Thoughts from a first generation immigrant

Assorted Mooncakes
Image by ulterior epicure via Flickr

When I was little, I wanted nothing more than to be white. I wanted to look like everybody else, I wanted to lose my accent, and perhaps most of all, I wanted my parents to act like all the other parents. The kind who would welcome me having friends over to play. Who knew why other kids knocked on our door on Halloween night dressed in all manner of weird costumers – because I didn’t. Who didn’t shop at op shops and garage sales or buy me baby bonnets instead of sporty caps. My parents were by no means stereotypically FOB immigrants, with broken accents, who struggle to catch a bus or dispute a bill. But they were just different enough to set them apart.

I remember borrowing a cheongsam to wear on Cultural Day in my first year of primary school. I wonder if I looked as awkward as I felt in it From then on, I wore my own jeans and a tee.

I hated in-class exercises where everyone was urged to get in touch with their heritage. People would look at me and say, “Oh, you’re so lucky, you actually have a culture!” Uh, no, not really. (This is made even more complex by way of hailing from Malaysia but being ethnically Chinese.) We’re not religious, we speak English at home, the extent of our CNY celebrations are gorging on moon cake (the one time of year I halfheartedly lay claim to my heritage). Name a traditional custom or ritual you associate with the Chinese and I’ll probably never even have heard of it. We ate rice almost every day, though. That counts for something, surely.

And yet, I’m not a total cultural vacuum. Celebrity chef Rick Stein was in Malaysia on his Far Eastern Odyssey this week. Mesmerised by the familiar accents, the hearty laughs, the general conduct of the locals, I watched, entranced, as they whipped up fish head curry and beef rendang. If nothing else, culture, to me, is associated with cuisine. And no matter how long ago, the “aiyahs” and the inability to enunciate the h in “three” still instantly transport me back to a certain place.

There are things that are going to stop with me, that I won’t pass down to future generations. My kids will have straight English names. They won’t hear their parents talking on the phone in another language, or hear foreign words peppered throughout conversation – random pet terms substituted for English for no real reason, apart from maybe habit. They may occasionally eat dishes featuring strange ingredients like shrimp paste, but most likely they’ll eat steak and pasta and my version of Thai curry.

That’s okay. Because what’s really important is that they learn to be decent human beings. Hopefully they’ll be intelligent. Not weakling klutzes like me. And ideally semi-attractive, because life is enough of a bitch as it is. But ultimately, as long as they appreciate the importance of hard work, doing right by others and themselves, and grow up with a respect and appreciation for people of all backgrounds.

Some things may be more prized, where I come from, than they are for others. Family. Pride. Standing on your own two feet. But ultimately, these are values that transcend time, space, and ethnicity.

20 thoughts on “Thoughts from a first generation immigrant

  • Reply gem September 30, 2010 at 04:48

    My dad was born in another country and my mom’s parents were total European FOBs. (My grandma still doesn’t speak much English, after like 40 years here.) But they both decided, for whatever reason, not to bring me up with any culture. They agreed not to teach me any of the languages they spoke except for English. They agreed not to take me to church. But they also didn’t really do American culture either, and I think people who ever believed in Santa Claus are weird. And like you, I never had friends welcomed over and my clothes growing up were either hand-me-downs or garage sale fare.

    But oh what I would do for a culture… and oh my poor future kids. I’m going to give them like fifty different cultures a day. That’s how much I want a culture. Seriously, what were my parents thinking by trying to Americanify me? American isn’t even a culture, ugh.

  • Reply Kara September 30, 2010 at 06:57

    I believe I’m 4th Generation Canadian, and I;m noticing that my family’s Chinese heritage/culture is starting to fade away. My grandma spoke very little English, my grandpa’s was broken. My dad speaks nearly none and my aunts speak bits and pieces.

    But we still try to hang onto our culture. We feast during Chinese New Year and take the time to look back on our family history. I really hope to teach my kids a little bit about their family’s past, just so they can be enriched and know something other than “Americanized” culture, even if they’ll only be 1/4 Chinese. It’s better than nothing I guess.

    Great post!

  • Reply findingserenity2010 September 30, 2010 at 12:18

    It’s always interesting to hear from people of other cultures on how they feel their cultural identities and how people look at them for that rather than being an individual. As for me? I’m just a white American Midwestern hick (or hillbilly, or redneck, or whatever) who can’t really claim to have a culture either. My parents never really shared with me their heritage, either. I found out for myself that my dad’s family’s been in the United States since the colonies, and my mom’s family were FOB sometime between 1880 and 1920, i think? Yeah, I hated those culture exercises too. What am I supposed to embrace about being your typical, McDonalds-eating American kid?

    I think this is what makes me want to go to back to Europe and learn about other cultures. These cultures have richness, art, and history, so much more so than Americans. So I guess what I value more than anything is becoming a less ignorant American, to break that stereotype that we’re lazy and greedy people who don’t care about anything important, and to not to be one of those people that most of the world despises – and that’s hard work when there’s so many of us who are pretty much exactly like that!

  • Reply Financial Samurai September 30, 2010 at 14:18

    Glad you have found yourself and your identity!

  • Reply Sasha September 30, 2010 at 15:41

    I love this post! I grew up in a place where there wasn’t much cultural diversity, and while I know my cultural heritage, it all seems to kind of fade away once you are 3rd generation or so, especially when i’m an unexciting mix of various western European countries.

  • Reply Fig September 30, 2010 at 23:03

    Just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading this. I’m probably one of those people who would have said you are so lucky to have a cultural identity. 😉

  • Reply Jackie October 3, 2010 at 03:19

    It makes sense that you would want to fit in like that, especially as a kid. I’ve always loved the random foreign words though and the cultural dishes. I think I’m 5th generation American, but I made it a point to learn German based on the few phrases I would hear, I can make authentic Swedish pancakes, etc. I think the further away from your original culture you get, the more you long for parts of it.

    • Reply eemusings October 3, 2010 at 12:38

      “I think the further away from your original culture you get, the more you long for parts of it.”

      YES – I think you’re right – that is so true. And the older I get, the more I’m coming to realise it.

  • Reply Sandy L October 3, 2010 at 23:10

    Moon Cakes! They look so much better in the picture than they actually are. Where are the ones with the hard boiled egg in the middle?

    I was on the trip to China during the moon festival and was gifted a box of moon cakes. If I recall the fig ones weren’t bad.

    I can relate to many of these things. My mom always had strange jars of things fermenting on our windows that the neighborhood kids would make fun of. The lunches she packed for me were also strange.

    Now that I’m older, I like having such a close tie to another culture and language. I’m trying to expose my kids as much as possible.

    • Reply eemusings October 4, 2010 at 13:36

      Ehhh…I’m not a fan of the ones with the boiled egg. I actually really like hard boiled eggs, but only in certain things :D.

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  • Reply Financial Samurai May 8, 2011 at 12:28

    It’s our cultural background which makes our minds unique. I loved growing up all over the world, including KL. When were you in Malaysia?

    Sam

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  • Reply makinthebacon$ September 8, 2012 at 10:56

    Wow. I can definitely relate to this post. I was born in Canada and lived in Canada all my life, but still felt like I was trying so hard to fit in growing up. My parents immigrated from the Philippines. Up until high school, I was the only Filipino kid in my year. All throughout grade school, I too wished my parents were more like my friends’ parents. We didn’t really have any traditions growing up. My parents spoke English to me and didn’t enroll me in cultural dancing, so I didn’t have any Filipino friends. My cousins were all the same way too. We didn’t really have any Filipino culture in us. Looking back at it, I wish they had instilled more of the culture in my sister and I. I feel more like a Canadian, rather than a Filipino-Canadian. I know more French than I do my parents’ mother tongue. I hope to eventually go visit one day (last time I went I was 11, so it’s been 19 years) and experience the culture.

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