The immigrant experience – from scarcity to having choices

You know that feeling of terror when you first land in America as an immigrant? The feeling of “how am I going to feed my family when I don’t know the language or the culture or the ways things work here?” The feeling of “I don’t know how much things cost or how to buy a house or a car or enroll my children in school.” The feeling of “I have to learn all these things while I hustle to get any job I can get to put a roof over my family’s head.”

This is a powerful and incredibly difficult experience that ends up shaping people’s world view for generations. It is a noble struggle that teaches people resilience, tenacity and survival skills that would win any Survivor TV series. It teaches people not to take things for granted, to appreciate simple things like being able to buy fresh bread instead of day-old bread, or the ability to speak and write fluently in English or being able to cook a Thanksgiving meal because now you know how Thanksgiving works.

My family arrived in the US in 1984. My father was 50 and my mother was 48. They were well into middle age when they threw themselves into the cyclone of surviving in a new land. My late father’s first job in this country was working the night shift at Rheem Industrial in Indianapolis lifting heavy boxes. My heart still breaks at the thought of my dad having to do this back breaking work to put food on the table for his wife and 6 kids. Through years of doing difficult, spotty, menial work my father made sure his children were college educated and gained the tools they needed to survive and thrive in this world, financially and otherwise. In a single generation he lifted our family from poverty to middle class.

Similarly, my friend’s grandfather came to San Francisco as a teenager in the early 1900s and experienced that visceral struggle to survive. He took any job he could, he scrimped and saved until he had enough money to start a laundry business. He got married and had children. He passed the laundry business on to his son and that son made enough money to send his kids to college. One of those kids, my friend, went to architecture school. He was the beneficiary of the struggles of his grandfather and his father. He secured a well-paying professional desk job and did not have to fold other people’s clothing for a living. However, my friend has never been able to rid himself of the scarcity mentality that comes with the immigrant’s intense struggle to survive, even though he is two generations removed from that struggle. He is 55 years old and has lost his passion and interest for his work. He admits that he has enough money to retire but he continues to show up at work because that’s all he knows. All he knows is the struggle to survive. This is an odd but not uncommon combination, to have the means to live comfortably for the rest of your life at your fingertips, yet still feeling scarcity because that’s the only thing you’ve ever known.

This is the challenge for the children of immigrants, to let go of that sense of scarcity and struggle to survive and give ourselves permission to have preferences and act on them, even if our parents or grandparents could not. After all, our parents and grandparents struggled as hard as they did in order for us to have the privilege of preferences. Preferences that say you’d like to be an artist instead of a tech worker, or that you’d like to be a stay at home dad, or a freelancer because a 9 to 5 job just doesn’t suit you. Our immigrant parents did everything for us, but the one thing they couldn’t do was model what it’s like to have privilege, preference, and choices.

The flip side to the immigrant struggle to survive is entitlement. I see this most in my privileged white friends with means they choose not to use. As an immigrant and the child of people who struggled so hard to make it in this country, I see the entitlement of people who reject college educations that they can afford and opt to live on the margins for the rest of their lives instead. I know there are people without college educations who have been extremely successful and/or are financially secure. However, most people without college educations shoot themselves in the foot in terms of financial security and limit their options. In my experience, having a college education has made the difference between struggling to survive every single day to having the choice to quit a cushy well-paid professional job in an expensive city like San Francisco.

A white male friend of mine, someone who’s been in the US for many generations, once confided in me that he got admitted into a good college but after he attended a few classes, he dropped out because he didn’t like it. This same friend often expresses frustration at how little money he makes  and how he has to hold down low-level jobs to make enough to pay his rent. He is the same friend who lives with housemates as he approaches 50 and who probably can’t ever buy a house. He had the opportunity to have a stable and secure life, but he threw it away by not attending college, simply because he “didn’t like it.” I admit I felt rage and resentment well up in me as I remembered my father’s struggle. What made me so mad at hearing my friend’s story is that he didn’t even acknowledge the privilege with which he threw away a college education.

Children of immigrants don’t want to screw up. We know how much our parents sacrificed to give their children the security they never had. To throw that away and to put ourselves in a precarious position again, but this time out of choice, feels like we’re letting our parents down. This feeling serves us well for the most part, but it also prevents us from relaxing and makes us hypervigilant even when we don’t have to be. It makes us strive after financial success and the trappings of the American Dream, even if it is not our dream. It is the dream of our parents. Children of immigrants often have to negotiate between their own dreams and the dreams of their parents. We feel like we have entered into a pact with our immigrant parents unknowingly before we were much more than a twinkle in our mother’s eye. The pact goes something like this: “we’ll sacrifice our lives so that you can have a chance at the success and financial security we never had in this new country and you have to make good on that and live the American dream.”

For example, the immigrant parent’s dream might be to have a stable professional job, to afford a large home, a couple of nice cars, be able to go to the mall to buy their children designer clothes, be able to send their children to good schools, enroll them in a variety of expensive educational programs, and be able to go on nice vacations. An immigrant child’s dream, on the other hand, might be to pursue a career in the arts, to live in a communal house with other artists, to populate their living space with vintage furniture from thrift stores and to live without a car. To the parents, this lifestyle is utterly baffling and resembles the life they worked so hard to escape. Why would anyone choose not to have a big house and several cars and new furniture?

Today I sit in a coffee shop in San Francisco having quit my architecture job a week ago. A decision that would make my dad quite nervous. I quit for many reasons, none of them life threatening, all of them based on my preferences. In other words, I quit because I wanted to. My father didn’t have this privilege. I do, but only thanks to him. Not only thanks to what he did but thanks to the example he set. What he did was work really really hard to make sure his kids got a college education to secure their future. What he did was instill in his kids values of hard work, resilience and discipline as we grew up. These values serve me well today. But it’s his example of perseverance, hard work, discipline and self-sacrifice that shine most brightly and steadfastly inside me.

It’s his example of putting his own preferences aside to serve his family that also sits heavy in my heart. I feel guilty for having the privilege to quit my job because it doesn’t suit me when my own father, and many others, don’t have this privilege.

Walking the fine line between making good on the unspoken pact with my parents and the entitlement I see dripping from people who have been in the States for generations, for whom the struggle to survive is long forgotten, defines my choices more than I let on. I couldn’t be more grateful for the sacrifices my parents made and for the things they taught me about not taking things for granted. Amid that gratitude I’m finding the courage to explore and express my own dreams and not feel guilty about it.

Photo credit: My handsome dad on his 76th birthday in Sedona, Arizona