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Balancing Act Between Cultures

Brian Lam

Social Work’s Brian Lam has an interest in the concept of the construction of self and the coping strategies of Vietnamese-American adolescents that go beyond his research as a scholar; he learned to adjust his identity and to cope with major physiological and psychological changes as an adolescent when he came to this country as a refugee from Vietnam in 1985.  “I was one of the boat people,” said Lam, a Long Beach resident and member of the university since 2003. As an immigrant, he experienced many conflicts between his Vietnamese heritage and his American home. As American core value of individualism run counter to traditional Vietnamese core values of interdependence, he was struggling to maintain a coherent sense of self as he attempted to integrate his cultural identity and the mainstream cultural identity. “I was torn between these forces,” he said.

 In teasing out the significance of both worlds, “Bi-cultural individuals must be prepared to adjust their identities in different situations,” he said, “so that positive relationships with both cultures can coexist. It enables them to enjoy and thrive.”

His experience helps him relate to his diverse student enrollment. “Depending on its implementation, acculturation process can disrupt the relationship between students and other support systems which may negatively influence the development of healthy coping strategies” he said. “They talk to me about their conflicts and I attempt to assist them in identifying their external and internal coping resources.”

Lam received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from CSULB, the latter in 1994. He went on to acquire a doctorate from Columbia University in 2000.

In addition to his interest in biculturalism, Lam also examines the impact of perceived discrimination and cultural identity on psychological distress among Vietnamese American young adults. In his study, he found that the perceived discrimination weaken individuals’ sense of self efficacy and, challenges their sense of belonging and sense of identity which might lessen their ability to perceive their world as comprehensible, and meaningful.

Conversely, he found that when these Vietnamese-American young adults perceived positive public attitudes and when identified with and valued their cultural group membership, they were likely to internalize the perception that others recognized and shared their values and could provide advice and tangible support in face of adversity. Consequently, their sense of coherence was greatly improved. His article on his study is forthcoming in American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

Lam also provides his perspective on the concept of mentoring with Vietnamese American adolescents. He emphasized the important role of natural mentors (e.g., extended family members, neighbors, and church representatives). He contended “these natural mentors may have a powerful influence on adolescents’ socialization due to their demographic closeness. Thus, they are likely to remain “in the picture” over the course of time.

“As Vietnamese-American adolescents attempt to incorporate elements of American culture (e.g., autonomy) into their identity, they might challenge parental authority and disengage from the family, thus putting them at risk for alienation from their parents. Therefore, the existence of a natural mentor could be important in providing social support not only to the adolescent but also to other family members,” Lam said.

He recently completed a research study on the role of natural mentors on Vietnamese American adolescents’ cultural and socioemotional development funded by the William T. Grant Foundation. This research was a collaborative effort with two exemplary professors – Chuansheng Chen and Ellen Greenberger – at the University of Irvine, School of Social Ecology. Based on the findings of this research study, an intervention program was designed and submitted to National Institute of Mental Health for funding.