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Denormalizing the Immigrant Experience

I had a good conversation with a new friend today, and we were swapping stories about some of our hobbies and interests, current life reflections, and family upbringing. I was sharing about how my parents were born in Taiwan and then moved to the United States later on in life. He looked at me and said, “Bro, that’s crazy if you actually think about it.”

I paused, slightly taken aback.

“I mean—it’s become sort of normalized because there are millions of people like your parents, but when you actually think about it, from a person to person basis… that immigrant experience is pretty crazy. The fact that they left their families and traveled halfway across the world, to a new place, still learning to speak English… that’s the definition of having to build something from the ground up.”

I chewed on his words for a while and couldn’t help nodding in agreement. I explain people my parents’ narratives so flippantly sometimes: “my mom was born in Taiwan but moved here by middle school” or “my dad came to the states for grad school.” But when I take the time to think and pause and reflect, the magnitude of the statement catches up with me. My mom still doesn’t fully feel comfortable speaking English or being in the midst of American society. My dad literally arrived with two suitcases in hand and nothing else, and has made the United States his home since—the rest of his family remains in Taiwan.

My friend and I joked about it some more—he recently got a new job, and said he was afraid to even move an hour’s drive away from home, to a new city. I said I would be terrified to move to a place with no real contacts or connections. And can you imagine—this was before cellphones and smartphones were a thing. I get lost biking to the grocery store without Google Maps, let alone navigating a new country. I imagined the feeling of leaving home without a cellphone or wallet, that odd “am I missing something” or lack of security / back-up plan, and accentuating it 100x for my dad when he first arrived.

All this to say, I’m grateful for my parents. I don’t wish to dramatize their experience or idolize their sacrifices in getting here as the “rags to riches” or “American dream” token immigrant, but neither do I want to downplay their experiences. Recent conversations that I’ve had around Asian American identity sometimes focus on healing inner trauma that you never knew existed. I would imagine that upending your life, leaving your family, and entering into a strange new land as a perpetual foreigner is—if not traumatic—an experience that has lasting impact on your psyche, health, and outlook on life.

I just wanted to remember and reflect a little on that fact. I think my friend is right—the immigrant experience has become so common of a narrative, and millions of people have moved to a new country to start a new life, against much struggle and difficulty. But just because it’s a common narrative doesn’t make each individual story any less impressive or significant.

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Published in#reflection

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