Saturday, January 29, 2011

Domestic Abuse Among Immigrants

Being acquainted with international students has always been an enriching experience for me. Not only do I learn about other cultures and ways of life, but I also have an understanding of their inherent struggles as immigrants in a new land and the varied obstacles they face in the acculturation process. Social inclusion does not come easily, and the lack of language skills proves to be a great barrier against comfortable settlement in the adopted country. The absence of a network of friends or support system of any kind adds to their woes, and they are subject to enormous pressure in their daily lives. When life becomes a pressure cooker of survival angsts, the one person someone can take it out on is always the spouse. And if that person is a control freak, and sees that he or she is no longer in control in this new place, then it leads to frustration that can easily escalate into violence and domestic abuse.

Time and time again, I have seen abused husbands and wives who know not what to do or whom to turn to for help, and simply suffer in silence, afraid to speak to anyone or seek help. In many Asian families, the husband is under enormous pressure to succeed and keep the family happy. That means finding a job right away and making money to support the family, which is difficult to achieve because of poor recognition of their foreign credentials and their low proficiency in English. The wife, in this case, who is used to being in control and spending the money the husband makes, goes on to taunt him and become abusive. Sometimes the abuse becomes physical, where the woman rails at the man, taunts him about his manhood, throws things at him or hits him, and threatens to poison him.

In the reverse case, when the husband is a control freak and finds he's going nowhere in the new country, he develops a feeling of inferiority and spirals downward into a morass of frustration and depression, and then starts abusing the wife and children, verbally, physically, and emotionally. Sometimes, the wife is better qualified than the husband, and when she finds a job and starts making money, the man sees himself as worthless and tries to cloak his inferiority by gaining control over her in every aspect of life. He takes over the family finances, controls her money and her freedom, and practically holds her a slave. He knows that she is the breadwinner, but he will brook no argument from her for fear she will wrest control from him, so he continues to subjugate her and dominate over her. If the woman decides to leave him, he then threatens to kill her. Verbal, physical, emotional, and economic abuse is very much an integral part of this household, and it requires enormous strength on the part of the woman to take action against him or leave him. Sometimes children are thrown into the equation, and in this case, the woman continues to stay on in the abusive relationship for the sake of her children. At other times, the woman feels that being separated or divorced is a stigma in society, and chooses to stay with her abusive spouse.

I have seen cases of both male and female control freaks, and always make it a point to lend a patient ear to the victim. Both Canada and the U.S. have many valuable services that offer help against domestic abuse - shelters, safe houses, legal help, training for employment, psychiatric treatment, ongoing counselling, and the like - and I point them out to the victim and encourage them to seek help. When the advice comes from another immigrant like me, it goes a long way in comforting them and giving them hope for rescue, relief, and rehabilitation.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Learning Styles

As an educator in the classroom, I am well aware of the varied learning styles of my students, but sometimes we assume that somehow our children will be just like us in the way they study or prepare for an exam. We think of them as mini versions of ourselves with identical habits and traits, and forget the fact that they are individuals in their own right, with their unique personalities and varied habits and approaches to studies and to everything else in life. Some of us have very conventional ideas of how one ought to prepare for an exam, and when the child exhibits a different approach, we tend to panic and worry that the kid is being overconfident or is going to flunk the exam.

Looking back, I was a very good student who excelled academically right from Kindergarten to my Pre-doctoral degree. I had very "clean" study habits - doing my homework on time, reviewing my daily lessons, and being "anal" about my preparation for my exams during the study holidays. While at university, I would have a timetable drawn out for each subject, down to the hour and the minute, and would stick to it like an army sergeant, with all the precision of a military drill. I would focus so intensely on what I was learning that the whole page was imprinted on my brain - I knew exactly the page and the paragraph of a particular point, like a photograph opening up and revealing itself in my brain. Not only did I remember everything from top to bottom, but I could go back from bottom to top, and visualize the whole page unfolding in my mind. My concentration was so great that even while I was in the shower, I would recall the points of an essay or an article that I'd reviewed earlier. I would go to bed early, around 10 PM, the night before the exam, but wake up around 5 AM the next day in order to revise all that I had studied. Till the last minute before I entered the exam hall, I would be flipping the pages of my books and giving them a last glance over. I remember in particular my final M.Phil. exam for which I was so thoroughly prepared that I had nothing to study the evening before. Three University First Ranks and gold medals, and 28 years later, it all sounds scary to me now! I seem to have been an exam freak, that's why I've used the word "anal" earlier!

Now the kid's an entirely different piece of work altogether. Not just him, but most modern teenagers are that way, from what I gather from my friends with teenaged children at home. Unlike their parents, multi-tasking seems to be very common among children these days. A typical teenager is listening to his iPod, typing out an assignment, chatting with a friend online, and checking Facebook updates, all at the same time. Sometimes the kid has the cell phone in one ear, and the iPod earphone in the other, and is also eating, in addition to all of the above. He has multiple windows open on his computer and can focus on so many diverse things all at once. How can he concentrate, focus, or learn anything, I wonder?!? Also, procrastination with school work seems to be the order of the day, with assignments being worked on at the last minute, just because the kid had other things to do all along.

Come exam time, and I see no cramming of any sort. He's still listening to music and studying at the same time, and by studying, I mean not with the textbook in hand, but with the computer in front and multiple screens open before him. There is no extra effort during the study holidays. He stays up till 11.30 or 12 each night and wakes up around 10 the next morning. The only additional step is sitting with his tutor once for an hour and a half to clarify last minute doubts before the exam. The exam day is just like any other school day. No waking up early in the morning to revise, no worrying or panicking or exhibiting any anxiety or nervousness of any sort. He seems to be absolutely cool, calm, and collected, as if it were just an ordinary class test that awaits, and not a Provincial Exam. There seems to be a supreme confidence, or overconfidence, that unnnerves me as a mother. This is the first public exam he's taking, so I give him my tips - keep an eye on the clock, time your answers, don't waste time on a difficult question, but move on to the others and come back to the difficult ones later, finish 10 minutes early and use the time to revise and check all your answers, don't be in a rush to get out of the exam hall, but check your answers thoroughly before handing in your paper, etc., etc. "Ma, relax," the kid goes, "I'll be fine!" So I leave him and head to work, insisting he take a taxi to school! It's a walk uphill to school, so Dad calls a taxi from his workplace and sends it home to pick the kid up. As I teach in my own classroom, I keep an eye on the clock myself and send a silent prayer heavenward!

He's done well, he says, though three questions were a little difficult, but he's satisfied with his overall performance in the Science exam. He's back to his teenage ways, as I await the results with bated breath, ruminating all the while about how different our learning styles and approaches to the exam are. It's English and Math next term, and am sure the same pattern will continue then as well. I have learned a lot from the kid, and realize you don't have to be a nervous wreck or neurotic exam freak to deliver good results. Shall keep you folks posted for sure!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tiger Kids!

So much has been said of late about the Tiger Mothers, those harsh disciplinarians with their draconian ways of raising their children, but how about those Tiger Kids, a distinctive class of over-achieving nerds, who think their parents aren't doing enough for them or aren't pushing them harder towards success? Trust me, there are such children around, and the parents have a tough time slowing them down or teaching them that there's more to life than consistent 'A's or that sometimes one needs "street smarts" in addition to "book smarts" as well. These kids orbit the stratosphere in terms of academic excellence, will never settle for anything less than an 'A Plus' ( which, of course, HAS TO BE a perfect score!) in their subjects at school, will carry over the same fierce competitiveness from studies to a mere game at home with family members, and who obsess about always being on top of the game in whatever they do! They leave middle school and are already googling for admission requirements to Harvard and MIT! Sounds like any mother's dream, doesn't it, and I bet Amy Chua would've been thrilled had her kids been like that! Or it could be less then a dream, then we would hear more about the "Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Kid And The Bewildered Parents" instead!

Take, for example, the kid who knew the multiplication tables up to 13 by age 4 and was solving word problems in Grade 1, leaving his peers behind in the dust, which made his teacher remark, "I would really like to see what this child grows up into. I would love to see what he becomes in the future!" Or the kid who could read by age 3 and was reading the newspaper headlines by age 4 and whole articles by age 5, and whose parents were singled out by the School District official who congratulated them and predicted that this child would definitely be heading to Harvard or Princeton or Yale, only when the kid was in Grade 1! And looking back at his childhood, the kid goes, "Age 3 is too late! Why wasn't I taught earlier to read and to do Math?" ... and all his mother can do is roll her eyes in private, and then turn to him and reassure him that all's well with his abilities and that he's on the right track with the developmental stages of his life.

The child grows into a teenager, socializes with friends, hangs out with them, plays video games online with friends, is into social networking, downloads songs and music videos on the iPod, plays basketball and the sax, reads a lot, and does other things that teenagers do, but when it comes to academics, the nerd kicks in, and the fierce, competitive monster comes to the fore. One lost mark could mean asking the teacher for a good reason why that mark was deducted, or convincing the teacher to award that mark. If the teacher had a good reason, then the kid would beat himself up about his carelessness and obsess about making it up in the next test. The unnerved parent would then have to intervene and say it's OK, that it was just one mark that was lost, that he could definitely ace the next test, and so on, at which the kid would turn on the parent and say, "How can you say it's OK to have lost a mark? What kind of a parent are you? It's not OK! My percentage will go down because of this! ...blah ...blah ... blah!"

Now do you get what I mean by a Tiger Kid? Tough job parenting one, let me say!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Tiger Mothers

Yale Law Professor Amy Chua has fired up a controversial debate if Chinese mothers are superior to Western mothers, with the recent publication of her book "Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother." I haven't read the book in its entirety (I certainly hope to, soon) but enjoyed the excerpt in the Wall Street Journal and the backlash from irate parents, American, Chinese, and everyone else, that the article received. I also happened to see Amy Chua on American Morning live, defending her stand that she's not advocating or recommending the Tiger Mother way of raising chidren, but merely stating her own case with her two daughters, and how she had to draw back when her younger child rebelled at 13, and when she realized that this harsh way of parenting wasn't working with her kid.

That takes us to encapsulate the Tiger Mother way of raising one's kids, namely, no sleepovers, no play dates, no school plays, no extracurricular activities of the child's choice, no TV, no video games, compulsory playing of either the piano or violin (and no other instrument), not bringing home grades less than an 'A'( except in gym and in drama), standing over the child at the piano and yelling at her till she got the difficult piece right, threatening to ship her doll house piece by piece when the mother didn't get the desired results, calling the child "garbage" in order to motivate her to perfection, etc., etc., to name a few! That was the way Amy Chua was raised, and she chose to parent her daughters the same way! Chinese mothers are all for academic excellence in their children and their playing the piano and violin to perfection, and nothing else matters to them, not even the happiness of the child, because though the child is unhappy now, he/she will definitely be grateful to the mothers when they become successful in the future. The American parents were furious because the Professor thought they coddled and pampered their children too much, and let them get away with sub-standard performances in academics and mediocrity in general.

I had a wonderful discussion in class about this with my international students, and the consensus seemed to be that there should be a balance in how we raise our children, neither the extremely harsh parenting method of the Chinese mother, nor the lax, lenient American way! Hmmm ... that led me to ponder about my own style of parenting, needless to say. I believe in allowing my child the freedom to explore on his own and think for himself, and while I allow him his liberties and happiness, I also ensure that he gets grades good enough that will lead him on to a good university, and eventually, the career of his choice. As an Indian parent, I still carry with me the values of an Indian upbringing, and to me, education is the key to success, as I keep reminding my son quite often! He has all the perks and privileges of a teenager, from the latest gadgets to a generous allowance to birthday parties to going to friends' homes to social networking, and the like. Just like Amy Chua, I think my son's grades are very important for his future, but I certainly don't go about threatening him or yelling at him if he misses out a mark or two. If he came home with a 'B' or 'C', on the other hand, then that would most certainly be a cause for concern, as that would undermine his academic pursuits in the long run. Luckily for me, a gentle coaxing, a soft reminder, a benign nudge is all it takes for him to perk up for the next test, and I'm truly thankful that I don't ever have to be a Tiger Mother after all!!!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A New Year Dawns!

Happy New Year 2011 to my family, friends, and myself! God has graciously added another glorious year to our lives, and it is with gratitude and prayer that I embrace this wondrous start, not only to the new year, but also to another decade. I look back in wonder at all the past years of my life, and look forward to yet another year of renewed hope and joy. Life has had its ups and downs, to use a cliche, but somehow we managed to find our way through and weather it all, both good and bad. It is with the same optimism and faith that we welcome each new year.

Life as a child was without care and every New Year's Day was anticipated with a pure, unadulterated joy that only children are capable of. Being Seventh Day Adventists, there was no church service on Christmas Day, but only on New Year's Day. My family attended church at 5 AM regularly each year, and we would don new clothes and make the trip to church in the cold hours of the morning, around 4 AM, when the rest of the town was still slumbering, and only a few tea stalls were just opening for business. It was such a delight looking at all the decorations in the church, the festoons and the tinsel and the lights that transformed the otherwise staid structure at other times of the year. After church, my Dad always called on a cousin of his, and then would go to the market for fresh meat and fish. My Mom and the rest of us would get home and distribute cakes and sweets to the neighbours, and the whole day was filled with the aroma of delicious food, and marked with the music and joy and laughter of friends who visited us.

As an adult, my New Year rituals have changed. Since we go to church on Christmas Eve, we ring in the New Year at home these days. Ever since we moved to America, we've been used to counting down the minutes on the clock along with Dick Clark's Rockin' Eve, as we watch the crystal ball go down in Times Square. We then follow the local celebrations as well, and then call all our friends to greet them. A celebratory glass of wine ends the night, as we go to bed with the warmth and glow of the New Year still within us. January 1st is usually spent quietly at home, taking calls, cooking good food, and gearing up for the work days to follow. This year is no exception, and as I end this post, let me wish all of you once again A Very Joyous, Prosperous, and Blessed New Year 2011!!!!