Liam Wiesenberger: The reward of immigrant parents

Monday, October 5, 2015 - 4:18pm

I don’t identify as American. But I also definitely don’t identify as German. Having been raised by immigrant parents, I’m pretty staunch in my view of myself as a German-American, and, for better or for worse, I know I will never belong either here or there. However, this gives me an irreplaceable advantage over any American-American.

My parents immigrated to the United States in 1994. Both of my older sisters were born in Germany, but I was born on U.S. soil, with both the citizenship of my parents’ country and this new one. Unlike the rest of my family, I could be president. We actually were only supposed to live in the United States for three years, so my parents named me after an actor in popular American films at the time, Liam Neeson, so they could show off my American birthplace when I lived in Germany. They ended up staying, though, so I actually have a name that does the opposite of what my parents intended. Instead of standing out, I blend in. An interesting relationship can often develop between the children of immigrants and their parents. Looking back, it’s actually bizarre how much cultural authority I had over them. As a native to the language of the United States, I had valuable skills and knowledge that neither my mother nor even my engineer/businessman father had. My family turned to me for advice on grammar, spelling, vocabulary and other references not understood by non-Americans.

I still can remember being absolutely ashamed when my mom would come pick me up from kindergarten (a word I hadn’t realized was German) and speak our native language with me. I was so embarrassed. For play dates, I would always prefer going over to my friends’ houses, with their easily-chewed American foods (my dad always says our hard German bread is “gut für die Zähne,” or good for your teeth) and parents without accents. Instead of pronouncing my last name the correct way, I would introduce myself phonetically as “Liam Weez-en-burger.” My sister recently told me the story of how she found out she was an immigrant, in which, after seeing the other kindergarten students’ PB&J sandwiches, Cheetos and Gushers at lunch time, she realized maybe these other kids actually don’t all have a different secret family language they speak at home.

As I grew older and began to appreciate my heritage and culture, it was finally time for me to begin asking my parents about their home country. I, of course, went through a phase in which I thought Germany was the best thing since sliced Bauernbrot, and relished in bringing my background into any conversation I could, citing how much more advanced and progressive my parents’ home country was than America. Now, however, I believe I’ve struck a healthy balance with which I can appreciate both the positive and negative aspects of each of my countries.

A phenomenon I find fascinating is that, from what I have noticed, many first-generation Americans gravitate toward their own kind in college. By that, I mean many first-generation friends of mine from high school whose social circles consisted of a wide variety of ethnicities and nationalities find a place in college with other first-generation Americans with parents from the same region. And I’m no exception! I too have surrounded myself almost exclusively with other first-generation students. The only difference with me is that I happened to become part of a community whose parents came from a different country than mine. Despite being German, I feel very much at home in Michigan’s Indian-American dance community. In my opinion, it’s not the region of origin that causes first-generation students to be extremely driven, open-minded, optimistic and motivated. The experience of growing up with immigrant parents often results in individuals that have dealt with issues their native peers have not, and so needed to develop the skills necessary to overcome potential disadvantages. Immigrant parents are also often very motivating. That is, they know what they came to this country for, and instill high expectations in their children.

My American peers probably have never had a kid turn around and yell “SPEAK ENGLISH” to them on a ski lift, or never have to take over the phone because their mom is on the verge of tears from being treated rudely by customer service for her accent and English skills. But they also probably didn’t grow up bilingual, international and with an innate understanding of cultural self-awareness. Being a first-generation American is an absolute blessing as a university student, and my split cultural identity is something of which I am fiercely proud. Immigrant parents may struggle with raising their children in a country originally foreign to them, but it’s a price that comes with an irreplaceable reward.

Liam Wiesenberger can be reached at wiesliam@umich.edu.