I consider myself implausibly lucky. In the small, un-ethnically-diverse New Jersey town where I grew up, being a first generation (ish) American — aka, having foreign parents with funny accents — wasn’t considered ‘different’ or ‘weird’. It was unique, and in many ways I felt special. This notion is especially remarkable, considering my parents weren’t from some white Western European nation that most people nowadays would deem ‘okay’ to immigrate into our country. They are Turkish.
Some background information first: technically, my mother is Turkish-American, and my dad only moved to the US once he met my mother in Turkey. For those of you (like me) who are terrible at math, this means I’m 3/4 Turkish — if that can even be a thing. I lived there when I was a baby, until my parents finally emigrated and came to the US permanently. No, we aren’t Muslim; yes, they both still live in the US; and no, I don’t really speak the language all that much (Turkish has like a zillion verb tenses, people!).
So yes, I was a kind-of-first-generation kid growing up in this white suburban town. And if there’s one emotion that springs to mind when thinking about how that felt, it’s pride.
My friends loved coming over to try our strange dinners, and I would feel myself beam when my parents would break into Turkish in front of my friends — how cool was it that they knew another totally mysterious language? I knew that nearly everyone down-the-line in the US was an immigrant, but this was different.
I remember when I was thirteen, for our history class, we were to prepare a presentation about the “first relative in your family whom came to America, as far back as you can go.” I felt weirdly special that, for me, this was actually an uninteresting, rather difficult task to do.*
I don’t ever remember having appearance or identity issues related to being Turkish (except for my big nose… which, as much as I would like to, I can’t necessarily blame being Turkish for that). Yes, I may have always picked Turkey for any World Food Day meal or elementary school “research a country” report. But other than having delicious Turkish food at home and my parents reminding me of my heritage, I never felt different. I never felt odd. I only felt unique, when it happened to be something that came up in conversation.
And this brings me back to the crux of this “let’s talk about,” because in all honesty, I never felt lucky for this positive “foreigner” and “immigrant” experience. I didn’t even realise how unaware I was of this luck until recently, when immigration became such hot topic in either the most astoundingly supported way — or, conversely, in the most fear-mongering, deeply detested way.
I was lucky to feel such pride and contentedness in my heritage from a young age. But for some kids, this is a luxury they don’t get to have. Where they’re from, what they look like or how they identify is highly apparent, it’s questioned and — sadly — it’s becomes something to be ashamed of. This struck a chord when I read my fellow-American-expat-blogger whom I love, Jaime’s, heartfelt piece about growing up Chinese in the US when beauty magazines were not so diverse (she’s a good writer, y’all).
America is a beautiful — yet blemished — country. One that doesn’t always make the best decisions, and one that falters in recognising its past to make better choices for the future. We can only hope for one where all kids get to feel a sense of pride in their family and heritage.
So here’s my question to you: if you’re a first-generationer, what was your experience like? How did you feel growing up? What particular memories stick out for you? I’d absolutely love to hear your stories.
*Being 3/4 Turkish means of my four grandparents, one is ‘born and bred American.’ AKA, I did have some exciting 17th-century relative to investigate. But I still had to discuss with my teacher to figure out if I could even complete the assignment. This project has always stuck with me, for that reason.