The First Gen Immigrant Identity 

The United States was historically built on immigration. According to Migration Policy Institute, we have approximately 41.3 million foreign born individuals who are living in the U.S. of which 11.5 million entered between 2000 and 2009 and 4.6 million have entered since 2010. Therefore, the rest of the 25.2 million immigrants have entered the country before 2000!

This means, most of the first generation-ers have been in the U.S. for over 15 years. Most of us left behind our native country – the people and culture – to begin a life in the land of opportunities. A lot of us were able to bring some of our culture and traditions with us which makes the U.S. what it is today – diverse. We share our culture and traditions with others in the form of food, festivals, musics, arts, etc. and these constitute the “surface culture” according to Edward T. Hall’s Cultural Iceberg.


How about those that Hall has described as “deep culture”?

We are influenced by the people around us. If you’ve been around latinos for a while, chances are you have probably pick up some of their attitudes towards elders, or their style of communication. If you’ve been brought up around arabs, you’ve picked up their approach towards religion, or concept of self.

Because of this, what we may identify as from a biological or ancestral perspective may not be who we really are as a person. What we have and can be called “deep culture” may not be from just one particular culture but may be influenced by several different cultures.

For someone who was born into an Indian family, and was raised in the middle east and U.S., I could pose as a prime example for such a situation. Growing up in the Middle East, I had an identity. I was an NRI (non-resident Indian). Everyone I went to school with were like me – Southeast asians who were being raised in the Middle East. I went to school with kids from different parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc. Different languages, different religions, different cultures. I then moved to the U.S. and to my surprise I did not think life was any different here. I then learned about the term FOB (fresh off the boat) – which I could use to describe myself for the first couple years. Well, it’s been over 10 years so what am I now?

Strange enough, I’ve witnessed issues fitting in even from the different kinds of people of the Indian background during the past years –

  • the Indian FOBs: because I never lived in India and so there is no similarity in terms of life experiences and interest.. apparently. And I can’t speak an Indian language fluently to save my life so that’s a done deal.
  • the American-born Indians: because I am still rocking that Indian accent. And well, because I grew up and spend most of my childhood outside of the U.S.. Hence the gap and difference in personalities and preferences.
  • the Indians (those who live in India): Neither have I lived in India, nor can I speak the language fluently. That by default sets me apart and gives me a lesser chance to fit in and a higher chance to be stared at.

In all cases, I don’t completely fit in with one particular group.

Ways I try to soak in as much Indian culture as possible while living outside India –

  1. School and Family – Anything I know about the India is from my history and social sciences classes back in my Indian school in the Middle East (yes, they have Indian schools there) and my parents.
  2. Movies, movies, movies – Indian movies have been staple in my life. Unfortunately, come to find out even these movies have been overly glorified and modernized to satisfy NRI needs and reflect very little on the real culture in India? Sigh.
  3. Practicing language skills – Nothing compares to the excitement of meeting someone who comes from the similar background as me. Whether I can speak the language fluently or no, it’s a habit for me to blurt out words and phrases accompanied by a very embarrassing accent only to find out the other person is a master at the language themselves. And to my surprise, these people have been here longer than I have.. still no shame in my game.
  4. Community service – It brings me a lot of happiness to do charity work and community service. And I prefer to do such service in my native country. It acts as a way for me to keep with touch with my roots and get closer to the people in the country my parents and ancestors are from.

All in all, I try to keep it real with people – family, friends, peers. I try to stay in touch with my roots but I have also come to realize, neither am I “fully” Indian, nor am I “fully” American. I, just like most of the 41.3 immigrants today, am a melting pot myself, influenced by several cultures and not completely knowledgable of my biological culture and traditions. My children will probably not know half of what I know, and so life will move on from one generation to another.

In the end, because of globalization, culture is eventually going to die. Maybe not next year, maybe not in the next 100 years. But it will. The one thing that will remain is values. Therefore, whether we decide to pass on our culture and tradition or not, and before we try to categorize ourselves and others, we have to make it a priority to spread the importance of being good human beings and set exceptional examples for others to follow.

So what’s my identity? I’m not too sure but I’m a person with feelings, dreams, aspirations, values and dignity who happened to live in several parts of the world and knows four languages. Just a person. 🙂


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