How to share stories to bridge cultural and generational differences

Jennifer Ouyang


Relating to people who are different from us isn’t easy. It can be hard to connect with someone with seemingly different values, needs, and expectations. That becomes exponentially more difficult when that someone is family.


Immigrant and first-generation families have an additional rift across generations by nature of their immigration. One generation grew up here. Another grew up there. Different geographies, languages, norms, and circumstances.


As a Stanford Impact Design Immersion Fellow, I spent 40 hours this summer interviewing children of immigrant and first-generation families to answer two questions:

  • What kind of family relationship do you have?

  • What kind of family relationship do you want?

After many hours of listening to deep seeded fears and high flying hopes, my biggest learning from these conversations about what people want most from their families is: Kids want to know about their parents, they just might not know it yet.


80% of the interviewees wanted to feel more connected to their family and learn more about their own parents’ family dynamics and lives growing up.

They want to know about you, because they want to know about themselves. In my interviews, I heard significant disconnects between how long children had known their parents (their whole lives) and how much they knew about them.


Why?


Children shared:

  • Awkwardness: “How do you go from ‘can you please pass the vegetables?’ to ‘can you tell me about your childhood?’.”

  • Censored responses: “[My mom] loves to talk about her upbringing in her family, but it’s only ever been the good parts. The struggle of coming to the States or what it means to be a woman in the workforce is never touched upon.”

  • Resume summaries: “I know facts and kind of a timeline. It’s...not very emotional whenever my parents talk about childhood. I could read it in a biography. There's very little about relationships with people, who they spent the most time with.”


It’s totally understandable that sharing intimate moments of your childhood or family history might not come up naturally. Maybe you’ve been busy figuring out a new country, a new life, a way to raise a family and create the circumstances in which all your childrens’ dreams could come true. Maybe no one spent time sharing family history with you.


So how do we start to share our stories to better connect with family?


1. Choose: Think of a story that says something about you. Questions to help jog memory:

  • What did you look forward to?

  • Who were you closest to?

  • When was a time you felt super proud?

  • What was a time you felt super embarrassed?

  • Did you ever bend the rules?

  • Who/what did you want to be when you grew up?

2. Reflect: Jot the story down, reflecting on:

  • Who was there? Where was it? When was it?

  • How did I feel when this story was taking place? Why did I feel that way?

  • How do I feel about the story now? What does it tell people about my needs, motivations, dreams, fears?

3. Decide how to share: One option is to start a conversation with a question to learn something about your teen, too. For example, if you want to share a story about what you wanted to be growing up, you might ask what your teen wants to do (without passing judgment on the response or trying to immediately solve for how to get there).


Ultimately, sharing your stories may offer a way to develop connection and trust with your family.


Studies of the brain have found that character-driven stories produce the neurochemical oxytocin, which generates emotions including empathy and trust.


When you choose and reflect on your stories, you're staying open to being vulnerable. Dr. Brené Brown, renowned researcher on vulnerability, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Her research has shown that embracing vulnerability lies at the heart of finding joy, belonging, and love.


So much of what is passed on to the next generation is subconscious. Our mindsets, reactions, and behaviors have all been molded by the accumulation of our experiences, which have been shaped by our parents and their accumulated experiences, which have been shaped by their parents, and so on. By sharing our stories with the next generation, we can more intentionally develop relationships of trust and love with our family.


What I took away from my interviews is that, by the time kids realize they don’t know much about their parents, there’s a sense of urgency and dwindling time to find out more. Because of all the things that can be found on the internet today, what your children are still searching for is what makes you, you.


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Jennifer Ouyang is a Stanford Impact Design Immersion Fellow and MBA candidate at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Coming from an immigrant family, Jennifer has personally experienced the culture gap and identity questions that many immigrant children face. In her own words, “My dad immigrated from Taiwan, my mom immigrated from the Philippines. I was born in the States. I have felt the culture chasm, the identity quandary, the communication crisis, all which have informed my majoring in psychology and my empathy for the plight of humankind to be understood and heard.”