Slowly but ever so surely, the paradise of the American refuge sold to my young, naïve parents has crumbled piece by piece. As I stare at my third anti-depressant of the day, the lottery that gave my family our visas feels more like we were selected for the Hunger Games. On campus, I avoid my room for weeks to escape the isolation ––my couch becoming my bed –– but all that I have accomplished is turning my house into my prison. Droplets of guilt trickle down my face, for I do not enjoy the sacrifice my parents have made for me. I blame their decision for traumatizing me with the perpetual sense of loneliness lodged within me. In my darkest moments, I’m flooded with memories of a much smaller me.
I still see myself hunched over on a playground bench, sobbing because I cannot understand why no one will talk to me, why I can’t seem to fit in, why I can’t afford anything anyone else can, why everyone acts as if I’m different or as if I don’t exist at all. I still see that crying child silently pleading for anyone, for even a teacher, to acknowledge him, only to see blank stares on white faces brush past, toward their next game of handball.
My parents left everything they had to escape the destitution of their home country, to try to give me a chance at a life that they were robbed of, so I cannot possibly tell them that the happiness they thought they could give me was never possible to begin with –– not in a place where we didn’t belong –– and certainly not with the pocket change they had. Immigrants are an especially vulnerable group in a medical and educational system designed to prioritize wealthy, white bodies and minds. Not only are immigrants three times more likely to be uninsured, but they are also 15% less likely to have a regular source of mental health care than native U.S. citizens. Studies have found that racial discrimination experienced in educational settings is a strong predictor of depressive symptoms among immigrant children. Additionally, the overall stress associated with assimilating into new cultures, known as acculturation stress, has been shown to predict depression and anxiety, especially for low-income immigrants. I was no exception to any of these structural inequalities.
I don’t fault my parents for the things out of their control, and I am grateful for the security here that Sri Lanka could not have provided, but a tinge of bitterness resides as I daydream of a life without the traumatic effects of my childhood isolation.
We immigrated from Sri Lanka to the United States in 2003, in the 20th year of a 26-year civil war. I was just about 11 months old and my brother was 5 years old, giving us both the distinction of being in the “1.5 generation”: first-generation immigrants that moved before our teens. Naturally, we were plunged into a world where no one’s heard of our country, everyone wants us to go back and our names butchered by our teachers became running jokes amongst our classmates.
My transition to American culture wasn’t seamless, not by a long shot, but my brother’s was especially challenging. He had developed the ability to speak and write in Sinhalese at 5, but after moving he had lost the progress made in those essential years of development and was forced to start learning English from scratch. At first, I was envious of how much more proficient he was at speaking and understanding our native tongue; I see it now as the genesis of his otherness.
He was extremely quiet in school, unable to articulate or communicate his thoughts with his peers, so his teachers raised concerns about the possibility of a learning disability. A psychologist tasked with his diagnosis chalked up his antisocial behavior to acculturation stress, or as they put it, “culture shock,” which he would simply grow out of. As he got older, it became obvious that “he’ll grow out of it” really meant “you’re on your own.” Despite achieving English fluency, my brother continued to face difficulties in social situations and creating friendships. Without any assistance from medical professionals, my parents, especially my father, were painfully unprepared to provide support during these emotionally turbulent times. At 19 years old, my father worked 12-hour shifts in a dangerous rubber factory to provide for his family as the eldest son instead of going to school. Issues of mental health weren’t a concern in a life where food was never guaranteed, and every day was a chance to lose his hand to a piece of heavy machinery. So, it was only until late into my brother’s adolescence and through adulthood, that therapists and doctors attributed his behavioral issues to a myriad of conditions: bipolar disorder, ADHD, depression and anxiety. These conditions are inseparable from “culture shock,” for they manifest and develop in ways specific to the traumatic experience of assimilation.
Instead of bringing us together, our collective desire to feel accepted pitted my brother and me against each other. Hot elementary school summers were full of flared tempers, punches thrown and tears sizzling on pavement. My brother knew exactly how to push my buttons, much to the delight and glee of our neighborhood friends. Pent-up anger from years of shouting in the walls of the miniature bedroom that we shared, began to subside when someone who I had never met, towering above me, asked in the school bathroom, “[blank] is your brother right? You should’ve seen him today,” followed by laughter. I didn’t understand what he meant, but my brother’s dead silence told me not to ask. And I never did. I wonder now if that bullying was just another part of the “culture shock” that the psychologist had in mind. It was then that I understood his treatment of me was a way to gain the approval of our peers, and a chance for him to be on the other side of the abuse handed to him. I have long forgiven him, yet I only wish he could’ve known then, despite us being five years apart, we were looking for the same thing. We just wanted to feel included, but after my older brother turned me away, I had no one left.
Thankfully, as I have gotten older, my relationship with my brother and my family has improved tremendously, something that I have endless gratitude for. Years of therapy, medication and support from my family and friends have allowed me to unpack the isolating events from which my anxiety and depression originate. When my family and I talk now, our conversations are no longer clouded by American fantasies of grandeur and we speak fondly of the possibility of going to Sri Lanka, even for just a little while. I write this article at peace because I know that the isolation I experienced was not deserved, and those vestigial feelings of loneliness are not my reality when I come home and I am with people I love.
Still, while being in yet another educational setting where diversity is grossly insufficient, that alienation continues to pervade my consciousness, as it does for many of the marginalized students on campus. From being the only brown person in my classes to trying to connect with peers at a university where the median household income is $154,000, the constant state of déjà vu brings me to times I so desperately wish to put behind me. I sit on that same playground bench when I sit on the porch of my home, positioned across the street from frat row.