Growing Up First Gen

By Nakie Uzeiri

Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University-Commerce.

What’s it like growing up first generation American in an immigrant household? Well, it’s kind of like living two lives–an American life, and a life that preserves a foreign culture’s traditions. Many who grow up this way define themselves as having a bicultural identity.

For starters, a good deal of us first generation Americans live with the classic foreign name complication we must endure throughout our lives because our parents didn’t consider the translation. For example, my name, when pronounced incorrectly, makes it sound like I’m always naked. I’ve gotten a notable amount of cruel jokes and cheesy questions for “Nakie,” thanks mom and dad.

Our youth definitely consisted of countless cultural celebrations that seemed customary. However, as we matured, we began to realize not everyone has been to these kinds of events or worn traditional ensembles. From the Indian sari to traditional Albanian dress, we don’t have to reserve Halloween to dress up and throw awesome parties.

First generation American Shina Patel shares a few stories about traditional Indian weddings she has attended throughout the years. One particular example that brought her back to her childhood was when her uncle got married.

The Patel family’s American home hosted an array of traditional Indian wedding events for around a period of three days.

“For one of the ceremonies we had to walk around my neighborhood holding clay pots above our heads and I just remember I was so embarrassed,” she recalls. “Our neighbors came up to us afterward to ask us what we were doing.”

Photo courtesy of Jason Corey.

Growing up first generation undoubtedly makes for some noteworthy childhood stories–be it making fun of our parents’ odd actions with siblings or presenting alien items at the school lunch table. Think of the comical scene of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, for instance, when little Toula (Nia Vardalos) brought moussaka to school and other little girls mock the food’s foreign name by calling it “moose caca.”

Although the scene is a classic, it resonates a sad reality for some viewers. Patel recalls a story quite similar, noting, “It’s hard growing up culturally different in a predominantly white town.”

While she says her parents had never packed her traditional food for school, she reminisces to an elementary memory of another classmate whose parents packed her Indian food. Sadly, presenting foreign fare influenced other students to jeer at her.

Personally, I’ve had a taste of my Nana’s homemade moussaka, and while I’m a fairly simple PB&J lover, I find most authentic food is delicious. Although, I’ve also had my fair share of traditional Albanian dishes I would never eat again. While some of these different foods might be seen as a delicacy varying from culture to culture, first-generation children may also find themselves slightly repulsed by traditional cuisine.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding also features a lamb roasting outside on the spit. It’s scary how accurate the similarities are between the Portokalos family and my own in this particular scene.

Roasted lamb is definitely not my favorite taste in the world. However, I recognize that for my elders, the meat possesses a taste that many enjoy.

Some of us first-gens might also have been lied to in order to eat our family’s traditional grub.

“My parents never told me what I was eating,” Peruvian-American Alex Piscoya recalls. Shortly after, she discovered she had just ingested pig intestines.

“They also tried to feed me things like cow heart and guinea pig in Peru,” she says. “How could I eat a guinea pig?”

Photo courtesy of Karen.

While not a fan of her family’s consumption of pig intestines, ears, or feet, Phoebe Huang–the first American born of her Taiwanese family–mentions some delicious items she enjoys with family, including homemade dumplings.

“Mooncakes have to be my absolute favorite,” Huang says about the dense Chinese dessert.

Besides unique food and customs, first generation American children commonly face immense familial pressure focused on education. True, all students are susceptible to being stressed over school–but being first generation American might also mean being the family’s first generation college graduate.

It’s common for immigrant parents to employ guilt tactics when their kids’ academic performance isn’t up to their standards. They’ll often start with the, “I didn’t come to this country with $20 in my pocket for you to not be doing your homework” speech. However irritating, the speech is effective in incentivizing children to push themselves harder in school due to the knowledge they possess of their parents’ sacrifices.

Patel brings up her personal experience with immigrant parents.

“If you don’t measure up to your parents’ idea of success then it was all for nothing,” she says, “and by it I mean your parents uprooting their lives in their home country to move to America in search of a life they never had.”

Failing parents is the worst stress of all. When children are already trying so hard to complete their studies, the added familial anxiety can be extremely frustrating. The pressure becomes especially intense when constantly hearing family members say they can’t wait for their kids to become a “doctor” or “engineer” with complete disregard of whatever they really want to be.

“To succeed is to be educated to [parents],” Patel says. “They place their lost dreams and hopes on you and hope that one day you lead a life they only dreamed about.”

Nevertheless, Patel says that today, as an adult, she cherishes the ability of having two different cultural identities.

“I definitely didn’t appreciate my non-American culture when I was a kid as much as I do now. Now it’s something I can cherish and look forward to, my life wouldn’t be the same without it.”

Though children may roll their eyes at the cliche statement that parents make about appreciating efforts when they’re older, we first-generation Americans can likely attest to the privileges of our bicultural raising.