As a first generation immigrant, I live in between two cultures (or sometimes no cultures). If it doesn’t make sense to you, let me share an example.
How about holidays?
In China, the biggest traditional holiday is the Chinese New Year, also called Spring Festival, which is celebrated sometime in January or February.
When I was growing up, the holiday was a huge deal. Every family spent several weeks shopping for food and at least one week preparing for the Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner. Kids got red envelops with lucky money, and wore some new clothes. At least once a year, we got to eat something or have something that we didn’t have regularly throughout the year.
So the traditional Chinese New Year meant a great deal to me.
Since I left China in 1986, the holiday has slowly become a memory. Celebrating Chinese New Year outside of China is just not the same as in China.
In China people get a whole week off for the holiday. But it’s not a holiday in the U.S., so I don’t get a day off. There is just not the holiday atmosphere to celebrate it. The best I do is usually to get together with a few Chinese families and have a big dinner party.
When the Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday comes in the U.S., the holiday atmosphere is there, and is everywhere, and I also get the day off, but I don’t feel emotionally so connected, because I didn’t grow up with the tradition.
So in the end, I celebrate both the most important Chinese holiday and also the most important American holiday. However, emotionally, I don’t feel I am deeply connected to either one.
This “living between two cultures” phenomenon has also spilled over to my two children, even though they are both born in the U.S. They are suffering some consequences as being the second generation immigrants.
My two kids have asked questions such as:
“Why do I have to do so much homework while my friends are outside playing?”
The answer is because Chinese parents are more academically focused, are more demanding and have higher expectations of their kids. You should work hard and get all As at school.
“Why can’t I watch some TV and play some games like other kids do?”
Because you don’t have time for that. You have more important homework to do.
“Why do I have to do so much extra curricular activities, Chinese, math, piano, drawing, etc.?”
The answer is you should be thankful that you are not living in China. Your cousins in China are doing much more than you do here.
“Why don’t we eat turkey on Thanksgiving like everyone else?”
Because your parents never ate turkeys until they come to the U.S. They prefer to eat chickens or ducks instead. Besides, they don’t know what to do with a big turkey.
When I think about it, it is really not just people like me, the first generation immigrants who live in between two cultures, but it also affects our kids, the second generation immigrants, or even the third generation.
That’s why it is hard sometimes for immigrants to find our identity.