By Vishda Patel.
When families emigrate to the United States, they come in a myriad of ways. Some
families come together, and their intention is to move the entire family to a new place.
Others send just one adult, with the intention of staying temporarily, perhaps for work or
study, to return home in a few years. Others come one at a time, sending for other
family members as time and money permit. Each of these styles of immigration impacts
the experience of assimilation into the new culture. Giftedness in the mix of the
immigration adds additional challenges.
Giftedness is defined differently across the globe. In some cultures, where all children
are believed to have the ability to excel, giftedness is not considered an attribute.
Sometimes there is a strong work and education ethic where children are driven to
succeed through hard work and long hours of study. And, in other cultures, giftedness is
identified and addressed with differentiation.
Consider the following part of a journal entry written by a gifted teen from a first
generation immigrant family (see the end of the article for the full entry):
I want to have friends and do things with them. I want to be able to invite people over
without my parents grilling them about their SAT scores. I want to drive places by
myself. I am old enough and I have my license. They let me get my license so they
could tell everyone that I have it. But now, I can’t drive anywhere by myself. When I ask
to go out .they say sure but they have to call the parents and verify everything. They
won’t let me drive with my friends and they insist on sitting in the car and waiting for me
if I ever do go to a movie or friend’s house. It is SO embarrassing! Worse they want me
to have my friends over. Then they spend the entire time grilling them on colleges, SAT
scores and even more personal questions all the while trying to ply them with our native
food. I don’t even like to eat that food.
Working with culturally diverse gifted populations poses several challenges that are not
readily apparent. Sometimes the characteristics of the culture mask aspects of giftedness, and, conversely, those same characteristics prevent us from understanding
the gifted student.
Several things are worth keeping in mind when working across cultures with gifted
Start with yourself. Understanding your cultural heritage and the assumptions that
stem from that background is important. The culture we are raised in defines many of
our judgments and values. It creates the lens through which we view the world. So,
when we understand the perspective from which we are basing our own expectations,
we are better able to understand others. From that vantage point, it is easier to
recognize the differences. It is also important to remember that you don’t have to accept
the differences, but merely recognize and acknowledge them.
Seek to understand the culture. Learning about the cultures of the children you are
working with will provide the basis for understanding the lens through which they view
the world. This would include understanding their story of migration and the specific
traditions and values with which they are raised at home. Is English spoken at home, or
is another language the primary means of communication? How long has the family
been in the United States? To what degree has the family chosen to assimilate into the
culture? In many immigrant families, the child is the only one who speaks English and
has the responsibility for being the spokesperson for the family. Meeting the entire
family can also be helpful in this regard.
Strive for curiosity. Most people appreciate others’ interest in them. Ask questions of
the child and the family to understand and appreciate the culture most fully. Showing an
interest builds a stronger relationship that, in turn, allows the child to feel more
comfortable, and helps to bridge any cultural gaps that may exist.
Observe as much as possible. So much information can be gleaned through
observation. Words are not necessary. A visit to the home or a meeting with the family
can reveal much about the cultural context within which the child is living. Who comes to
the meeting? Is the father in charge? Are siblings involved in the conversation? Does
the child have a say in what activities they choose to participate in? While the same
information can be gleaned through asking questions, the responses may differ from
what you observe.
Listen more than talk. Active listening, rather than talking, provides better clues to
what is going on in a child’s mind. Sometimes, the words that are not spoken but are
implied provide more insight. With active listening, you allow yourself the time to hear
what the child is really saying. Watching body language is also helpful in determining if
the words expressed are genuine, or said only because the child feels that that is the
“right” thing to say.
Always admit when you don’t know. When working across cultures, it is difficult to
know and understand all the traditions. It is okay to admit when you don’t know. In fact,
most people are pleased when someone shows a genuine interest and wants to learn
about their culture.
Recognize that all English is not the same. English spoken as a first language is
different from English spoken as a second, third, or even fourth language. The context
in which English is spoken is based in the culture in which it was learned. For example,
those who have studied English in school but have not practiced in a conversational
setting may come across as direct and cold. They may not be familiar with colloquial
expressions and may misunderstand what is being asked of them. Also, some people
may speak English, but think in their mother tongue. This can cause delays in response
or a misunderstanding in expressions.
By becoming more culturally aware and taking the time to understand our own cultural
lens we create stronger relationships with those around us. And as we strive to
understand and honor the differences among us, we create a stronger platform from
which to move forward.
The Full Journal Entry Referenced in the Column
I never thought of myself as an actor but today I realized that I am, and a good one at
that! My friend told me that I was so ‘put together’ and mature. She said that even
though she knows I have had some challenges in my family life I always seem to
manage it well and no one is the wiser. She wondered why I don’t need to reach out to
others and how I can juggle all the struggles myself. Does it really look that simple from
the outside? Can’t anyone see the pain that I feel? Am I that masterful at hiding my
struggles? I have been taught that what happens at home stays at home. Family
matters are not for ‘outsiders’ and by that I mean anyone other than the people living
under our roof. I am not even to talk to my grandparents because that would be
betraying my parents’ confidence. They don’t want to appear to be ‘bad’ parents! Not
that they are all bad mind you but they are not perfect. Is anyone? Why am I meant to
get is all ‘right’ and they can err and be human? And college? The pressure is so much
that I almost don’t want to bother to try anymore. That wouldn’t do either. Everyone
goes to college and a ‘ good’ one at that. No community college for me. Who’s to say
that might not be the best option for me? I could spend my time working on developing
my paintings. But no, a proper young man doesn’t make his life work as a ‘painter’
(a.k.a. artist). No, I have to go to a top ten college, study higher math and science and
become some doctor. How many more doctors does this world need anyway? And why
don’t my parents see that life as a teenager isn’t all about studying? I want to have
friends and do things with them. I want to be able to invite people over without my
parents grilling them about their SAT scores. I want to drive places by myself. I am old
enough and I have my license. They let me get my license so they could tell everyone
that I have it. But now, I can’t drive anywhere by myself. When I ask to go out they say
sure but they have to call the parents and verify everything. They won’t let me drive with
my friends and they insist on sitting in the car and waiting for me if I ever do go to a
movie or friend’s house. It is SO embarrassing! Worse they want me to have my friends
over. Then they spend the entire time grilling them on colleges, SAT scores and even
more personal questions all the while trying to ply them with our native food. I don’t
even like to eat that food. The flavors are just so foreign to me. So I am learning that it is
just best to sit at home on weekends and evenings and finish my work. The sooner I get
out of this family the better. When I get to college, I will be free and no one will be
hanging over my head.
Even at school the teachers ask me how I am and I say ‘good’ or ‘fine’. They always
single me out as the model student who completes the projects early and always know
the answer. Who wouldn’t if all they did was stay home and study. Don’t the teachers
understand that I don’t like all that attention? The other kids make fun of me and call me
the teacher’s pet. Doesn’t anyone see that it is because I am expected to do my work
ahead and that my parents force me to do it that the work gets done? It’s bad enough
that no one understands at home but then to come to school and find that I can’t fit in
There is one person who understands. She said that I should go and talk to the
guidance counselor. But if I do that I will blow my family’s cover and I can’t do that. Still I
did try to go once and it was a disaster. I couldn’t look the counselor in the eye and she
thought I was being disrespectful. Where I come from looking of authority someone in
the eye is considered to be rude! Then she asked me all sorts of personal questions but
I couldn’t answer honestly because then I would be revealing my family’s personal
business. The counselor ended up calling my parents and then they were so mad that I
had gone to someone outside the family. They wanted to know what was so bad about
my life and how much they had given up to bring me to this country and give me all the
opportunities that they had provided. The whole thing was more trouble than I could
have ever imagined!
Dr. Vidisha Patel has a doctorate of Education in Counseling Psychology and practices
as a therapist in Sarasota, Florida, where much of her work is with gifted children and
their families, with a focus on stress and anxiety. She is licensed to teach stress
management techniques. Dr. Patel is active in her local community and regularly
speaks at conferences, schools, and parenting groups throughout the community, state
and nationally. She has worked as a consultant for Florida State University training
primary caregivers on infant mental health. She also works with teen parents in schools.
Dr. Patel’s professional affiliations include The World Association of Infant Mental
Health, The Zero to Three Society, Sarasota County Medical Society Alliance, and Pine
View School Band Association. Dr. Patel holds an MBA from Columbia University and
worked in finance on Wall Street and overseas before obtaining her doctorate in
psychology. Dr. Patel is the mother of two gifted children.