How Being A First Generation Immigrant Changes Your Life
If you hear me cheer extra loud every time I hear Drake give a shout out to East African girls, there's a reason for that. I was born in the USA, but my parents are from Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa with about the same number of people as Alabama. Comedian Margaret Cho once compared having immigrant parents to spending every day in one country but every night in another -- coming home from school is like crossing a border. You don't feel like you're fully a citizen of either. I've lost my fluency in my native language, but I'll never be as fluent in English as my American friends.
All of this, as you might imagine, creates some unique difficulties ...
Some Things Are Impossible To Explain To My Family (Like Harry Potter)
When my parents discovered me reading Harry Potter for the first time as a kid, they were horrified because they thought it was witchcraft propaganda and I was on my way to hell along with Dobby and Ron Weasley. I also didn't get diagnosed with ADHD until I was in college, because my parents didn't know that it existed.
You can't blame them for being out of step on this and hundreds of other everyday things -- the learning curve in American culture is steeper than you think. We tend to believe that once someone is in the states, they somehow instantly download all of the apple pie and baseball Americanisms right into their brain. It's the same logic that causes idiots to yell "YOU WANT TO LIVE IN AMERICA? SPEAK ENGLISH!" at people who have been here for literally a week.
So, having been immersed in both cultures from birth, I wind up having to play the role of translator. There are a lot of "common knowledge" things I had to explain to my parents growing up (job applications, financial aid forms, etc). And then there are a lot of things that just don't translate, no matter how hard I try. Harry Potter is the perfect example of this.
My parents come from a country where there's no such thing as separation between church and state (the government officially recognizes several religions, including orthodox Christianity -- my maternal grandmother was actually a nun). Now imagine Kid Me trying to explain the plotline of "A boy abandons the family who raised him to experiment with witchcraft, immersing himself at a school that's led by a man who looks like an old Jesus." They'd have been less alarmed if I'd jumped out from behind a chair and yelled "WINGARDIUM LEVIOSA" at them.
I knew this wasn't a battle I was ever going to win, so my badass act of childhood rebellion was to keep checking out those books from the library, but to stash them in my locker, far away from my parents. I'd be damned if anybody was going to take Harry Potter away from me
We're People From A Collectivist Culture, Living In A Country Of Individualists
It was a real battle for my siblings and I to move out of the house. Not because my parents didn't think we were capable of surviving on our own, but because they didn't understand why we'd want to.
In their culture, everyone lives at home until they get married, and sometimes still after that, together as one big unit. In general, the group is considered more important than any one person. In America, being an individual is EVERYTHING -- living with your parents is so shameful that it's a common insult, and being too close to family is considered creepy. You're taught that you can be an obnoxious shitheel who pees on the Thanksgiving turkey and it's okay, as long as you're unique.
It'd be so easy for me to dismiss this aspect of my culture as backwards, like the American way is the correct one and we just have to wait for them to catch up. The reality is that tight-knit families have been keeping humanity alive for as long as humanity has been a thing. Still, for someone like me (social anxiety, speech issues, would rather take a nap than interact with anyone or anything), the focus on collectivism can be a problem. "UGGGGH, I don't want to help put together another stupid wedding of some stupid relative I don't even know that well!"
Then there's the intense and distinctly American desire for privacy that actually suits me very well. Yes, I appreciate that I am the result of millions of years of familial survival instinct, but I also want to do other things, like bring these batteries in my room with me as I watch Luke Cage with the lights off and DO NOT COME IN WITHOUT KNOCKING FIRST.
You Get Sick Of Explaining How Race, Ethnicity, And Nationality Are Different Things
This may be hard to believe, but if I had a dollar for every time someone tried to tell me "You're not black, you're African," I'd have enough money to buy them all dictionaries and courses that teach proper manners. In a nutshell, race refers to a person's physical characteristics, skin color, bone structure, general genetics, etc. Ethnicity refers to a person's cultural background. Nationality refers to the country they're from. If you think this is all just semantics, then congratulations on never having had to worry about it!
For example, Charlize Theron is a white (race) woman from an Afrikaner (ethnicity) family who was born and raised in South Africa (nationality). Which makes her ... African American.
Now cue the wise guy who hears about a scholarship for African Americans and says, "Oh, like Charlize Theron?" It gets messy. I myself am a black (race) woman from a Tigrinya (ethnicity) family who was born in the U.S. (nationality). But growing up, I've had all kinds of people try to tell me that I wasn't black, my actual skin color be damned. A couple of them would go into details: "I mean, you're black, but you're not, you know, black."
And I used to get it from all sides. Once in middle school, I was cornered in the gym by a group of black kids who tried to force me to say out loud that I wasn't black. I got a lot of that growing up, reminders that I wasn't "one of them." Not so much as an adult, thank God, which might be a sign that things are changing for the better? Or just a general recognition that a white supremacist would hate both of us with equal fervor no matter where our parents were actually born? Or maybe it's that when you're a kid, you say the dumbest shit ever, and it's only when you grow up that you learn "Oh god? I said that? Really? Oh no. Oh god." Or a mix of all three. Either way, yay for progress.
You Will Feel Guilt About How Good Your Life Is In The U.S.
My mother can put numbers together faster than anyone I know, but she's never been in a classroom before. With her natural proclivities for both math and science, had she had my opportunities, she could have been a mathematician or a scientist or a member of the Avengers -- whatever her heart desired. She is naturally much more talented than I am, but was raised to believe that she should put her family first. I've spent a lot of time growing up feeling guilty about this.
It's not just that my mother didn't get to have access to the same resources I had. I also feel guilty that I do have those resources, but don't exactly take full advantage (I'm not exactly an A student). I used to resent my parents for putting academic pressure on me. I feel guilty about that too, because I now know that they saw that I had an amazing chance they never had. It'd be like if I had a kid who got invited to Hogwarts, and all they did was complain about having to practice their boring levitation spells every night.
I feel guilty that my American friends (and boyfriends) had to go through so many hoops and deal with all of this cultural confusion just to maintain a relationship with me. I feel guilty for being angry at my parents for putting me in that position. I feel guilty because I've never visited Eritrea and I'm not in any hurry to do so. I feel guilty that I don't care about settling down, finding a husband, and having children in a way that is just unfathomable to my parents. I feel guilty because if I do get married and have kids, I'd want them to learn my native language and absorb as much as the culture as possible, no matter where my husband is from.
Hell, I feel guilty for writing this column. This won't be one I'll be showing off to Mom any time soon.
When not struggling with her identity crisis, Archie also writes for BlackGirlNerds.com, and is starting to get the hang of Twitter. Come say hi to her there.
If you had any further interest in learning about Archie's ancestral homeland, here's The Essential Guide to Tigrinya: The Language of Eritrea and Tigray Ethiopia.
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