I recently did an informal survey of my child-of-immigrant friends, asking about the worst thing they hid from their parents when they were teenagers. A few of their responses:
– “Secret boyfriends.” (This and “secret girlfriends” showed up 8 times, far more than any other response.)
– “A cellphone I bought myself when I was 17.”
– “Bad grades.” (This showed up twice.)
– “Talking on the phone before my parents came home, so they told me that they worked for the phone company and read all of my conversations.”
– “Going to a friend’s house to work on a group assignment, and instead going to the movies/mall/watching tv with said friend.”
– “Mail-ordered myself a dozen ducklings and included a letter from a ‘penpal,’ aka neighbor, with the money order. Denied any knowledge of said penpal or involvement with duckling procurement, and so got to keep them.”
– “Sneaking out of the house at night to go to a party.”
– “Sneaking high school boyfriend in my room through the second story window in the middle of the night.”
– “Scandalous outfits.”
– “I got a tattoo on the back of my neck and my mom saw it as she was fitting me for my hanbok. She tried to rub it off with her finger.”
– “Bleached my hair blond, then covered it up by dyeing it back to black using a temporary dye so it slowly went back to orange/blond. ‘I dunno why my hair keeps getting lighter every time I wash it.’”
So many of us have stories like this, of things we hid from our parents because they were from another time and place and they simply didn’t understand what American high schoolers did. (Mine was talking to boys for hours – HOURS – on AOL Instant Messenger while my parents thought I was writing papers. The Internet opened up a whole new world of evasion possibilities.) Reading these stories made me laugh until I cried, so tickled was I by my friends’ ingenuity and the memories of shenanigans forgotten.
It never occurred to me that these kinds of things could be construed as anything but what they are: the developmentally appropriate behavior of teenagers, particularly teenagers with parents from other cultures. It never occurred to me that they could be interpreted as signs of flawed character, as evidence that one is capable of dark and devious things.
But then I started listening to Serial, and I learned just how seriously these things could be misread – and how significant the consequences could be.
Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard of Serial, the most popular podcast in the US and the fastest-growing podcast of all time. Produced by Ira Glass and the team at This American Life, Serial tells one story over the course of about a dozen episodes. For its inaugural season, the producers chose to cover the 1999 murder of a high school student, Hae Min Lee. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted for the crime and is now serving a life sentence. A family friend of Adnan contacted Sarah Koenig, a TAL producer, and asked her to look into the case. Koenig was so fascinated by what she found that she deemed the case worthy of a whole season, for which she serves as narrator and investigator.
Serial’s storytelling is riveting, as is the story itself: There are wildly disparate accounts of the events leading up to the murder, an unreliable key witness whose story keeps changing, and countless important details that were overlooked in the investigation that could have made or broken the case. Particularly interesting for me are the cultural issues that surface throughout the story. Several pieces have been written about the racial issues in the reporting, but even more striking to me is how the prosecution chose to portray these issues in their case against Adnan.
In order to make a case for why Adnan, a popular and well-liked student with an unblemished record, would kill Hae after a seemingly unremarkable breakup, the prosecution painted him as a nefarious, manipulative liar; as evidence, they cited all of the things he was hiding from his parents – his supposed double life. Koenig thus summarized the prosecution’s position: “Look at what a liar he is, how duplicitous. He plays the good Muslim son at home and at the mosque, but look what he was up to.” That he hid his girlfriend and his recreational weed habit from his parents was interpreted as “proof of bad character, someone who could be a murderer.”
The prosecution went on to suggest that since Adnan had risked so much – like his relationships with his family and his religious community – to be with Hae, he was betrayed and humiliated when she ended things, and he decided to kill her. How the prosecution wove this idea into the narrative is, at times, laughable. In their closing argument, the prosecution used the story of Adnan’s parents showing up at a homecoming dance, which Adnan and Hae had secretly attended together, to bolster their case: “What is it that this defendant saw on January 13th [the day of the murder] when he looked down at Hae Lee? … He saw his parents standing at the window of the homecoming dance. He saw his mother raise her voice at Hae Lee in front of his classmates. ‘Look what you’re doing to our family!’ He saw the pain in his mother’s face because she knew they were together. And he saw himself, in the end, standing there with nothing to show for it but a guilty conscience and a pack of lies in which he cloaked himself.”
I audibly guffawed when I first heard this, because this argument is absurd. First of all, hiding things from your parents is par for the course for most American teenagers, regardless of where your parents are from. It’s all the more common among children of immigrants, who often experience a significant disconnect between the rules at home and the norms outside. You’d be hard-pressed to find a teenage child of immigrants who isn’t hiding something – from secret boyfriends and girlfriends to the frequency of their Internet use to vices of various kinds. A few of my friends somehow managed to sneak down to Florida for spring break. Even my high school youth pastor told us about the time he told his parents he was at a sleepover that was actually a party; when his parents stopped by unexpectedly, he opened the front door with a beer in each hand. Being caught was rarely pleasant, but the idea that it would leave us emotionally bereft – and sufficiently motivate us for violent crime – is ludicrous. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, but there would need to be much more serious psychological issues at play, and in Adnan’s case, there simply doesn’t seem to be evidence for that.
These things are so normal. This is the stuff that we laugh about now, a way to connect with children of immigrants everywhere – how strict your parents were, how much they didn’t get it, what you got away with, how they found out. It’s all so painfully ordinary.
So as I’ve listened to Serial over the past few weeks, I’ve been shocked by how what was completely normal for me – and tons of other children of immigrants – was interpreted as pathological by the prosecution, as grounds for a violent, premeditated crime. Was no one on that team a child of immigrants? Did they not even know any? Either the prosecution didn’t know how normal that kind of behavior was for someone like Adnan – or they knew but deliberately chose to exploit it, which seems deeply unethical. Regardless, they made a compelling case: Not only did the jury take only hours to find Adnan guilty (in the absence of any physical evidence, and largely based on the testimony of a star witness with an inconsistent story), but the judge bought it too. At Adnan’s sentencing, she said to him, “You used that charismatic ability … to manipulate people. And even today, I think you continue to manipulate even those that love you, as you did to the victim. You manipulated her to go with you to her death.” If hiding things from your parents makes you a master manipulator, then I’m in a whole lot of trouble.
It’s easy to view cultural incompetence as merely a nuisance, as something that’s inconvenient because it means that someone will need to spend time and energy explaining things. But listening to Serial reminded me that it’s much more significant than that. In Adnan’s case, the cultural incompetence of the prosecution wasn’t merely an annoyance – it may be the reason why he’ll be in prison for the rest of his life. For all of the lip service paid to cultural competence these days – to learning about other cultures and one’s own, to understanding race and power and privilege, to recognizing that there’s always more to learn in this domain – Adnan’s story is yet another reminder of how crucial it is. It is not simply a luxury. It can literally change the course of a life.