Navigating and Negotiating Cross-Cultural Experiences and Identities Among Mainland Chinese Immigrant Youth in Canada
Juggling multiple identities across cultures is a complex task for immigrant youth. During adolescence, youth cement their self-identity, expand social worlds, and renegotiate with their parents the boundaries around independence. In addition to their developmental tasks, immigrant youth also need to manage the intercultural differences in languages, values, beliefs, and traditions. Delineated by categorical topologies, existing acculturation models have provided helpful insight in immigrants’ cultural adaptation outcomes, but they are limited in their understanding of cultural negotiation processes.
Since the 1990’s, Mainland Chinese immigrants have significantly contributed to Canada’s population growth. Moreover, as Mainland China has adopted the “One-Child Policy” since late 1970’s, youth from Mainland Chinese families may experience family dynamics different from that of Chinese families from other origins. Given the background, the study focuses on immigrant youth from Mainland China and aims to understand how these youth navigate and negotiate their cross-cultural experiences and identities.
Following Charmaz’s constructivist grounded theory approach, we recruited 16 Mainland Chinese immigrant youth aged 16-24 years. Parents of seven study youth also consented to participate. Biographic interviews were employed to explore the participants’ life experiences and transitions throughout the course of migration. In addition, we asked participants to freely map in diagrammatic form the cultural values and practices essential to them. Youth also used the map to compare any changes or differences over time and across different contexts (e.g., family, school, work). All transcripts were transcribed verbatim, and interviews conducted in Mandarin Chinese were back translated in English. Data were analyzed iteratively by investigators with different expertise and cultural backgrounds. Memoing, audit trails, triangulations, and member-checking were used to ensure study rigor.
Several themes emerged from the analysis. First, youth can possess multiple cultural identities, and use them fluidly. A certain identity (e.g., Chinese or Canadian) may become more prominent depending on what they do, whom they are with, and where they are. Second, how youth utilize their cultural assets is contextually related. For example, one may be “a Chinese daughter” at home, but “a Canadian” at school and work. Youth may also have multiple social circles, some of which are ethnically defined. Third, youth identity construction is an ongoing process, with a spatial-temporal continuity. Some youth indicated that they moved from being Chinese to being “Westernized” when they were younger. However, as they grow older, the trend is reversed. Fourth, youth are limited in exercising their autonomy in the negotiation process. While some youth express desires to be treated as “Canadians”, they experience being “rejected” or “othered” due to individual markers such as their accents and skin color. Lastly, while both immigrant parents and youth experience life struggles post immigration, parents – particularly those who had a strong relationship with their children prior migration – can be instrumental in assisting youth in navigating the process.
Study results suggest that the cross-cultural negotiation is a dynamic and contested process. The study has potential to advance cross-cultural and youth development research and inform the development of culturally-responsive practice.