How Being a First-Gen Immigrant Shapes Your Worldview
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New York City is a diverse place, known for having people from all backgrounds and walks of life. A large part of this diversity stems from first-generation immigrants, who bring their cultures to the melting pot of the city, and often feel an echo of cultural blending in their own identities.
Stuyvesant is no exception to this, with many of its students born in different countries. Some came to America when they were little, like senior Rubaiyat Shahrin, who came to New York from Bangladesh when she was four years old. Despite Shahrin’s young age, she remembers much about her life there. “I have specific core memories that I have had since I’ve lived in Bangladesh,” she explained. “In Bangladesh, my life was pretty great because when you’re four and stuff, it’s not that difficult. Also, my parents were pretty well off, so we had several houses and lots of people were in the house, taking care of and cooking for us.”
Other students moved from their home countries much later in life. Senior Katherine Lake lived in Australia until she was 11 years old. “The word I usually use to describe it is [that] it was quite relaxing. You know, I lived about five minutes from the beach,” she said. “We’d go there in the afternoons after I did like 10 minutes of homework everyday.”
Senior Junhao Zhen left China when he was 10 years old. He distinctly remembers how different the school system was in China in comparison to New York. “The school days are much longer. We start at around 7:30 in the morning with kind of a morning exercise thing, where everyone gathers up in the playground,” Zhen described. “Midway through the day at like 11:25, we would go home, actually, and eat lunch. [...] I came back at 1:30-ish to have my afternoon classes and I [would get] out of school at five.”
Upon hearing the news that their families were moving, different students reacted in different ways. Junior Emily Young-Squire, who was born in Japan and moved to the U.S. when she was seven, mainly felt indifference. “I don’t think I had very strong feelings [for] either staying or going. Both would be fun either way,” Young-Squire recalled. “I definitely would’ve felt sad to leave all my friends and everything, but I think I was excited to go to New York City.”
However, for freshman Ayesha Talukder, who left Bangladesh at age three, moving to another country presented challenges. “I remember it was hard learning a new language, English, because I only knew how to speak Bangla,” she said. “And then, [it was] hard to make new friends and stuff like that, and to get adjusted to the culture.”
Junior Tenzin Lhamo, who was born in India, also faced a looming language barrier in America, along with a cultural shock. “Before, I only knew Tibetan and some Hindi, so I didn’t know any English beforehand. When I came here when I was four, I went straight to kindergarten. It was kind of a new environment because this was like an American culture or whatever, but that was the only thing different for me,” she reflected. Besides the gap in communication, though, Lhamo did not feel excluded. “The school that I went to—I think the majority of people were also immigrants, so it was kind of like a shared experience,” she said.
Being a first-generation immigrant means having a unique perspective on the world, in particular on the nature of life in New York City. Young-Squire compared New York’s culture and environment to Japan’s. “People [are] not as nice and everything is not as clean. Those are the biggest things ever. I remember coming here, there were a lot less people that were happy. [...] The subway here, obviously, is not as well kept and has all the trash everywhere, but the thing is, in Japan, the stationsthey’re spotless and shiny, to the point where there’[re] food vendors in stations.”
Lake, meanwhile, called New York an outlet of change, and praised the diversity of opinions and perspectives. “One of [New York’s] hallmarks is that it’s a place filled with such conversation, and really difficult ones too,” she remarked.
However, the unique perspective growing up in multiple countries can also lead to inner turmoil regarding one’s identity. Young-Squire had trouble with this, due to her belief that she didn’t appear Japanese. “I question if I actually am Japanese. Because it’s a weird feeling, because I’m not really surrounded by Japanese culture,” she explained. “Sometimes, it feels like something I’m convincing myself that’s part of me. And I know it is part of me, but it just feels weird sometimes having that.”
On the other hand, Lake felt that her Australian identity was mostly taken at face value, where people wouldn’t care enough to look beyond the stereotypes they knew. “People over-fixated on me and my brothers [...] because of our accents and where we came from. But all of their interests were very shallow,” Lake acknowledged. “People’s conceptions of Australia are spiders, dangerous animals, wilderness, beaches. It’s pretty basic. Sure, a lot of that is true, but that is all they came to see us as: people who were vessels of these stories.”
Talukder expressed that she has trouble balancing the different values emphasized at home and in society. To manage this, she created two versions of herself, acting differently depending on what culture she needed to fit to. “It’s kind of hard to juggle two different personalities, and often they clash with each other,” she admitted. “I use my outside personality [at] home, and then it clashes with my parents and my elders. [...] Sometimes I bring my Bangladeshi views to the outside world. [...] If I express [them], I might be diminished for it.”
Zhen admitted that there was a larger learning curve for those not born in America. “For firstgen students, we’re not living off a lot of resources, and it’s definitely harder for us to achieve the same level of accomplishment as some of our other peers. Not to discredit them for their hard work, but we have to pay in more effort to be able to have the same progress as other people,” he said. He also acknowledged that this difference exists even between firstgeneration students, citing the process of having to learn the language and acclimate oneself more to the culture, in comparison to those who immigrated when they were much younger.
At the end of the day, being part of multiple cultures is a blessing in Zhen’s eyes. “If you have two different cultures in your identity, I think you see the world in a different way than others,” Zhen stated. “It’s something special that not everyone has. That’s why I would say studying abroad is a very good program.”
Whether you have lived in one country for all your life or hopped around different countries, we can all benefit from learning about and immersing ourselves in different cultures. Though firstgeneration immigrants have their struggles, they express that their identity has provided them with fruitful experiences and a unique perspective on the world.