My friend Grace and I arrange ourselves around her kitchen table after deciding to play a board game to pass time during another murky day in quarantine. I sit idly by as she distributes colorful paper money while her brothers argue over who gets to play as the top hat. Before I know it, the board is set up, cards neatly stacked and all. Grace looks up and nonverbally ushers me to begin when a pretty important fact dawns on me: I have no idea how to play Monopoly. I confess this to Grace, and as I anticipate, I am met with complete shock. “How could you not know how to play Monopoly? Literally everybody knows, it’s like American common knowledge.” Despite both of us sharing our Middle Eastern heritage — and even a name — our “common American knowledge” couldn’t have been more different for one reason: My parents are immigrants, and hers aren’t. Her dad taught her how to play Monopoly while mine was learning English.
Things like this happen quite often in my daily life. Whether it’s not being able to recognize a Beatles song from the first few chords, missing a reference from a classic movie like “The Sound of Music” or showing up to a friend’s graduation party and not being able to recognize a game of cornhole, my experience as an American is atypical from a traditional one. Being raised by two immigrants has enhanced my life in indescribable ways, and I’ve been lucky enough to grow up in an environment with a unique cultural duality that most of my friends didn’t get. However, this has caused a disconnect between myself and my peers whose parents were also raised in the United States. Even though, in one way or another, many immigrants have been “Americanized” throughout their time in this country, they often relay the experiences of their upbringings onto their children, resulting in an altered American experience. Logically, I know that my friends aren’t more American than I am — we were all born in the United States and have lived here for nearly the same amount of time; yet, I often find myself suffering from imposter syndrome, shrouded in feelings of shame for not being more connected with American culture.
The normalization of the second-generation and beyond’s American experience has made it increasingly difficult for first-generation Americans to feel the same level of comfort in the United States. In fact, much of the normalized American experience belongs to white Americans. Stereotypical American culture encompasses baseball games, hot dogs, Disney World, denim jackets and country music. However, much of what we associate with being “American” is really just being a white American, or at least being raised by other “Americans.” Since moving to Ann Arbor, I’ve found that I’m not as independent as my older friends’ experiences made me think I would be. For them, moving out of the house and onto campus meant that they could let go of past inhibitions and fulfill their wildest college desires. In fact, their parents encouraged this behavior. After talking with many of my white friends, I’ve found that their parents’ expectations of college behavior were vastly different from those of my parents. During their goodbyes before officially moving into their dorms, their parents sent them off with fake IDs and birth control, while mine eerily left me with the mantra “remember your values” before returning home. Even though I technically could engage in whichever behaviors I want behind my parents’ back, I’ll never be independent from my culture and the expectations that come with being part of it. Despite the fact that I don’t necessarily believe that certain actions are morally corrupt, I’m constrained by feelings of guilt and the fear of deteriorating my family name. Though I am the youngest of my siblings, I’m the first to go to a four-year university directly after high school and live outside of our home as a teenager. Part of me wants to be the cool, carefree and reckless Big Ten college student that the movies romanticize. Yet, I face constant trepidation and am internally bound by the moral and cultural obligations that dictate nearly every decision I make. Transitioning from high school to college life is tumultuous in itself, and for second-generation immigrants, this anxiety can be tremendously bolstered.
We need to expand the meaning of what it means to be American in order to keep up with the inclusivity that modernity requires. If we really want to call ourselves a “melting pot,” we need to recognize the nuanced environments and circumstances in which each of us were raised. Nobody should feel less American than someone else because their background doesn’t fit America’s cookie-cutter expectations. The notion of white picket fences and a cute little golden retriever on the front lawn doesn’t accurately encompass Americanness. To be American means that despite ethnic background, we share a national ethos separate from politicized ideologies — we believe in new beginnings, compassion and dedication. Not surprisingly, this is exactly what immigration represents too. The United States is more racially and ethnically diverse than it has ever been previously, and our interpretation of what it means to be American must follow suit. My parents may not have ever taught me how to play Monopoly, but they’ve given me the opportunity to be their American Dream. For that, I will forever be grateful.