Growing up as a First Generation American

My parents immigrated to America in 1985. Both of them had been born and raised in India. They left behind everything. Family, friends, years of memories and connections. They lived in a seedy part of Los Angeles for years before they could afford to move out to a small unknown town. Here, in this tiny suburban in Southern California, is where they bought a house, and started their family. I was the first of my family to be born in America, and so I am a First Generation American.

American Patriotism
People often talk about America and how intense the patriotism is. The thing is, that’s not how I see America. There are loud people in any culture but it doesn’t mean they define everyone. For me, being an American is acceptance for all. My family came from nothing. My parents work hard, worked their asses off, so that my brother and I could go to a private school. They wanted the best for us, and that in a sense, is how I see American culture. Families who want better for their children. They left everything behind because the promise of America was better than their homeland. My brother and I are the result and so we are First Generation Americans.

That’s the sort of America I grew up with. All the stores in the shopping center where my dad has his business… They were immigrants who ended up thriving. I grew up in the 90’s so my view of America is far different from what it is now. And it pains me to the core. I wish I could share my memories of a more wholesome America but I can’t. I will always carry those memories with me. The idea that America used to be a place where anyone could call home, no matter what the country of origin was.

My parents grew up in a Catholic area of Mumbai. They had to learn Hindi, Marathi, French and I think a little German. They learned about several other religions other than their own. And yet they shared nothing with me as I grew up. I didn’t learn about Indian culture, religion, politics. I ended up becoming a Third culture kid. In India they call it an ABCD or an American-Born Confused Desi. I’ve only been to one Indian wedding and that’s when I was 8 years old. I don’t even have any photos from it. I understand that my parents wanted me to assimilate into American culture… But I wished they had shared some their memories.

The lack of knowledge of Indian culture has sort of left me in the middle. I can’t identify as being Indian because I don’t know what it means to be one. For years it left me feeling lost. That same loss of identity drove me to search for meaning in other cultures. And in a way it felt like I was culture-less.

Instead I became what it was to be “American.” I love hotdogs and hamburgers, apple pie and Thanksgiving. Halloween became my favorite holiday. I drool over Orange Chicken and have a strong sense of wanderlust. In a way you can call me a “basic bitch” because it’s what I was drawn to. You can bet that I’ll order a Pumpkin Spice Latte in the autumn! Because it’s the type of culture I grew up with and so I adopted it as my own.

The only aspect of Indian culture that I’m familiar with is South Indian food, which is what they grew up on. I can’t even say that I’m well educated in it because I can name 10 dishes and that’s it. And I can’t cook any of them.

The Minority
I was the only Indian kid in my school until my brother was old enough to join me. While I was never treated as an outsider, it was hard for me to make friends. I was painfully shy and only spoke when spoken to. None of that has changed as I grew older. I’m thankful that people are drawn to me because let’s face it, if I had the task of making my own friends, I would have none.

My parents had no experience with the American school system. I had no idea I had to apply for college when I was in my senior year in high school. Instead I waited until the last moment and was lucky to get into the local community college. I had no idea how the system worked because I didn’t care to look into it. My parents wanted me to be a doctor. They had divorced at this point and were too busy with their own problems. So I never looked into how the school system worked. I’m not sure what I was thinking at the time, maybe that I would coast my way through life. All I knew is that I didn’t want to be told what to do. My answer was to shut down and figure something else out.

The Indian Lifestyle
The one thing we kept up was the idea that my brother and I were unwed, we would live at home. I heard stories of my friends moving out at 18. They attended college in other states and spread their wings. My mom wanted to keep us at home as long as possible. And of course I complied. It was an easy way for me to live, and a lazy way to live. I attended college with a half-assed mentality and worked a part time job.

I recall my dad once telling my brother that I didn’t need to go to college. That I would find some rich man and settle down and have kids with. On the other had, my dad had wished for my brother to join the Navy or another sea-bound occupation. Gender roles were still very alive in my dad’s eyes. I’m thankful that I didn’t have an arranged marriage for myself, but I wish my mother could have chosen her own path. Her unhappy marriage wasn’t her choice. I got to see what an unhappy marriage was like. I’m in my 30’s now and I don’t have a strong desire to get married.

Now that I’m older, if I have a desire to learn something, I can do it on my own. So while I’m sad I don’t understand the culture of my parents, I’m thankful that I can access that information now. Sometimes there are news reports of terrible crimes against women in India. It wasn’t a perfect, and now it’s fallen so far, but I’m so thankful that I was born in America. It was a place where I could decide what I wanted to do without the fear of being a woman in public. I could choose to go to school and I had the chance to work in any field I wanted to. I can’t say all my decisions were good ones, but at least I was free to be who I wanted to be.

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