What Happened To The Immigrant’s Child?

We all know the story of the man who made it in a foreign country with nothing but one suitcase and a dollar in his pocket. That story is told so many times that it has lost its purpose. Nobody tells you what happens after that man came to America. What happened to his family? What about his children? In our minds, it’s a fairy tale ending in which all the children became doctors or engineers, and the parents retired to an opulent home in a suburban city. The reality of what happened to the immigrant’s child is never discussed. The child dealt with the burning question of self-identity most of his life. While the immigrant man was consumed in his rags to riches story, the child desperately attempted to detangle the mess of cultures that had become his new life.

I was four years old when I moved to USA with my parents. The very fabric of my world changed overnight. I was expected to conform to the language and culture that comprised this land, which wasn’t hard to do at the tender age of four. By the age of ten, I fully identified myself as an American. Then the inevitable happened: My parents took me to Pakistan. During the two months I stayed in Pakistan, my relatives treated me like I was a rare species. They questioned me about my life and my thoughts while maintaining a safe distance. In the end they decided I was an American, but by that time I realized I was not. The seed of doubt had been planted in my mind. Well, what was I? American or Pakistani? I can speak English, but I can also speak Urdu. I like burgers, but Biryani hits the spot too. My jeans are comfortable, but so is my kurta. It was at this point in my life that I made a mistake often made by youngsters growing up in a multicultural environment. I attempted to categorize my life. I became a Pakistani at home in front of my parents and in front of my relatives, but an American in school and in public. I could not speak English at home, but it was all I could speak in public. The reality was that the two cultures had intertwined. Categorization was useless. It was a matter of self-acceptance, not conforming to the norms of each society.

By the time I realized that the key was acceptance, I had become a professional immigrant child. I was the most well behaved, obedient desi child that any parent could wish for, but I was also the perfect example of westernization. You see, the child of an immigrant has a code of conduct. There is a rule book that tells you how to behave in each situation. For example, say the man who traveled to America with nothing but $1 in his pocket says the Earth is flat. Being a good immigrant child, I cannot tell him otherwise, especially if that man is my father. If the situation was slightly altered so that the man was a plain Joe, then I would be free to lay out the reality without the risk of being accused of disobedience and short but painful speech listing the sacrifices made by the immigrant man so that I could arrogantly use my education one day to tell him he is wrong. In short, education has its place, but not in front of the immigrant man who made all the sacrifices in the world. Unfortunately, our so called culture has taught us that any sort of disagreement that a child makes with an elder is considered a sign of arrogance and disobedience, and this should be nipped in the bud immediately before it starts to sprout and possibly become contagious. The stigma around argumentation becomes a problem when the immigrant child is taught to argue and process what happens around him in the American culture. It is at this point that immigrant parents start complaining that their children are out of control and refuse to listen to them. These parents completely disregard the fact they themselves have done the same to their children all their lives. The children are merely mimicking their parents’ behavior.

The second rule in the code of conduct of an immigrant child is that he must hide his personal life from his immigrant parents at all costs in order to avoid feelings of guilt, selfishness, and outright depression.  Perhaps one of the biggest issues in the Pakistani society is marriage. This seems especially true for Pakistani women. It seems that their lives are simply an audition for marriage. The problem is that immigrant parents have an ideology surrounding marriage that isn’t always shared with that of their children’s. The western culture is not based on getting good proposals and sacrificing everything to uphold an unhappy marriage. Self-sacrifice is not emphasized, nor is unhappiness. One may criticize the ideology of the West regarding marriage and love, but it’s not completely unreasonable. It neither matches the Islamic ideology nor the Pakistani culture fully, but some parts do overlap. However, when an immigrant child is pushed towards westernization, both the Eastern and Western cultures, and the Islamic ideology get interwoven. Now here is the problem: When the one dollar man came to USA, he pushed his children towards the western culture. His children obeyed and adapted accordingly. Then one day, the man decided that he wants his children to unadapt to this culture and become a pure desi by marrying a pure desi. The immigrant child, however, has seen two sides of the coin at this point in his life. He realized from an early stage that any talk of relationships or love is forbidden in the household. Do you think that stopped him? No, he had multiple relationships, of which his family knows nothing about. The immigrant child knows that nothing good will come out of telling the truth, so he continued to hide his personal life. Naturally, he was pushed towards his friends who shared the same mindset as him. These friends told him that arranged marriage is torcher, cruel, and a life sentence to an unfulfilling marriage. Since the immigrant parents have successfully cut off the line of communication with their child at this point regarding relationships in a country that they know does not share the Islamic ideology or the Pakistani culture, they know nothing of their child’s friends or personal relationships. So naturally, when the immigrant father asked his child to obey him and marry a desi, there are disputations. My question to these immigrant parents is what did you expect? Do you think that what the immigrant child is being asked of is fair? He is being asked to undo a change that was brought in him slowly and carefully for the past 20 odd years. This is a nearly impossible feat.

The issues start when immigrants compare their childhood to their children’s childhood. They compare behaviors and achievements without realizing how different they are. These parents cannot begin to understand the social pressure on a child who feels divided between two cultures. A child who looks Pakistani, but feels American is bound to question their identity. Once he moves towards accepting that he is American, the logical thing to do is to disassociate from anything that says otherwise. Naturally, this causes a tear between the immigrant man, who proudly displays the Pakistani flag in his home, and the child, who places his right hand on his heart and states the pledge of allegiance every morning in school. How can parents blame their children for not knowing the national anthem of Pakistan when they themselves pushed their child to be the most American he could be from the day he stepped foot in America? If that immigrant child doesn’t accept his American side, how can he survive? If he chooses to accept his Pakistani side, it would be natural to disassociate from anything non-Pakistani. This becomes an issue when almost everything around him is non-Pakistani

The code of conduct of the immigrant child is a long and detailed one that is heavy with the burden of expectations from his immigrant parents.  If any of the terms in the conduct are violated by the immigrant child, then the parents feel a sense of failure.  They feel that their children have failed them, when in reality it is a two-way street full of misunderstandings. Eventually, the immigrant child realizes that he cannot fulfill his parent’s expectations and slowly moves further away from his roots.  The successful immigrant child eventually learns that he must accept both cultures and balance them accordingly. The unsuccessful child becomes a question mark identity trying to categorize and conform to each side, merely lingering for a bit in each culture. Nevertheless, the battle continues.

Clearly, the dilemma of the confused immigrant child is like the problem of Kashmir. He is pulled in every way and is constantly struggling to be independent with no resolution in close sight. The problem will continue until he is accepted as he is. As of now, he is simply like a fly trapped in a spider web waiting to be consumed by the pressures and expectations of society.

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1 Comment

  1. Zauq Ahmed says

    It is very easy to compare and criticize others without fully understanding the difference between circumstances and culture. This is not only seen in our society, but also many others. The older generation is quick to point out what the younger generation has done wrong without analyzing themselves first. This is not to say the younger generation is always correct, but they should not be dismissed simply because they were born in a different era. Experience should be respected, but fresh vision has its own value too.

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