How Being A First Generation Can Affect Views on What it Means to be an American

Posted by Joanna D. Michigan

An examination on the similarities of how children of immigrants view their privileges and what it means to be an American.

To be a first generation American is to be aware early in your life of the privileges you have been raised with. This statement doesn’t imply that those with generations upon generations of family origin here are unable to understand the privileges that come with living in the United States, however it is incredibly common for first generation Americans to grow up hearing stories, sometimes bits and pieces, sometimes detailed tales, of their parents childhoods. To know your immigrant parents history and childhood is to know that they didn’t have a fraction of the opportunities you have and didn’t have the same luxuries you were raised with.

Some children of immigrants don’t like to think about what their lives would be like had they been born in their parents home countries, some are well aware of how lucky they were. Upon interviewing other first generation Americans, it is clear that this upbringing affects the ways in which kids acknowledge their privileges and opportunities and also how they view being an American in similar fashions. To do this I interviewed Maria Pacifico and Amena Youkhanna.

Interview with Amena Youkhanna:

Where are your parents from?

My mom is an Orthodox Christian Assyrian who immigrated from Kuwait to Davisburg, Pennsylvania

Why did your parents immigrate here?

To have better opportunities for her and her family.

Did they feel accepted when they moved here?

No. It was hard to be accepted at school. Did not speak the language and was put in regular English speaking classes

How different do you think your life would be had you been born in your parents home countries?

I’d probably be dead. It’s a hard life over there, I would not have the things I have now. It’s a whole different world over there.

Do you think you have the same opportunities now that they did when they immigrated?

In the beginning, as a child, no. It was very hard. As time went on she adapted and accepted her American life. Her family came to give her a better opportunity and she says if you don’t accept what's around you then you will never progress in life.

Do you believe The American Dream can accurately describe your parents experiences?

In the beginning, as a child, no. It was very hard. As time went on she adapted and accepted her American life. Her family came to give her a better opportunity and she says if you don’t accept what's around you then you will never progress in life.

Do you think they had an equal opportunity here as other citizens?

She says she did and that there's a door for opportunity for everyone you just gotta get up and open it.

Does your parents background affect what you believe being American is?

Sometimes I think about all the stories my mom told me about her childhood and all the stuff she went through being a minority and I start to hate how people in America are but I realize that times have changed and we’re not as separated as before. There’s still a lot of issues dealing with racism in our country but I see progression. Royal Oak is a pretty accepting place and that's nice, I don’t really feel sorted out from everyone else because of my background.

Interview with Maria Pacifco:

Where are your parents from?

My mom was born in Ukraine, during the time of the Soviet Union.

Why did your parents immigrate here?

My mom came here because she fell in love with an American and came here to be with him and start a new life.

Did your parents feel accepted when they immigrated here?

I don’t know. She has told me before that she’s treated like an immigrant so she doesn’t feel American and sometimes people are very impatient with her. My dad’s parents loved her though and for the most part, my dad’s family liked her. So inside the family she was accepted but in other contexts she is ignored because she has such a strong accent or make me translate for her because other people just get so frustrated.

How different do you think your life would be had you been born in your parents home country?

My life would’ve a lot different and I wouldn’t have half of the things I have now. There are a lot of tensions in Ukraine right now and overall the economy is kind of awful. I wouldn’t have the same privileges and would probably live in a very small apartment.

Do you think you have the same opportunities now that your parents did?

I think I have more opportunities. I am not limited by an accent and I was born here and know the culture and know how to communicate properly.

Do you think your parents experiences accurately describe the American Dream?

Unlike other immigrants, my mom was able to come and fall back on an American. She was able to come here and my dad had a house and was able to provide enough money for the both of them and for her to go to college. She didn’t come here with a dollar in her pocket and with nothing. She had help from other Americans to get to the point she is today. I don’t think she would’ve achieved it without them. I guess you could say she achieved the “American dream” because she is successful and was able to create a new life and better life then in her home country but I think it’s because she had Americans to help her.

Do you think they had equal opportunity here as other citizens?

No. People assume with her thick accent and hard of hearing that she’s incompetitant but she’s not. She’s probably the smartest person I know but she doesn’t know how to communicate it in english as well as she can in russian. People just don’t seem to take the time to understand and move onto to someone else they can understand quicker.

Does your parents background affect what you believe being American is?

Yeah because i see how people treat my mom and that sometimes differs from the American ideals and that changes how i view our “fundamentals” and makes me question what is a true american because I see both sides of a true born American and an immigrant.

There is a similarity in that both interviewees acknowledge that their lives would not be quite as comfortable had they been born in their parents home countries. Maria says that she’d have less privileges and that she would probably be living in a very small apartment. Amena states she might not even be alive due to how difficult life can be in Kuwait. My parents were both born in Albania, a place I have visited many times. I’ve visited my mom’s childhood home, her sister still lives there, it’s hard for them over there, the neighborhood is very poor, they only have hot water at certain times, they don’t have air conditioning, they have to use the bus everywhere and walk the rest of the way. My mom sends things as often as she can for them, and although I wasn’t raised in the most privileged setting I know that that could be my life as well had my parents not come here and had I been born in Albania like them and like so many of my cousins.

In both cases and in my own personal case being a first generation American also affected what our ideas of being an American is. In each case knowing the experiences of our parents has affected how we view other Americans and what it is to live here. Both interviewees mention how the treatment of their immigrant parents in the past has had an influence on how they view being and American. The mistreatment of their parents can rouse up, like for example in Amena’s case, feelings of anger towards other Americans and a sense of hyper awareness to the social climate in the country which Maria could also attest to having, as people’s preconceived notions of her mother due to her accent leads her to question what a true American is if these people are acting so out of line with so called “American Ideals”.

In the end it is not a matter of singularity, you can still recognize your privileges being a thorough bred American and there are many things that can affect your views on what it means to be such. The idea is that as first generations, kids will have similar views on how privileged their lives are here compared to their parents homes and similar views on what it means to be an American, shown by how both interviewees referenced the treatment of their parents in their respective responses. As a child of an immigrant, to be born here was to not only be able to see past America’s almost fantasy “American Dream” mirage held up on a pedestal by many as a cut and dry truth and into the ugliness that is the mistreatment and inequality that we have the ability to harbor, as was shown for example in our most recent election in which Mexican immigrants were heavily demonized by a presidential candidate and his supporters, but also to understand that I could have been born in far worse conditions, with far less opportunities, and far less privileges. What I believe it means to be an American is to acknowledge these both as truths in our nation and to not just paint it one way or the other, ideas like this or in a similar fashion are corroborated by those interviewed for this project , and I believe similar views are held by others like me.

Published on Jun 9, 2018
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