Balancing American lifestyle with family traditions

Liberian little girl proudly wrapping her country's flag around her
Liberian little girl proudly wrapping her country’s flag around her PHOTO CREDIT: Marconja Zor

By Marconja Zor

First-generation African Americans are faced with living dual cultures, pitting family customs at home against American habits in the outside world. Many say that while it may be a balancing act, they don’t mind sticking to the traditional behaviors their parents still require. 

Maryann Hoff knows all too well the experience of switching cultures accordingly. Hoff, who is now a successful senior risk control manager for Safety National, arrived in the suburbs of Maryland from Monrovia, Liberia, after fleeing the civil war. She said that she knew almost immediately that the rules at home were completely different from the ones outside of her home.

West African immigrant, Maryann Hoff, leads risk management presentation as head of her department PHOTO CREDIT: Marconja Zor

“I learned immediately that while my American friends were allowed to negotiate curfews and allowances with their parents, sometimes they’d even argue with their parents, but I wasn’t allowed to even dream of it,” Hoff said. “The rules were very simple in my house: You will listen to what your parents had to say and respect their word because they knew what was best for a child,” she said.

She said she was constantly reminded that her family and education came first, Being a resident of the U.S. was considered a privilege and a great opportunity, one that could not afford to be wasted, she said.

“Growing up, my mother had a phrase of where she would say outside it was America, but inside in our apartment it was Liberia,” said Hoff, adding that there was a line of respect that was expected in her household. “I wasn’t going to eat McDonald’s every night for dinner. I was expected to eat our traditional foods at home,” she said.

Languages are passed down to first-generation American children in hopes that they will remember where they came from. But when children native accents are noticeable in their speech, their peers who speak native English may not be able to understand them or may tease them for speaking differently. 

West African native Zuumah Davis, a music composer and singer, grew up in Newark, New Jersey. There, she met another African student in her school’s choir, and they had an immediate connection because of their similar background—a connection she didn’t always have with other classmates.

“There were times when I would go to school and speak to my friends with a heavier accent than I normally would or even say a word in my native language by accident while speaking to them,” said Davis. “It took a while for me to adjust my home and school languages,” she said. Although it was sometimes difficult balancing her native language with her new language, she said she never felt uncomfortable about her culture. I felt love and a sense of belonging with my home,” she said.

Davis  parents were strict about social activities with friends outside of school, but they supported and nurtured her passion for music. With their support, she was able to win a full musical scholarship to college.

“When I was growing up, I felt disappointed by not having the same social life as my friends,” Davis said.Now as an adult, I am so appreciative and honored that my parents raised me in their traditional way while we lived in America,” she said. “Many of the people who I grew up with in New Jersey did not fulfill the dreams that they once spoke of as children.”

Davis points to her traditional upbringing as the primary reason she was able to become a successful music composer and recording artist. “I don’t think that I would have succeeded had things been different at home,” she said.

African immigrants often turn to people in their community to help out with childcare.This is a regular and acceptable practice among foreigners to help be the support system”

Serena Mitchual, a pediatric dentist, said that as soon as  her mother arrived to Maryland from Ghana, she was immediately approached by other Ghanians at community functions informing her that they were now family and would gladly assist her with anything that she needed.

‘’Typically, there is an elder in the community who everyone respects,” Mitchual said.“In the African community, showing your elder respect and holding them to high regards is expected. They will often help you with the children, help with cooking and even mentoring,” she said.

“I am an only child, but grew up with so many people who I wasn’t related to, but they treated me and my mother as family instantly,” said Mitchual, adding that she was raised to accept the members of her Ghanian community and support them as they had supported her. “My community played a huge part in raising me into who I have become today,” she said.

About Marconja Zor 4 Articles
My name is Marconja Zor and I am a journalist from Silver Spring, MD. My passions are long-form storytelling and interviewing on human interest subjects.