New country. Old customs.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At first glance, the preschoolers attending a summer story hour look like typical American children. Seated in a cozy circle on the floor, they listen to Emily Genkin read a story about a white rooster.

They laugh at her comic gestures. They also exchange smiles with their mothers, who watch approvingly from the side.

But there is nothing typically American about this gathering. The mothers are all Russian immigrants. Mrs. Genkin is speaking Russian, and so are the children.

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Explaining why she has brought her three-year-old son here, Rimma Mirsky, from Latvia, says, "I like my original language. I want Yosef to keep his language."

Immigrant families have always faced transitions from one culture to another. But unlike earlier generations, whose goal was to Americanize as quickly as possible, some today are seeking to preserve at least a few links to the past, rather than trying to erase their own culture and assimilate totally.

"For many years, we were so busy Americanizing families that we didn't realize parents and children were losing touch with each other," says Ellen Bloch, coordinator of New American Programs at Jewish Family Service of Metrowest in Framingham, Mass., which sponsors the Russian story time.

Genkin, a former library director from St. Petersburg, Russia, describes her own role by smiling and saying, "The children think they come to play with me, but they really study Russian with me."

Their program is one of a growing number of efforts by social-service groups around the country to help families straddle two cultures. Through parenting workshops, language classes, and cultural enrichment programs, parents gain support and insight into the often mystifying customs of their adopted land. Discussions range from language and discipline to clothing, homework, drugs, and the pervasive influence of American popular culture.

For young children like Yosef, a bilingual, bicultural approach poses few problems. But when students start school and yearn to be accepted by American classmates, cultural differences loom larger. Teenagers in particular may reject their native languages and customs in a quest for independence.

"For teens, it is the most difficult time, when parents are not educated in the United States," says Son Kim Vo, coordinator of the International Development Center at California State University, Fullerton.

In 1997, 800,000 legal immigrants entered the United States. That is double the 300,000 to 400,000 admitted annually in the 1960s and 1970s. They also represent a broader range of nationalities than in previous decades. More Asians and Hispanics are coming to the US than ever before. Refugees from Eastern Europe and Africa are also expanding the cultural mix.

Earlier generations of immigrants, who typically came from Europe, often arrived in bigger families and tended to live together in neighborhoods.

Today, women arriving from other countries may be single mothers, perhaps refugees widowed by war. Many did not work outside the home in their own countries. Now they must support their families, often with low-income jobs. As they struggle to pay bills and learn a new language, they may have little time to spend with their children, increasing their sense of isolation.

"The family is defined differently here," says Genet Bekele, who came from Ethiopia to Boston 18 years ago. "In our culture, your cousins, your uncle, your extended family are considered to be your family. That helps in raising children. Lack of that is a major challenge here."

Discipline ranks as another challenge. Parents from cultures that allow physical punishment find themselves uncertain about what is acceptable in the US.

"The difference between abuse and discipline is very key," says Ms. Bekele, who counsels newcomers to the US at the International Institute of Boston. "It's not easy to learn. But we have to try to do that."

Children themselves sometimes perpetuate the confusion.

"Kids have learned that if their parents hit them, they can report them to child-protection services," says Dan Detzner, a family researcher at the University of Minnesota who has studied Southeast Asian immigrants for 15 years. Many parents live in fear that their children will report them, and that the children will be taken from the home.

Clothing, too, generates debate. Students want to dress like their American peers, with brand-name clothes and shoes that may cost more than their parents can afford.

Professor Detzner illustrates the generational differences: "A household might have a teenage boy who speaks only English. He might have spiked hair and be wearing baggy pants. The grandparents may speak only Hmong. They want the children to be respectful of traditional ways, wear clothes that fit, and look presentable to the community."

Because families often live with three generations under one roof, parents can find themselves awkwardly positioned between their children and their own parents. Dr. Vo calls them "sandwich parents." If parents side with their Americanized children, she says, they worry that they are not paying "filial duty" to the grandparents.

Other negotiations become necessary on weekends. "Parents want to drop them at the Buddhist temple for a Vietnamese class," Vo explains. "The children want to have their American activities."

In Southeast Asian cultures, adolescence as Americans know it does not exist. In the Hmong community, girls often marry at 12, 13, or 14. Boys start farming. "This idea of five, six, or seven years of gradual autonomy and freedom that we think of in America is absolutely contrary to the way they've lived their lives," Detzner says. "You're either a child or an adult."

Detzner and another researcher, Blong Xiang, a Hmong refugee, have spent six years developing a curriculum to help Hmong families. Although parenting books are plentiful in the US, Detzner says they are Western-oriented. "You just can't take some off-the-shelf curriculum and say, 'Here.' They have to have materials that speak to them."

In the workshops Detzner and Professor Xiang have devised, families meet with a discussion leader, looking at each situation from the perspective of both the child and the parent. The goal is to draw on the wisdom, knowledge, and experience of the Hmong parents themselves.

"We're not in a position to come in and tell these people how to parent their children," Detzner says. "Americans aren't always great at parenting their own adolescents." Very often, solutions blend the best practices from both Asian and Western cultures.

Even Western cultures vary widely. As a newcomer to the US five years ago, Laura Lopez was unprepared when her teenage daughter asked to spend the night at the home of an American girlfriend. Sleep? At a friend's house? All night? That was not part of her custom in Mexico, where families often allow overnight stays only with close relatives.

"It created a lot of friction," recalls Mrs. Lopez of St. Paul, Minn., the mother of three teenagers. The prom posed another challenge. Lopez and her husband compromised, allowing their daughter to go to the dance, but not to student parties in hotels afterward.

"They're protective parents in a strange country," explains Mary Rymanowski, a social worker in St. Paul who counsels Latina women. "They're not so willing to just throw caution to the wind and adapt to whatever custom comes their way."

To help in bridging cultural divides like these, Ms. Rymanowski leads a group for Latinas called Mujeres Hispanas en Accin. The Wednesday evening meetings, held at a multicultural community center called Neighborhood House, serve as a "women's night out," a way to talk about social and educational topics.

Dating is another perennial challenge. Vo tells of a college freshman from Vietnam who is allowed to go out with a boy only if her father chaperones, even at Disneyland.

Parents also express concern about the availability of alcohol and drugs for teenagers. "To be cool, to be accepted, kids want to try everything," says Alma Petrovic, whose family emigrated from Bosnia to Boston three years ago. In her homeland, she explains, close-knit communities served as a deterrent. "Parents were more likely to find out if their children were getting into trouble with drugs. Everybody knows everybody's business."

Mrs. Petrovic encourages parents to spend as much time as possible with children, and to talk freely about customs and situations here and back home.

Linda Hosseinmardi of Palos Verdes, Calif., an American attorney whose husband is from Iran, observes that immigrant parents' reluctance to say yes to children's social activities does not necessarily indicate a lack of trust, just a lack of knowledge about American customs. "They just want to protect their children, and that is the best way they know how," she says.

Mrs. Hosseinmardi emphasizes the value of having Americans reach out, where possible, to families from other countries. As the only American among some of the couple's Iranian-born friends, she serves as a quiet example, helping to allay parental concerns by explaining various customs when they ask.

Whatever challenges foreign-born parents face, many emphasize the advantages of life in their new country.

"It's easier to raise kids here than in Russia," Mrs. Mirsky says with a smile as she and Yosef prepare to leave the Russian story hour. "There are so many activities for kids - not just school, but programs. It's great here."

Hosseinmardi, whose nine-year-old son attends an extracurricular Persian program, finds prejudice diminishing, making it easier for those from other countries to embrace their heritages. "Cultural differences are more appreciated these days than they ever used to be, thanks to our global village," she says.

"Gone is the old view that white is in, and I need to look white and blond to fit in, in America."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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