Over the past 20 years, the number of immigrants to the US from India has grown exponentially. As a result, large numbers of Indian American adolescents in the US are bicultural, navigating both the mainstream US culture and Indian culture. Youth receive explicit and implicit messages from their environment, from parents, relatives, peers, teachers, and media about who they are and who they should be. These messages can conflict when a youth functions in two cultures that have divergent expectations and values, sometimes creating tension within the youth and between the youth and the adults and peers in their lives. Creating another complication for Indian American youth as they form their identity is the model minority stereotype, assigned to many Asian groups including youth of South Asian ancestry. As there is limited research on Indian American youth and their bicultural experiences, this study examines the impact of the model minority stereotype on their day-to-day experiences.
Participants were recruited from key US cities using community representatives and snowball sampling. Nine Indian American adolescents, ages 12-17, were interviewed regarding their bicultural experiences. Data from semi-structured interviews were analyzed using Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis. This approach allowed for the close examination of each participant’s experiences and exploration of how these experiences converged and diverged from each other. In analyzing data, several techniques were used to avoid bias and assumptions about expected findings.
Four themes emerged: (1) Cultural frame switching is common; (2) Model minority stereotype is complicated; (3) Model minority stereotype and bicultural experiences are linked; and (4) Gender expectations are clear-cut. These themes illustrate that Indian American youth live a nuanced and complicated life as bicultural individuals who grapple with the model minority stereotype that is endorsed by family (parents and relatives) and others (peers and teachers).
Implications and Conclusions
All youth reported seeing themselves as bicultural and experiencing different values and standards in the American and Indian cultures. These differences influenced all aspects of their lives, from relationships with parents, to academic performance and future aspirations, to social interactions at school and in their Indian communities.
A major finding was the symbiotic relationship between the youths’ bicultural experiences and the model minority stereotype. Youth reported that, at home, parents maintained the model minority label by setting expectations for the youth in academics and career. In school, the youth faced two types of responses: teachers looked at them favorably due to the stereotype; however, when their peers saw them as part of the model minority, the label had a deleterious impact on their social life. Trying to maintain or live up to the model minority label in their bicultural world made interactions difficult and often stressful. Parents, extended family, teachers and school personnel could benefit from learning about the experiences of Indian American youth in that-it could help adults avoid unwittingly endorsing such stereotypes and be more likely to support these adolescent’ efforts to define themselves and their own aspirations at a pivotal time in their identity development.