One of the most difficult and frightening experiences that anyone can undergo is that of a new immigrant. Making the brave decision to walk away from the safety and security of everything one has ever known to cross over into a strange place that in most respects is alien to one’s native land is life-altering. Such a transition is fraught with challenges: language barriers, a difference in customs, new laws, and the list continues. One of the most challenging aspects of this transition is one that seems to never end: raising children. Few understand the conflicts of raising children in a new country than the children of the immigrants themselves. They have one foot in their parents’ chosen home and another in the customs that these same parents imported. Being the son of parents that immigrated to Canada from the West Indies, I have had my fair share of culture clashes with my parents. These clashes manifested themselves in a variety of ways. Sometimes it would be the spicy home cooked dishes in my thermos at school, other times it would be the rules surrounding the way my non- West Indian friends must act when they visit. The most contentious issue of them all was dating.
In the old country, there was not the same diversity of race, religion or culture. No matter who they chose back home or within a similar community, there was a general sense of familiarity and a set of rules by which all of the parties played. In the cultural mosaic that is the great white north, the dating pool is larger and the cultures more diverse. The likelihood that their children will meet and fall in love with someone that is not from their community is very high, and for many parents the prospect is terrifying. The very idea of their child dating someone that is does not have the same customs, religion, values, or mother tongue is unfathomable. This is especially problematic for them if their child should choose to date someone that is considered undesirable in their home country because of their race or religion, even if those social hierarchies do not exist in their adopted home. The customs surrounding dating in the new country are different, and sometimes directly contravene the traditional methods they grew up with before migrating. Some cultures forbid dating altogether and prefer arranged relationships, others require little to no familial involvement. Some family demand that the groom pay a dowry for the bride, others prefer the opposite. Even with all of these considerations, the children born in the new country may not even care about these old customs. When the differences become conflicts, the results can be devastating. There can be bitter arguments, broken relationships, and sometimes complete estrangement. These conflicts are painful, and sometimes the damage left in their wake is irreparable.
This issue is discussed in the 2006 single Benthi (Daughter) by French singer Mélissa, featuring the famous Algerian singer Cheb Khaled. In this almost operatic French and Arabic language pop single, a conversation takes place between a father and a daughter about love. The daughter, played by Mélissa, is pleading with her father to allow her to pursue a relationship with a man with whom she has fallen deeply in love. Concerned for his daughter’s well-being, the father, played by Cheb, is in complete opposition to her desires and fights her bitterly to prevent the young lovers from being together. Here is the video (click here for a translation of the lyrics into English):
At first look, this is just a simple song about a father that doesn’t want his daughter to date her love interest, but the song has a deeper message. One of the most striking aspects of this song is the choice of language. Though both singers are fluent in the French language, the decision was to write the song is both French and Arabic. Arabic sung by the father, and French sung by the daughter. This contrast of communication styles illustrates the gap between the immigrant father and his daughter born in a new country. They are speaking two different languages to each other, his represents the old country, and the way that he understands the world, hers represents the world that he has chosen to raise her in and the world that she lives in now. Throughout the song each pleads with the other to listen:
Laisse moi faire mes propres pas
tu ne seras pas toujours là pour guider mes choix non
sais tu combien tu comptes a mes yeux sache que rien ne changera
je serai toujours là pour toi…
Mezel sghira 3omri mezel bach tefehmi
al7ob rah s3ib ou balak tenghabni
sem3i li ya benthi inti 3omri ou nos qualbi
khayef 3lik ana tenghabni…
Let me do my own steps
You won’t always be there to lead my choices (no)
Do you know how much I care for you?
Be sure nothing will change, you’ll always have me
You’re still too young, sweetheart, to understand
That love is dangerous so be careful
Listen, daughter, you’re my life and a half of my heart
I fear that you leave and suffer…
In these clashes of perspective, the argument often degenerates into a back and forth of people begging to be heard and simultaneously refusing to listen. The parent plays on authority and experience to support their argument, when it is really based on fear. The child argues that the parent, so deeply wrapped in the righteousness of their own traditions and prejudices, fails to consider both their happiness and the fact that they grew up with a different culture. This is usually born out of the frustration of feeling trapped by rules that only exist at home and not in the outside world. The father’s frustration is exacerbated by the fact that his daughter refuses to take his word as it is, and hers is found in his refusal to change his perspective and understand that simply being her father does not mean everything that he says is right.
How do we bridge this gap? The song offers a solution. In the music video, the door to his daughter’s bedroom opens, and Cheb’s character welcomes her with open arms. This is a metaphor for acceptance. He has to accept that his daughter is no longer a little girl, and that she has grown into a woman with her own set of values that are a product of the world he chose to raise her in. Often times it falls to the parents to be willing to open up to their children and the lives that they choose to lead. By virtue of having left their home country and raising a family abroad, the parents must then accept that their children will have different values. They will go to different schools, they will have different friends, they may lose the ability to speak their parents’ mother tongue, and they may even choose a different religion or eschew the concept all together. These differences will continue to manifest with increasing intensity as the children grow into adults and assert their own identity. Parents are left with a choice: accept their children for who they have grown into, or risk losing them altogether.
The daughter, who speaks for the children of immigrants, exemplifies what is required of them in order to maintain good relationships with their parents as they transition into adulthood. She demonstrates three key traits: understanding, respect, and patience. She understands that her father has a set of beliefs and that his actions are not out of malice for her happiness, rather they are a manifestation of his fears that she may have her heart broken. She respects that he is only doing his best to be a good father and therefore does not scorn or insult him, instead, she appeals to his paterna caritate. She confronts him with the fact that even though he wants to protect her from heartbreak, he is causing her worse heartbreak in the process. She reassures her father that she is not going down a destructive path and that he will not lose her, even if he lets her go. She remains consistent, persistent, and willing to have the long and difficult discussion, seeking to understand why her father would forbid the relationship, and in so doing forcing him to confront his own biases.
The song finishes with the pair reconciling and the father opening up to his daughter’s choices. He finally accepts that she is not only an adult, but that she can make choices that will be different from his own and still live a good life. He accepts that where his daughter is concerned, there are simply things that are outside of his control. He has to trust that she is competent and self-aware enough to make the right decisions. In the music video, it shows that for her part, the daughter brings her love interest home to meet her father. She gives him the respect of allowing him to be a father figure and allowing him to see her life for what it is. In doing so, she is no longer forced to live two lives and can be completely herself both inside and outside of the home.
The lesson here is that even though it can be frightening, parents must accept that their children will see the world differently, especially when they are raised in a different country. Their children must understand that despite their wisdom, their parents are still people. They have fears, they make mistakes, and they only want the best for their children. For this reason children must be patient and willing to take the time to make them understand that despite the gap between the immigrant parent and the first generation, the bond of love between them should be bridge enough for them to reach a mutual understanding. The song, though idyllic in its analysis, teaches that the solution to the intercultural, inter-generational conflict between immigrant parents and their children isn’t taking a stance and refusing to budge. It shows is that neither clamping down on the child nor rebelling outright against the parent is the answer. The solution is dialogue, especially when the child has become an adult. They must be willing to listen to each other and in so doing so find a compromise that brings them closer together instead of tearing them apart.
Until next time, be good to yourselves and each other.
Adam H.C. Myrie
Image Credit: YouTube.com
More about Mélissa: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melissa_M
More about Cheb Khaled: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khaled_(musician)