Parents just don’t understand: The immigrant youth experience

First generation Samoan youth Roselle Savea, Naiasolagi Ulusago, Nathan Taupau and Evangeline Taupau at a carwash to benefit the Aso Fitu Samoa Church on the sidewalk of International Boulevard in Tukwila, Wash. (Photo by Ian Terry)

Caught between worlds, first generation immigrants from around the globe find community in their alienation.

I once heard a joke by the hilarious Margaret Cho about what it was like to be a first generation immigrant (someone born in the U.S., but whose parents were born and raised in another country).

She referred to herself as a regular international traveler because she lived in the U.S. but had Korean parents, so she’d spend her day in one country but go home to another one entirely.

It was funny to me, because it rang true. I am a first generation Eritrean American, so the same thing would happen to me. I’d spend my mornings and afternoons trying to be as American as possible and then spend my evenings and nights trying to be as Eritrean as possible.

Unfortunately, having one foot in each door means that you’re never fully inside either room. Try as I might, I was never quite American enough to pass as one, and being born and raised in the U.S. means I’d never be traditional enough for other Eritreans.

Sopheary Hermens (left) whose parents immigrated from Cambodia and Thailand, with her husband Damien and their daughter Neilah, at the Seafood City Supermarket in Tukwila. (Photo by Ian Terry)Sopheary Hermens (left) whose parents immigrated from Cambodia and Thailand, with her husband Damien and their daughter Neilah, at the Seafood City Supermarket in Tukwila. (Photo by Ian Terry)

We first-generations have it tough. Our parents complain about how different this country is but at least they have a place they call home. Even though they don’t live there anymore they were born and raised in their country and consider themselves true natives. Patriotism toward Eritrea comes naturally to them, and why wouldn’t it? They were born and raised in the same place as their parents and grandparents and great grandparents.

The same thing will happen here to the second and third generation Eritreans, our children and children’s children; they will be so settled in the U.S. that they won’t think twice about considering themselves true Americans.

But we’re not so lucky.

Obviously this isn’t just an Eritrean issue. I live in Tukwila, which was recently hailed by the New York Times as having the most diverse school district in the U.S. It’s not just the different races I remember, but the different ethnicities.

Filipino first generation youth Elijah Baldivino with his father, Benjie, and sister, Annaliese at Seafood City. (Photo by Ian Terry)Filipino first generation youth Elijah Baldivino with his father, Benjie, and sister, Annaliese at Seafood City. (Photo by Ian Terry)

The majority of the people I was surrounded with were first generation, just like me. Chinese, Somalian, Bosnian, Vietnamese, Mexican, Senegalese…we played together, fought together, struggled through class together.

They didn’t come from the same place their parents did, but they didn’t feel 100% attached to the place they were in now. It was like we created our own culture of international misfits, and maybe I identified with this cultural group more than I did with Eritreans because they were struggling with the same things I was.

So if you asked me what the whole “America as a big melting pot” concept means to me, I’d tell you what I saw on the bus the other day: a group of young people from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds complaining about their parents while sharing a bag of Doritos and talking about the big test tomorrow.

That’s my generation’s take on the American dream. And I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

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