians navigate the world – and give this population's mental health needs the attention it deserves.
The factors outlined below are intended to generally describe some of the common issues – they may not capture every experience or challenge but is meant as a broad overview. This also does not mean that every second-generation Canadian will go through exactly the same journey or relate to everything mentioned in this article.
There isn’t a one-size fits all approach. Experiences may differ based on your unique experiences as well as your own religious/spiritual, cultural, ethnic, family dynamics, nationality, and heritage. Feel free to consider the pieces that fit with your specific life experiences rather than focusing on it in its entirety.
1. Mental Health Stigma
Anxiety, depression, stress, school/work issues, trauma, relationship issues, substance use, and other mental health issues are often internalized in South Asian culture. It can be hard to reach out for therapy due to fear of being judged, worry that this could bring shame to your family if your identity is somehow disclosed, and a feeling of uncertainty regarding how therapy can be helpful given there may not be many other people in your family or social group who have accessed mental health support due to their own similar fears.
Mental health stigma in South Asian culture can lead second-generation Canadians to not pursue therapy when it is much-needed. They may over-think and over-analyze challenging situations because they don’t have a safe outlet to express their thoughts, feelings, and concerns.
With the rise of mental health services during the pandemic, this may encourage South Asians to feel more comfortable accessing emotional support. Therapy may be even more approachable when it is provided by a mental health professional of a similar cultural background. For example, you may feel more at ease knowing that the professional may have an increased understanding of how your cultural factors and mental health issues interconnect and, in turn, feel reassured that you will receive culturally-sensitive counselling services.
Similarly, second-generation Canadians may begin to speak more openly with their family doctors about their mental health issues and weigh the pros and cons of mood-related medication if their daily functioning in their school, work, family and social lives are significantly affected. The ultimate goal is to reduce mental health stigma so that people can get the support they need to lead healthy, happy, and fulfilling lives.
2. Parenting Styles
The parenting style in a household often sets the tone for family dynamics. You may not have received a great deal of verbal and physical affection as a child if your parents’ love was often expressed in terms of acts of service and practical care. Perhaps this was how they were raised and so this approach continued in how they raised you, and they did what they thought was best.
Your parents may have also disciplined you in a way that was common in previous times (e.g. physical punishment) but such an approach would not be accepted in today’s world. You may also have grown up in a family where there were defined gender roles in which your mother was the primary caregiver and took care of the home while your father was the primary income-earner and disciplinarian.
Parenting as a second-generation Canadian
Second-generation Canadians may adopt more flexible gender roles and may manage their children’s challenging behaviours very differently, which may not be understood or accepted by their parents.
Your parents may become critical or question your approach in caring for your kids, and it may be necessary to say that you have a right to maintain a household and raise your children in your own way based on your values and beliefs.
Learning to be independent
The interconnected nature of South Asian families sometimes leads second-generation Canadians to be emotionally, financially, socially, and resource-dependent on their parents into their adulthood.
Learning how to be independent may be discouraged, criticized, and deterred by your parents and this can perpetuate ongoing dependence, which makes it challenging for you to establish your own identity and increase your self-awareness.
If becoming autonomous is important to you, then taking small steps forward in this direction may be a good starting point towards change. Remind yourself that independence does not mean being disrespectful, rude, or arrogant and that you can still have meaningful family relationships while being autonomous.
During childhood, there may have been a large focus on your performance and achievements in school and in work later on in life. Perhaps you were only given positive feedback when you did very well – or maybe you were questioned about why you didn’t receive a perfect grade or what you could have done differently to perform better even if your performance was already quite stellar.
You may find as an adult that you tie your self-esteem to your productivity and accomplishments rather than recognizing your own intrinsic value independently from external factors. You might develop unrealistic expectations for yourself and feel that you are “not good enough” unless you do things perfectly or unless you get recognition from your parents or other important figures in your life.
Or, you might have received little feedback at all from your parents no matter what you did and this disengagement and disconnection could lead you to feel incompetent, stupid, or some other negative form of self-talk that pervades any kind of performance-related situations.
Learning how to change your internal messages from one of self-criticism to one of self-compassion can take some time to develop and may involve seeking support from a mental health professional. It’s important to break the cycle of perfectionism and understand that you have value and worth regardless of your performance, productivity, or accomplishments.
4. People Pleasing
In South Asian culture, a common philosophy is to prioritize the needs of the family over the needs of the individual. As a result, second-generation Canadians sometimes keep their own wishes, goals, hopes, and dreams to themselves if they are worried these would not be accepted by their family and/or could contradict their family’s expectations.
This may result in you choosing educational programs, career pursuits, and romantic relationships that don’t fit with your true self just in order to appease your family. You might also take on additional responsibilities (e.g. caring for elderly family members, supporting younger siblings, doing more household tasks, etc.) as part of familial obligations.
Learning to be assertive about your needs and creating healthy boundaries can be extremely challenging in the South Asian culture but may be necessary to preserve your well-being and mental health. Become aware of how you may put your own desires aside for the sake of your family’s reputation, to project a certain preferred image to your community, or to be accepted by others in your culture.
This increased awareness is a first step towards understanding the interplay between your culture and how you relate in the world – once you understand this, then you can begin to take steps towards trying to change this dynamic if you want and choose to.
Traditional gender roles
As a young adult, you may notice that the values and beliefs you gathered from your parents’ relationship may translate into your own romantic relationship in terms of gender roles, level of comfort with emotional/psychological/physical intimacy, lifestyle, and traditions.
Dating and marital pressures are often particularly felt by South Asian women, in which there is often an expectation for them to contain their sexuality, only date with the goal of getting married, raise children following marriage, and continue fulfilling traditional roles in their marriage, family, and community. This focus may also push women to forsake or reduce their attention to their education, career, and other interests.
Have open conversations with your partner about what you are comfortable and not comfortable with, including decisions about: living arrangements (with family or separately), child care and household responsibilities, career aspirations, financial management, navigating your parents’ expectations, etc. This is part of setting clear expectations that you and your partner ideally both agree on in order to present a united front in the face of the external stressors that surround you.
If you notice that conflict persists between you and your partner based on differences in how to approach various issues, this may be something you wish to explore in individual therapy to address your own specific needs as well as in couples therapy regarding relationship goals.
Cross - cultural dating
Dating outside of your racial, religious, and cultural background may be strongly discouraged by your parents and so, as a second-generation Canadian, you may feel pressure to conform to your parents’ expectations by dating and marrying a person your parents choose for you or that meet a certain list of criteria that your parents create, rather than following your own heart.
You may notice that your parents might try to make you feel guilty by saying that an unapproved relationship that they don't support for various potential reasons (e.g. inter-racial, inter-ethnic/cultural, inter-religious, LGBTQ+, etc.) may bring stress, embarrassment, and shame to the family and so the relationship needs to end for the sake of the family unit.
Despite your parents’ concerns, you may not do as they wish and decide instead to stay in your relationship, much to the dismay of your parents. This could possibly lead to you being disowned or experiencing a major rift in the parent-child relationship. Or, your parents may eventually come to terms with your relationship after some time has passed. There is another possibility where your parents may accept your partner unconditionally and, of course, that would be the ideal scenario that everyone hopes for.
Being a single South Asian woman
South Asian women who are single may feel less-than or that something is wrong with them if they have not met their future partner yet or if they want to choose a different life path. If this captures your current situation, you may begin to feel down on yourself or have difficulty coping.
A range of mental health issues, including symptoms related to anxiety, depression, stress, and low self-esteem could surface based on the increased pressures and expectations that you, as a South Asian single woman, face in your family and community. Finding a way to be true to yourself and recognizing your worth outside of your relationship status can be vital towards maintaining a positive self-perception.
Getting good grades and choosing a prestigious and well-recognized career (e.g. lawyer, doctor, engineer, accountant, professor, etc.) is often a hyper-focus in South Asian culture. Your parents may look down upon more arts-based careers as they may worry about job security and income potential, even if that line of study or career is what you truly want to pursue.
This can create family conflict as your parents may push you to follow a certain path whereas you may want to go your own way. Reflect on what you feel will make you most fulfilled and that will also allow you to sustain yourself and your potential future family (if relevant) - try to make an informed decision from that place of understanding.
7. Ethnic and cultural identity
Second-generation Canadians may experience some challenges in regards to how they identify regarding their ethnicity and culture. Being Canadian-born, they may identify more with Western individualistic values and beliefs, while also still being influenced by their parents’ collectivistic Eastern beliefs in terms of religion/spirituality, traditions, and cultural practices.
This internal conflict can become more complex when we think about the possibility of our past family generations leaving their South Asian home country to settle elsewhere in the world before eventually migrating to Canada and how they may have incorporated traditions from these other locales as well. If our parents are of various heritages - each having their own unique practices - then that is another aspect to consider.
Having many layers to your identity can result in you feeling pulled in many directions at the same time. You might end up relying on a mixture of philosophies and traditions, find yourself leaning more in one direction versus another, or taking a completely different approach entirely. You may notice that you gain more clarity over time as you figure out what approaches align with your sense of self now and possibly in the future.
It’s important to know there is no right or wrong here – people can choose to relate to whatever makes sense for them based on their own unique life experiences. Find peace in knowing that, although you may feel pressure in terms of following specific cultural expectations, no one else can truly tell you how to live and be in this world but you.
South Asian adults who are second-generation Canadians need to know that they are not alone in their struggles and that there are many others out there who are going through similar types of issues.
It can be helpful to consider the benefits of seeking therapy, and possibly seeking out a therapist of a similar cultural background as this may allow for more culturally-sensitive counselling and a greater understanding of the dynamics and issues that are raised in therapy. At the end of the day though, feeling heard and supported by your therapist are some of the most important factors that will help make counselling a positive experience for you.
Wishing you well in your mental health journey.
You can find a South Asian Therapist via the network listed below:
You can also try to search on other therapist directories for counsellors who identify as a person of colour. Other examples of therapist directories include:
It may also be helpful for search for directories in your local region. All the best in your therapist search!
Wishing you well on your mental health journey.
Davina Tiwari MSW, RSW, CSFT
Registered Social Worker and Certified Solution Focused Therapist
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