Immigrants and “The Talk”

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When immigrant parents won’t talk about the birds and the bees, and sex-ed isn’t there for you either, where does that leave immigrant kids?

By Catherine Abes

Winnie Wangui was surprised when she saw the book on her table: geared toward kids, it detailed things like puberty, periods and reproductive health. The fourth-year public health student thought it must have been her nine-year-old sister’s school textbook. 

She was shocked to find her mother bought the book for her little sister. Wangui and her two older sisters had never received that kind of support. 

In most North American households, parents sit their children down for the infamous, capital-T-“Talk,” where parents explain sex to their kids. But for Wangui, who was born and raised in Thika, Kenya before immigrating to Canada eight years ago, the idea of the talk with her parents was foreign, and so was that book.

In Kenya, particularly in the Catholic community, topics like sex, sexual health and relationships are considered taboo, Wangui says. This is especially true for young people, who aren’t even taught about protected sex because they’re supposed to remain abstinent until marriage.

“In school, you can’t even say the word ‘sex.’ Even the word ‘boyfriend,’ you can’t say,” she says. “My mom, she’s been here 10 years, she says ‘friend friend’. Like ‘Do you have a friend friend?’” 

Growing up, Wangui had to navigate things like relationships, communication with partners and safe sex practices by asking her older sisters and friends, while learning through trial and error. Now, Wangui’s mom is opening up the conversation at home, though reluctantly—Wangui says her mom didn’t have much choice since her younger sister would learn about sex and sexual health at school anyways. 

“That book, that’s a step,” Wangui says. “When I came here, my mom would never do that.”  

Wangui’s situation is the case for many Ryerson students: in the 2017-18 school year, Ryerson’s University Planning Office recorded over 1,500 undergrad students who came from outside of Canada to study. 

Navigating relationships, identity and growing up can be an awkward, especially with a limited sex education. This is usually where parents or other caregivers come in: to fill in the blanks and answer the questions kids are too scared to raise their hands for. But for newcomers, first-generation and second-generation students, this might not be an option. In the absence of open, healthy discussions at home or at school, immigrant students can get left behind and miss out on knowledge that is crucial to their health and wellbeing.

Daniel Lis never talked to his parents about sex, never wanted to talk to his parents about sex and to this day, doesn’t ever want to talk to his parents about sex. 

The fifth-year politics student and second-generation Canadian says his Czech parents would avoid the topic at all costs—even “accidentally” flipping the channel if intimate scenes came up on TV—so the conversation never happened. “If your parents are still embarrassed to talk about it, you won’t feel comfortable talking to them about it either.”

Lis thinks his parents were hoping that his Catholic school would educate him on what they didn’t want to talk about. But the old sex-ed curriculum that Lis was taught over a decade ago didn’t help him either. Lis was taught the biological side of sex but never about what sex actually is.

“They talked about it in a way that you’re supposed to know what it is already,” he says. The only time sex was mentioned was around abstinence, and he had no idea about healthy practices or social dynamics in the bedroom.

It wasn’t until high school that Lis got a better understanding of what sex looked like by watching porn. Although he says it felt vulgar and wrong at the time, it was more informative than anything the school or his parents taught him.

“They talked about it in a way that you’re supposed to know what it is already”

The problem with Ontario’s current sex-ed curriculum is not just that it’s narrow. For some students, it may not even feel relevant. Some of it can be awkward or jarring because it’s taught through an exclusively Western lens, according to Elizabeth Wong. Wong is the lead editor of Nuance, a Toronto-based media platform aiming to expand and diversify the conversation around sexual health by uplifting the voices of migrant and immigrant youth. Wong adds the resources can also be exclusively white and heteronormative. 

For this reason, it’s important to provide cultural sensitivity training to educators—to ensure their messages don’t exclude marginalized identities. A grand coming-out affair might not be a reality for all students—some have to express their identity in other ways.

“Educators could do a better job of just acknowledging how views on sex and norms around sex are culturally produced,” says Eleni Han, the co-founder of Nuance. “There are more realities out there.” Wong acknowledges that there can be tension between different cultures, but there can also be synergy. “There are ways to integrate what’s important to you with teachings that promote health and wellbeing.” 

Han notes that while there were a lot of stories about immigrants as opponents of the 2015 updated curriculum, a survey of immigrant and newcomer communities conducted by Nuance found people from those communities supporting the updated lesson plans. 

On an hour-long car ride from Scarborough to Brampton, fourth-year sociology student Hannah Purugganan thought it was finally the right moment to tell her mother about her first kiss. She’d been keeping it a secret for about a year—in her Catholic-Filipino immigrant household, dating was forbidden and sex was saved for marriage. If the topic came up, her grandma would sweetly remind her that “God is watching.” When her family watched movies, the kids were told to close their eyes during the intimate scenes. 

Before Purugganan had a chance to tell her story, her mom switched gears: the conversation became a lecture on why she—18 at the time—was too young to date. She remembered why she kept her romantic life to herself in the first place. 

To this day, she still hasn’t told her mom about the kiss. 

For third-year sociology student Kashika Bahal, talking to her parents, who immigrated from India, was off the table. Her mother offered her support as well as books on puberty, because she wasn’t equipped with the resources to talk about sexual health—she was never taught about it either. “It’s kind of like a generational thing,” Bahal says. 

On top of having to navigate the awkward journey of puberty, she lived in fear of being the last kid to know. Even submitting questions to the anonymous question box in her Grade 9 health class felt too risky. She was too scared that people would figure out who was asking presumably obvious questions. So, she continued to figure things out on her own.

Wangui always wanted to work in health. When she lived in Kenya, she was set on becoming a doctor or nurse, to help combat the HIV epidemic. Now, her endgame is to work as a health promoter in Kenya, because it will allow her to create a one-on-one relationship with the community she seeks to serve. She’s also specializing in sexual health to teach the things she was never taught. 

Wangui is taking an extra year of study to ensure she has the best opportunities to solidify her knowledge. Right now, she volunteers at a sexual health clinic in Brampton, Ont., as well as the Black Coalition for Aids Prevention in Toronto. After she graduates, she’s hoping to pursue a master’s degree in health promotion, before heading to Kenya. 

“I know that it will be difficult going back home…to go and change the whole perspective,” she says. Nonetheless, she believes that institutions like schools and churches need to provide health promotion spaces for youth to ask questions without judgement.

“Young people are sexually active, so why aren’t you addressing that issue? These are things that they need to know.” 

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