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How Growing Up as a Child of Immigrants Challenges Individualism vs. Collectivism

How Growing Up as a Child of Immigrants Challenges Individualism vs. Collectivism

After seeing the trailer for the Sundance film, The Farewell, I began to re-examine my relationship with collectivist and individualist culture. The movie shows a family who is willing to hide a cancer diagnosis from their grandmother in order to keep her happy, but not all members of the family agree with keeping this secret. The movie discusses the importance of each person being part of a bigger group, an idea which is derived from collectivism. And it got me thinking, what really is individualism and collectivism— and is one better than the other? 

Individualism, or individualist culture, prioritizes the needs and wants of an individual over group goals whereas collectivism, or collectivist culture, emphasizes the ideals and needs of a group or family over individual desires. Though these seem like obvious and simple definitions, collectivism and individualism exist on a large scale and are rooted in a country’s culture. But the lines become blurred when it comes to the children of collectivist immigrants being raised in an individualist society or vice versa.

I myself am the child of two Indian immigrant parents and was born and raised in the United States. (Note: India, Pakistan, and East Asia are often studied as examples of collectivist culture while the U.S. is often studied as an individualistic country. But many other countries fall under either category.) Growing up, my parents instilled a collectivist mindset in my sister and I. There was always a sense of duty to the family and to our elders and whether the results were tangible or metaphorical, our choices were meant to bring happiness to all. With this belief came a strong need for acceptance. For example, I have felt, and still feel, guilty for doing things that benefit me more than my family. This is one of the more well-known downfalls of collectivism— the fear of rejection being a motive for selflessness. But the intertwining of selflessness in collectivism has always made me wonder—since my parents and family valued selflessness, would they want me to be happy, even if it meant sacrificing some of my collectivist background?

Seeing the fault in collectivist culture has also allowed me to see them in individualist culture. I was mostly immersed in individualist culture in school. Competition, personal goals, and success were all anyone seemed to care about. Actually, the epitome of high school culture was “do whatever I want.” Multiple people that I knew preached about being selfish and about doing what was best for them. Part of me believes this is just a natural part of growing up but the striking similarities that their beliefs have with individualism is pretty interesting. It sounds harsh when it’s called selfishness, but going after your desires and being ambitious is valued in America. Not only does ambition actually help a person move up in the workplace and have access to more opportunities, an ambitious person in America is seen as “good” and “doing their part.” In collectivist culture though, quite the opposite is true.

Growing up with these battling ideals was a challenge, especially since I felt collectivism was an important tie to Indian culture and my parents. However, individualism and collectivism don’t apply to everyone from the same place. Many large Indian cities now have a more individualist culture and Western collectivists are common enough as well. My point is, I believe keeping both in mind is the best solution. I was able to adapt to strong competition and personal gain while finding the beauty of doing something for others at the cost of myself without sacrificing my values. With both of these schools of thought in mind, I believe a person is able to be aware of and evaluate the consequences of their actions for themselves and others constantly and effortlessly. In the end, I think incorporating both cultures in your life can help you maintain a healthy amount of determination and selflessness.

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