New country. Old customs.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.