I’ve written about my immigrant story before but have recently been thinking a bit more deeply of what it means. I came across the concept of transgenerational trauma. This is related to the study of epigenetics, which I was first introduced to in graduate school. To understand epigenetics, requires us to take a step back. Most everyone is familiar with the nature vs. nurture theory but many scientists have shown studies that actually relate to a compromise between these two. While we may inherit certain characteristics from our family, the expression of those characteristics depends on our environment. So for example, my grandmother was involved in the Partition between India and Pakistan and that caused her X gene to be expressed. The likelihood that that gene is expressed in my mom is very high, thus leading to transgenerational trauma.
When I first learned about the concept of transgenerational trauma, I first thought of the Holocaust (duh) but then immediately thought about my own immigrant journey. Every immigrant journey (by definition) indicates a struggle. While we hope many of these struggles are conquered, there are compromises that happen along the way. I listened to this podcast that mentioned that “every immigrant is used to loss” because they realize that everything comes at a price. Oddly enough, this reminds me of a conversation my mom was having with my grandmother when we first moved to the US. I distinctly remember my mom on the phone with my grandmother as she was cleaning the bathroom. My grandmother asked her what she was doing and my mom casually said she was cleaning the bathroom, to which my grandmother’s response was disgust. She became super upset that her daughter had to “stoop so low” as to clean her own toilet (my mom grew up in an upper middle-class family where maids were brought in to clean the bathroom). And I loved my mom’s retort to my grandmother which was “Well, I live in America and we have to clean our own toilets”. I remember giggling as I was eavesdropping on this conversation, but now that I think back on it, it has a meaning of its own. Starting anew in an entirely new country is difficult at any age, and then come the societal expectations and lifestyle we have to adjust to. You may be living in one of the richest countries of the world, but you still have to clean your own toilet. In some sense, it brings up the question: is it better to be the worst of the best or the best of the worst?
Another distinctive story that comes to mind is our Friday night ritual growing up. In Dubai, we used to be members of a sports club and every Friday we would eat out at the sports club. I would order my standard chicken sandwich (I had a “usual” at the age of 4… who was I?!). However, Friday nights in the US was a trip to McDonald’s or Taco Bell. Why you may ask? With very little income (and piling costs of moving to a new country), my mom cooked every single day except Friday. So Friday was always our treat to eat out. However, with a limited budget, McDonald’s and Taco Bell were the only options (also because they offered vegetarian and chicken-friendly options). When I tell friends or co-workers that I used to (read: still do when I’m stressed) eat McDonald’s and / or Taco Bell, they’re appalled. And while we say we accept immigrants into this country and want to support them, we have to understand their stories and what those struggles are BEFORE we judge their choices.
Privilege is a concept I struggle with daily. The idea of privilege is very complexly tangled with my immigrant story. Coming from an upper middle class family in Dubai, to moving to the bottom of the totem pole in Texas, to being the first member of my family to go to college in the US (most of my family does have Masters degrees), to being able to pay off my student loans, to helping my mom pay off the house, to living outside of my tight-knit family’s home, to working in an industry that didn’t exist formally for my parents, to being able to afford a standard of living that is way more than I could ever ask for, I don’t know where the line between hard work, resilience, and privilege exist. I feel privileged now (and I think I am generally) that I can live a certain kind of lifestyle that I hope to continue and be able to provide for my offspring. But does providing that kind of privilege negate their drive to work hard and persevere? Also what is the boundary of building grit and resilience within an immigrant story? At what point does it become depression? Circling back to the concept of transgenerational trauma, THIS is where it comes into play. We struggle to build a world of our own, but there has to be time to mourn the things that are left behind AND the things you may never be able to have.
The thought that there are things that “immigrants may never have” is an offensive one (for liberals at least). But I do think there is some honesty in it that is worth unpacking. As a society, we have ideas about how people behave in tribes. “Birds of a feather flock together” is commonly heard but holds truth too. Interracial marriage, still in many circles, is looked down upon. In other circles, marrying a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) is considered a success; a symbol of full assimilation within a culture. This may be something that people may or may not want to admit, but it brings up the central question: for an immigrant, what does assimilation really mean?