How to raise Bangladeshi children in Western societies?
The murder last month of a young Bangladeshi woman in Sydney has sparked a debate about how best to raise children among the local community.
Australian multicultural broadcaster SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) is running a series on the challenges of parenting in response. While the specifics of the case cannot be debated at length because of ongoing legal proceedings, the horrific murder is clearly the backdrop.
Arnima Hayat was a fresh faced 19-year-old studying medicine. Her parents described her desire to become a surgeon in a televised interview. They were understandably distraught and the country felt their pain. Her body was found in an acid filled bathtub. Her boyfriend of several months, who she was living with, is accused of the murder.
It is a gruesome incident. The parents had lost contact with their daughter because they didn't approve of the relationship. They are filled with guilt over whether they should have done something different.
Raising children in a western environment can be challenging when coming from a traditional, religious society as Bangladesh. It is one reason why I have heard some families opt to migrate to the Middle East, rather than expose their children to the social freedoms of the West, which they worry will be corrupting.
All migrants must contend with what they embrace of their adopted country, while retaining aspects of past traditions.
In his book "The Loneliest Americans", the Korean-American writer Jay Caspian Kang writes of how those of Asian background like China or India don't neatly fit into the black, white or Hispanic racial categorisation that is the basis of race discussion in the United States.
Kang argues high status migrants such as well-educated Indians, and to some extent Bangladeshis, often make strong efforts at "language maintenance" which is a broad measure of resisting integration into the mainstream community. Many migrants of Asian background are also not seen as disadvantaged by locals, given they tend to have strong social mobility through their educational outcomes.
But at every stage of development, there is a clash of values that children must navigate. Their parents tend to teach collectivism, religious commitment and gender role differentiation. There is a strong devotion towards authority and tradition. Yet wider society and school will mostly espouse individualism, secularism and gender equality. This conflict in value systems can cause psychological strain.
Psychologists in Britain have studied youth raised in a similar context there, looking at Pakistani and Bangladeshi teenagers. They found many of the children led compartmentalised lives. Their views of themselves and their roles were utterly separate when they were at school as compared to being at home.
For example, a child could go from prayer at a mosque with their parents to then meet their friends and drink alcohol at a local pub.
The study also concludes that this kind of marginal, compartmentalised life is often difficult to maintain, for the role-conflict can threaten a sense of "ego-identity".
In lay terms, they cannot carry their inconsistent selves through to adulthood. They cite some cases of second-generation youths undergoing what they called a "fundamental change" in their late teens as some kind of resolution.
This can involve a dramatic shift to either side of the cultural divide, perhaps committing to an arranged marriage or seeking refuge in deep religiosity. Or it can occur in the opposite behaviour, such as eloping with a partner against their parent's wishes.
We can only speculate whether any of these factors were of significance in Arnima Hayat's case, given she did effectively elope against her parent's wishes.
But the broader point is that families must find a balance between the past and the present.
In my psychiatric work, I see many Bangladeshi patients struggling to marry tradition with modernity, especially in the atomised urban West where ties to family and clan are looser.
A consistent theme is high academic expectations and an underestimation of the importance of social skills.
Parents often prevent their children from attending activities like the school camp for example, a common practice in Western countries. Aimed to build self-reliance and social skills, teenagers are often sent to camp in rugged, outdoors for several days supervised by teachers, where a range of physical activities are undertaken.
But many Bangladeshi parents worry this kind of freedom away from parents can only spell trouble, possibly being exposed to drugs or inappropriate interactions with the opposite sex.
Unfortunately preventing teenagers from learning social skills through controlled experience often means they are less able to negotiate the complexity of relationships once they become adults.
Some parents also don't realise that attitudes to authority and hierarchy will clearly be different among their children. Just as the government must win over the people in a democracy, parents must have relationships with their children that allow them to influence, but not command. The parents who have the most problems with their children are the ones with inflexible attitudes.
Bangladeshi parental style, as compared to Western, is one of less control in the early years. Western parenting styles advocate sending babies to cots within weeks, controlling their crying and strictly enforcing routines.
Many Bangladeshi parents engage in attachment parenting, the children sleeping with their mothers for several years.
Meanwhile the greater control in Bangladeshi parenting comes in young adulthood when there is much greater expectation and conformity with regards to marriage and career choices. This is often a source of household tension given the Western style is to give greater autonomy and independence at exactly this stage of life.
Arranged marriages are a classic example of the desire to retain traditional, ancestral ties. While they can be successful, a large number fail. There are too many differences between someone raised in the West versus someone growing up in Bangladesh. Migrating spouses are also forced to sacrifice a great deal in terms of career and social opportunities.
Maintaining a certain level of links with the past is important for a healthy stable identity among Western raised Bangladeshi children, but parents must accept their children will inevitably be Australian, American or British.
No one will know exactly how Arnima's death may have been prevented.
It is a tragedy of the highest order.
It is a horrible loss not just for the family, but for the wider community. There is no right answer to the complicated task of raising children in Western countries, especially in the first generation. But a certain level of loss of one's past identity, however painful, must be accepted.
The writer is an Australian based psychiatrist, author of The Exotic Rissole, and founder of website www.bddiaspora.com.