Giller prize winner Souvankham Thammavongsa gives immigrant children hope that they can be successful despite being caught between languages, cultures, and values.

“Thirty six years ago I went to school and I pronounced the word knife wrong and I didn’t get a prize,” Thammavongsa said referencing her early education in ESL classes on award night. “But tonight there is one.” 

Many immigrant children will identify with this school experience which was no doubt unpleasant during the initial years of her transition from Thailand.

Foreign accents,  mispronunciation of words (as per Canadian terms) and the perception of being ‘different’ lead to ridicule, bullying and isolation despite Canada’s ‘multicultural’ setting. The smaller the town (and less their exposure to immigrants) the worse it can get for the kids coming from another country.

The struggle to find a path from the old world to the new one, while overcoming language barriers and maintaining a balance between home and societal expectations is overwhelming for young immigrants. Yet their challenges with integration are overlooked, fuelled perhaps by the misnomer that children adapt easily.

With immigrant parents focussed on their kids making the best of the opportunities provided to them, children’s mental and social well-being is hardly ever on the radar. Even if it were, many are likely to tell their kids to toughen up rather than provide emotional support or recognize the need for professional help.

Being a new kid in school is hard for any child as it is. My older son struggled to make friends each time we moved because the other kids had known each other for years and formed bonds. But that was perhaps less traumatic than his initial transition from India. He was just four year at the time but social integration was challenging nonetheless. Preoccupied with the setting up home and sold on the Western education system, we were oblivious to his social struggles which manifested themselves in little ways.

Like other immigrant parents we trained our sights on the academics which he excelled in, assuming everything else would fall in place. He was strong, confident and articulate, so we didn’t think that there would be adjustment issues. While his experience was not traumatic in that sense of the term, he did feel ‘different’. His academic performance and confidence may have helped him bridge the gap but there is no denying that he struggled.

Years later when he talked about being ridiculed because of the foreign accent and colloquial terms, we realized that it had not been as smooth as we thought. Ever since I have observed many other immigrant children have similar experiences.

The pressure children of immigrants face is high while the mental health support is low. Navigating cultural stereotypes, parents’ fear of losing control of their kids because they hang out in the big bad Western society and normal growing pains is no cake walk for a child. The solution lies in parents finding a healthy balance between the old and new which they can communicate to their kids. 

Immigrant parents must accept the fact that their children are likely to have trouble integrating, sometimes even more than them. Lord of the Flies, a book that I read years ago, where kids displayed their sadistic side and became cruel to one another revealed this harsh reality. Parents must look out for their kids.

It would also help to have kids who have a handle on the integration process to mentor and support new immigrants in school and community settings. 

Those who immigrated as kids decades ago feel that assimilation is much easier today because they laid the groundwork. Perhaps it is so but can we not be more supportive? I have often found that immigrants are insensitive to one another and see struggle as a rite of passage to the new life. So they sit back and watch while it happens.

Establishing a line of communication where  children can feel comfortable sharing their experiences with parents who can provide the personal or professional support they may require at this time is equally important.

On the personal level immigrant parents need a reality check. Hanging on to all things ethnic (food, dress, values, etc.) is not healthy and will only make the transition more difficult for the kids who want to blend in and not stand out in their new world. Engaging positively and speaking favourably about other cultures, while putting aside our own cultural biases  might be the most effective way to help our children adapt. As will acknowledging that our previous lifestyle, habits and thinking will and must change.


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