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A Therapist's Guide to Honoring Your Culture After Immigrating

Personal Growth, Racial/Cultural Identity, Therapist Guide
6 min read

Immigration does not just involve a physical and geographic change. There are so many emotional and relational changes that come along with the journey. Research tells us that it can take the better part of a year, if not more, for someone to adjust to living in a new place. The nature of and reason for your move, whether you have support through the process (e.g., family and friends living in the new country, financial resources, etc.), your familiarity with the new country, and more can all impact the transition you experience.

One of the hardest parts of the immigration process can be the sense of loss for your culture. Moving to a new place filled with new traditions, norms, languages, and people can be exciting, but it can really trigger a sense of longing for what was – the old, the familiar. Here are four ways that you can honor your culture after immigrating. 

4 Ways to Honor Your Culture After Immigrating

1. Engage in your Most Meaningful Cultural Practices 

When do you feel best about and closest to your culture? Is it when you are cooking your favorite dish, engaging in cultural dance, watching movies from your culture, or reading in your native language? 

It’s important to keep engaging in these activities as regularly as you can. You may to put in some effort and use some creativity to do this, like ordering special ingredients online if your local stores do not carry them, but the effort is worth it. Culture can be an abstract and big thing – it’s important to break it down and make it concrete for you. When you identify and engage in the activities that make you feel most connected to your culture, you are preserving a very important part of yourself. You are really sending yourself the message that you don’t have to lose your culture in order to be open to another. You can have both! It will also give you some continuity and stability in the midst of the many, many changes. 

2. Stay Connected to your Country of Origin

Thankfully, we now have access to a lot of information at our fingertips. While it may be difficult at times to read the news about what is happening in the country you left, it is also true that completely disengaging is going to increase the sense of loss and longing over the long-run. Toward the beginning of your journey, you may want and need more check-ins. How are friends back home doing? What is happening in the local government? What are the big current events that are being discussed? How’s the weather? It may seem silly, but continuing to stay in touch is going to help you make a smoother transition by creating a more seamless story over time. You won’t be left wondering – which wastes valuable mental resources – or be blindsided if something important is happening and you didn’t know about it. 

My dad used to buy Iranian newspapers back in the day and continue to stay up-to-date. I remember this fondly as he would get excited to do the crossword puzzle and would even bring up current events to some of his friends who were still living in Iran. I could see him continuing to nourish the part of him that grew up there and wanted to stay involved in the details of daily life there. It was his way, even in this small act, of remaining connected and close. 

3. Find a Community

Social support is everything. Some people are lucky enough to join family and friends who have already made the move. Others may be starting from scratch, with no community at all. Use the resources available to make connections with those from your culture. I had friends who attended Mosque or church, took language lessons from their native tongue, or joined cultural groups in order to both practice an essential part of their cultural identity and become connected to others who shared their cultural background. Having others who can relate cannot be overstated. We can endure such difficult things if we don’t feel alone or isolated. If local options are not available, do some research online to see what online communities exist. Thankfully, there are many, many options nowadays. 

4. Own your Story

Each person’s cultural story is different. No two people from the same place have the exact same experience! While it’s important to connect to others, it’s also important to connect to all the unique pieces of your individual story. Put this to words – journaling, taping yourself and other family members talking about it, or drawing, writing poetry, or composing songs based on your story. 

I remember watching Persepolis, the 2007 adult animated biographical drama film based on Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel and being moved to tears. Her story is different than mine, but it actually helped me to connect to pieces of my story and background that I hadn’t thought about in years. 

As humans, we are meaning-making animals, and storytelling is embedded in our primal DNA. It is essential for us to find ways to write, speak, and express our stories so that they don’t get stuck or twisted up inside of us. Writing and expressing ourselves in creative pursuits helps us organize our experiences and to identify the strengths, themes, and points of pride in our stories. Connecting to your story and uncovering the pieces is part of making sense of who you are and where you come from – an important part of being a cultural being. Sharing it with others is a way to build a sense of acceptance, belonging, and pride. 

Given the magnitude of change you are experiencing, as well as the many expected and unexpected challenges that might present themselves along the way, it’s important to practice all the tips above from a framework of kindness and gentleness toward yourself. How you honor your culture is going to look different as you adjust and change over time. Give yourself the flexibility to experiment to see what works best for you!

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About the therapist: Pauline Yeghnazar Peck, M.A., M.M.F.T., Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in CA and NY with a private practice in Santa Barbara. Specializing in anxiety, life transitions, trauma, and multicultural issues, she works mostly with the children of immigrants and cross cultural couples to break patterns of intergenerational trauma and create the love, work, and lives they feel happy to call their own. Connect with Pauline, or view more of their work  on on their Frame profile.