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How Being A First Generation Immigrant Changes Your Life

If you hear me cheer extra loud every time that I hear Drake provide a shout out to East African women, there is a reason for that. I had been born in the USA, but my parents are out of Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa with roughly the same number of individuals as Alabama. Comedian Margaret Cho when compared having immigrant parents to spending each day in 1 nation but nightly in another — arriving home from school is like crossing a border. You do not feel like you’re fully a citizen of. I’ve lost my fluency in my native language, but I will never be as fluent in English as my friends.

All of this, as you might imagine, produces some unique difficulties …


Some Things Are Impossible To Explain To My Family (such as Harry Potter)

When my parents discovered me studying Harry Potter for very first time as a child, they were horrified because they thought it was witchcraft propaganda and that I had been on my way to hell together with Dobby and Ron Weasley. I also didn’t get diagnosed with ADHD before I was in college, as my parents didn’t know that it existed.

You can not blame them for being out of step with this and countless other everyday things — that the learning curve in American culture is steeper than you believe. We tend to believe that once someone is in the countries, they somehow immediately download all of the apple pie and baseball Americanisms directly into their brain. It’s the same logic that causes idiots to yell “YOU WANT TO LIVE IN AMERICA? SPEAK ENGLISH!” At those who have been here for a week.

So, being 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 needed 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 Best example of this.

My parents come from a state where there is no such thing as separation between church and state (the government officially recognizes several religions, including orthodox Christianity — my maternal grandma 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 is led by a guy who seems to be an older Jesus.” They would have been alarmed if I had jumped out from behind a seat and yelled “WINGARDIUM LEVIOSA” at them.

I understood this was not a struggle I was ever going to win, so my badass act of childhood rebellion was to keep checking those out books out of the library, but to throw them in my locker, far away from my parents. I’d be damned if anyone was going to take Harry Potter away from me

Scholastic, Inc.. Gryffindor for life, fam.


We’re Folks Out Of A Collectivist Culture, Living In A Country Of Individualists

It was a real struggle for my siblings and I to move from the home. Not only because my parents didn’t believe we were capable of living on our own, but since they didn’t know why we’d want to.

In their culture, everyone lives at home until they get married, and at times still after that, collectively as one big unit. Generally, the team is considered more important than any 1 person. In the usa, being a person is EVERYTHING — living with your parents is so shameful that it is a frequent insult, and being too close to household is deemed creepy. You’re taught that you can be an obnoxious shitheel who pees on the Thanksgiving turkey and it is okay, so long as you are unique.

It would be so easy for me to dismiss this part of my culture as backwards, like the American way is the right one and we just have to wait for them to grab. The reality is that tight-knit families have been maintaining humanity alive for as long as humankind has been something. Still, for someone like me (societal anxiety, address problems, would rather have a nap than interact with anything or anyone), the focus on collectivism could be a problem. “UGGGGH, I really don’t want to help put together another dumb wedding of some dumb relative I do not even know that well!”

Then there is the extreme and distinctly American desire for solitude that truly suits me quite well. Yes, I appreciate that I am the result of millions of years of familial survival instinct, but I also want to do anything else, like bring these batteries in my room with me as I watch Luke Cage with all the lights off and DO NOT COME IN WITHOUT KNOCKING FIRST.


You Get Heard Of Allergic How Race, Ethnicity, And Nationality Are Different Matters

This could be hard to think, but if I had a buck for every time someone tried to tell me “You’re not black, you are African,” I’d have sufficient cash to purchase them dictionaries and courses that teach proper manners. In brief, race refers to a person’s physical traits, skin color, bone structure, general genetics, etc.. Ethnicity refers to a person’s cultural heritage. Nationality refers to the country they’re from. If you believe this is just semantics, then congratulations on never having had to worry about doing it!

By way of instance, Charlize Theron is a white (race) woman in the Afrikaner (ethnicity) household who had been born and raised in South Africa (nationality). Which makes her … African American.

Gage SkidmoreI will provide you a moment to let it sink in.

Now cue the smart 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) household who had been born in the U.S. (nationality). But growing up, I’ve had all sorts of individuals attempt to tell me that I was not black, my true skin colour be damned. Some of these would go into details: “I mean, you are black, but you are not, you know, black.”

And I used to get it from all sides. Once in middle school, I had been cornered in the gym by a group of black kids who tried to force me to say out loud that I was not black. I received a lot of this growing up, reminders that I wasn’t “among these.” Not too much as a adult, thank God, which might be a indication that things are changing for the better? Or only a general understanding that a white supremacist would despise us with equal fervor no matter where our parents were actually born? Or maybe it’s that if you are a child, you say that the dumbest shit ever, and it is only when you grow up that you learn “Oh god? I said? Really? Oh no. Oh god.” Or a mixture of all three. In any event, yay for progress.


You Will Feel Guilt About How Good Your Life Is In The U.S.

My mom can place numbers together quicker than anyone I know, but she has never been in a classroom before. Together with her natural proclivities for both mathematics and science, had she had my chances, she’d have been a mathematician or a scientist or a member of the Avengers — whatever her heart desired. She’s naturally a whole lot more talented than I am, but was raised to believe that she should put her family first. I’ve spent a lot of time developing feeling guilty about it.

It’s not just that my mom didn’t have to have access to the same resources I had. In addition, I feel guilty that I do have those resources, but do not exactly take whole benefit (I’m not just an A student). I used to resent my parents for putting academic pressure on me. I really feel guilty about that too, because I know that they found that I had an amazing chance they never needed. It would be like if I had a child who got invited to Hogwarts, and all they did was complain about needing to practice their boring levitation spells every evening.

I feel guilty that my friends (and boyfriends) needed to undergo so many hoops and cope with all of this cultural confusion just to sustain a relationship with me. I’m guilty for being angry at my parents for putting me in that position. I’m guilty because I’ve never visited Eritrea and I’m not in any rush to do so. I feel guilty that I do not care of settling down, finding a husband, and having kids in a means that is just unfathomable to my own parents. I really feel guilty because if I do get married and have kids, I’d want them to learn my native language and consume as much as the culture as possible, no matter where my spouse is out of.

Hell, I’m guilty for writing that column. This won’t be one I will be showing off to Mom any time soon.

When not struggling with her identity crisis, Archie also writes for, also is beginning to have the hang of Twitter. Come say hi to her there.

If you had any Additional interest in learning about Archie’s ancestral homeland, here is The Critical Guide to Tigrinya: The Language of Eritrea and Tigray Ethiopia.

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