Constructing a culture: Dilemmas of first and second-gen Americans

Sunday, January 24, 2021 - 10:02pm

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Illustration by Eileen Kelly

Irisa Lico grew up in Ravonik, Albania in a tiny village surrounded by mountains. For the first eight years of her life, she lived on a farm, in a two-bedroom house with 12 other family members. They grew their own food and produced their own milk and cheese, traveling to the nearby city of Korçë only in the wintertime when they needed groceries. Until moving to the United States in 2008, Irisa had never met a Black or Asian person. She had never been exposed to any culture other than her own.

“In my village, we only had one shade of (makeup) foundation because everybody looked the same,” Irisa told me during a Zoom call last week. 

Irisa as a child on her family’s farm in Albania.

Irisa as a child on her family’s farm in Albania. Buy this photo
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It was a Tuesday afternoon, and Irisa and I were chatting about culture — hers, Albanian; mine, Bulgarian. As she called in from her parents’ house in Westland, Mich., and I from my college apartment in Ann Arbor, Mich., we laughed over our loud families, the bowl-cuts we endured as children and the cryptic recipes our mothers have shared with us. (What does “adding a finger” of something even mean?)

As a child of immigrants, I have recently been contemplating which parts of my cultural background I can claim as my own and how my identity will change as I move out of my parents’ home. While I’m bilingual and consider myself in touch with my Bulgarian side, I’m not sure if I will choose to reside in Bulgaria, let alone have children with another Bulgarian. And though starting my own family is still very much a distant event, I feel a pressure looming: Will my family’s Bulgarian heritage — in language, tradition, identity — end with me?

The author (right) and her brother on a hike in Bulgaria.

The author (right) and her brother on a hike in Bulgaria. Buy this photo
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I wondered if other first- or second-generation Americans feel the same. For those who immigrated here, was facing assimilation a choice between remaining loyal to old traditions or fully adapting to American values? Did they have to pick one culture to reign over the other, or do they exist in perfect balance? For those like me, who are born and bred in the U.S., do they worry they are too far removed from their parents’ culture to properly pass down that legacy?

Irisa, who has lived in the U.S. for over a decade, described how changing her political and social mindset was necessary evolution, albeit one that took a number of years to accomplish.

“I was eight years old (when I moved to the U.S.). I remember being so anti-everything. I think I was even a Republican in 2008,” she said with a laugh. She explained that like many rural Albanians, her conservatism was largely borne out of a lack of exposure to anything different from what is expected.

“Racial issues, issues within the LBGT community — I was not exposed to those kinds of conflicts,” she said. “I was just in Albania where 'race wasn’t a thing', and 'sexuality wasn’t a thing'.”

As she spoke, I had a hard time envisioning Irisa as a child eagerly waving around a McCain flag. Irisa, an LSA Junior majoring in International Studies and Middle East Studies, describes herself today a democratic socialist, mentioning that “liberal isn’t left enough”. But as she explained moving from an Albanian village of about 1,000 people to metro Detroit, that juxtaposition of past and current beliefs made a little more sense. 

“I understand why Albanians think the way they do back home,” Irisa said. “But coming to the U.S. and learning, and going to a super diverse school... having my best friends from all different cultures  — they taught me so much about their identities and the issues that they face in their own communities.”

It’s an inspiring point, and while listening to her, I felt within me a small twinge of patriotism. Indeed, the U.S. is a melting pot, a salad bowl, a meeting point — whatever you want to call it. We are a nation built by immigrants and home to nearly 45 million of them. There are over 350 languages spoken within our borders. Our economy depends on the contributions of immigrants. Despite the hateful and exclusionary rhetoric of former U.S. President Donald Trump and his followers, a majority of Americans still believe in a diverse, welcoming nation.

For Irisa, that diversity is one of the few tethers that make her feel connected — and even proud — to be an American.

“I appreciate America in terms of the different cultures that I’ve learned about, and that makes me proud to be an American,” Irisa said. “But with anything else — I don’t have a strong connection to the U.S... I don’t want to live here for the rest of my life.”

I wondered if that was an easy conclusion to come to. Were there other aspects of American culture that would be hard to leave behind? 

“There’s no culture,” she said. “What is the American culture? Like, McDonald’s?”

***

One of the things Batuhan Akçay misses most from home is getting together with his friends for “cry sessions.” 

Batuhan, a first-year master’s student studying computer science, moved to the U.S. from Turkey four years ago to attend the University of Michigan as an undergraduate. When we spoke over Zoom, it was nighttime, and he laughed as I probed for more information about the aforementioned “cry sessions.” 

“Turkish people like to listen to a lot of sad songs,” Batuhan said. “We have these kinds of cry sessions with friends — some people do cry, some people don’t. But like, we love being in a really romantic, depressing environment sometimes, listening to music.”

I think I would love Turkey, I thought to myself — I am also a fan of creating romantic, depressing environments. But as our conversation progressed, and laughter turned into seriousness, I noticed parallels between Batuhan’s perception of the U.S. and those of the other first- and second-generation Americans I had spoken to.

“When I was in Turkey, I never thought about cultures that much, because Turkey is very mono-cultured,” Batuhan said. “A lot of the people are very similar and act in certain ways.”

Like Albania, Turkey is relatively homogenous, with the majority of the population being Muslim and ethnically Turkish. For this reason, Batuhan explained, many people share similar ideologies and have trouble understanding issues faced by minorities.

“But when I came to the U.S., when I saw people from many different backgrounds, many cultures, then I realized the importance of cultures and how (culture) affects people’s lives,” he said.

Again, this struck me. When I had been thinking about my Bulgarian culture, and how to maintain it, I figured this would be an attempt done in spite of the U.S., not by way of it. But talking to Batuhan and Irisa made me wonder if culture is best celebrated when it evolves — not when it is carefully polished and delicately handed down to the next generation. Maybe, I thought, my hybrid version of Bulgarian-American culture is actually a necessary one.

“The way I view life and people and cultures is that some of them are better in some ways, some of them are worse in some ways,” Batuhan said. “To be able to survive in a different environment with people from different cultures, different mindsets, you have to adapt yourself...some of the things that come from your culture — you will have to let them go.”

Batuhan said that one aspect of Turkish culture that he rejects is a patriarchal mindset.

“Turkey is very patriarchal,” Batuhan said. “I would say like a typical Turkish man, they would want their wife to be at home, just cooking or cleaning, taking care of the kid.”

He said that the general Turkish population also has a problematic mindset surrounding sexuality.

“They believe that being gay, or bisexual or transgender are not good things and they think of them as like, ‘Oh you're committing a sin,’” Batuhan said. 

Batuhan explained that even before moving to the U.S., he mostly rejected this mindset because he had exposure to different cultures through travel and education. Still, like Irisa, moving to the U.S. helped him learn more about and solidify his views on equality, whether it be through talking with LGBTQ+ peers or women in his STEM classes.

This is not to say that Batuhan — nor myself, nor should you — views Turkey as a wholly close-minded place and the U.S. as a haven for acceptance. It was clear from our conversation that Batuhan is deeply proud of his Turkish identity, and that while he aims to raise his family in the U.S., this decision is not based on some fairytale ideal of the American Dream. Like many immigrants, his is rooted in factors that transcend abstract feelings of belonging and homeland. 

“The reason I would like to live in the U.S. in the future is that the politics and economy in Turkey is not that great,” Batuhan said. “And I don’t think I’ll be able to have a decent life out there, both ideologically and financially... In the future, if it was the case that the politics change, the economy changes, and Turkey is back again as a vibrant country, then I would actually like to go back.”

Batuhan (right) and his brother celebrating a childhood birthday in Turkey.

Batuhan (right) and his brother celebrating a childhood birthday in Turkey. Buy this photo
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Indeed, the diversity that Batuhan and Irisa mentioned ranks low on the reasons immigrants choose to move to the U.S., according to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of State. Economic and educational opportunities clearly rank higher, and more so, the fact that there is diversity in the U.S. doesn’t necessarily mean it is celebrated. When Irisa told me about the misogyny that women in Albania face, she didn’t note the U.S. as its inverse of perfect equality. She noted it as a step up. When Batuhan mentioned the diversity of cultures in the U.S., he didn’t indicate celebratory, communal potlucks. He actually later lamented how individualistic Americans can be.

In an age of increasing nationalism, it is dangerous to inaccurately categorize people and places into binary camps: the “backwards, left-behind” nations of the East versus the “modern, progressive” West. It also made me realize that my search for a strong sense of Bulgarian identity could play into this tribalist sorting. Trying to “pick a side” or determine which culture is better to identify with is not merely impossible, but destructive to any movement towards inclusion. 

As he spoke about a potential future in the U.S., Batuhan took a slight pause. The hum of my overheating laptop filled up the space appropriately, each of us locked in our own thoughts.

***

Unlike Irisa and Batuhan, I have never lived in the country of my family’s heritage. I wondered, then, if second-generation Americans like myself would have similar views on culture, diversity and the future.

This led me to speak with Alexis Jimenez, or Alex, a third-year Business sophomore and child of Mexican immigrants. Over Zoom, Alex explained how his family has moved around a lot, but that they’ve mostly resided in the Grand Rapids-area, in majority-Latinx communities. Alex speaks Spanish and said he’s always felt connected to his Mexican heritage, both through his family and because of the people he grew up around.

Alex (back right) and his siblings celebrate a childhood birthday in the U.S..

Alex (back right) and his siblings celebrate a childhood birthday in the U.S.. Buy this photo
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“Having kids my age that were from other Latin American backgrounds, (whom) I could meet in my school district, gave me a healthy sense of social interaction with people like me and made me more connected to my heritage,” Alex said. 

I wondered if the transition to the University was difficult, then, considering how in 2019 almost 60% of Business students identify as white and 6% as Hispanic. But Alex described how his social circles are made up of mostly Black and Latino students, in part due to his involvement in student organizations that focus on multicultural and Latinx initiatives.

Indeed, Alex described how any friction he’s had in Ross is less about race and ethnicity, and more about his socioeconomic status.

“I've definitely kind of noticed the way … like, I feel like I’m a more palatable Latino — compared to other people — to white students and just like white employers,” Alex explained, noting that at the same time, his Black friends have experienced racist incidents in the Ross School of Business.

“That’s just not something I've had to face because of my racial ambiguity, and the fact that I don’t have an accent or anything,” Alex continued. “It’s like if I mess up they’re not gonna be like, ‘Oh, it’s the Mexican kid that doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ Maybe they'll say the broke kid doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

Not that he’s likely to mess up. Alex is a self-described overachiever, and this was apparent to me when listening to him describe his career aspirations and college habits. As we were discussing this palpability to white employers, I wondered if that has played into any disillusionment of dual identity and culture.

“I’m never going to purposely downplay or hide my own identity, in terms of my ethnicity, to, you know, be more palatable to an employer,” Alex said. “I’ve always been really proud of my culture — I'm never gonna try to hide it.”

Still, Alex said he worries that he might lose this strong sense of culture as he moves away from his home and school community. He wants to work in the entertainment industry, which could put him in circles without as many Latinos.

“I always think so ahead to the future,” Alex said. “I think of like, ‘OK, what are my neighbors gonna be like?’ Because like I said, I grew up in a predominantly Latinx community all my life, like a lot of Mexicans, a lot of Dominicans.”

Some of this anxiety of losing touch with his roots stems from witnessing the experience of his parents, who haven’t been back to Mexico for the past 20 years. Alex noted how work impacted his father’s assimilation to the American way of life.

“I think he embodies a lot of like the good immigrant narrative. And I think he himself kind of internalizes it to some extent,” Alex said. “When I got into my early teens, ever since then, he's always worked in a lot of white communities... I think he’s just kind of used to it at this point, so it doesn’t phase him as much.”

He mentioned that while his mother has assimilated less than his father, she has still lost touch with some Mexican norms and traditions. This fear of a loss of culture is revealing itself especially now, as they will be returning to visit Mexico soon.

“(My mom) told me that she’s nervous about the culture shift, because she had to basically assimilate into the U.S. culture,” Alex said. “It was obviously really hard, going all the way from Mexico and then to the U.S., and then when she tells me ‘Oh, I am worried that I'm going to be different once I go back,’ … it’s a very awkward transitional period.”

Alex acknowledged that a similar feeling could arise for him in the future, once he’s outside of the support systems he’s built at the University and in his home community. I resonated with this worry because, in a way, I had already experienced it. Living in Ann Arbor, there aren’t a lot of Bulgarians around, so most of my cultural experiences have occurred within my family structure. As the years spent away from home increase, I notice my Bulgarian getting shakier and my personality getting more and more Americanized. 

But while Alex’s ambitions may take him out of spaces that are culturally rich, his commitment to maintaining that relationship between himself and his community was obvious.

“I don’t know if I would ever get to Hollywood per se, but just (with) the opportunities for like, what I want to do for a career, I might not have as much interaction with people like me,” Alex said. “It’s unfortunate, but that's why I'm always a big advocate for giving back to your community, because you know it's still a way to connect, even when you can't be there 24/7.”

***

On the last stop of my semi-world tour, I spoke with Fatoumata Kaba-Diakité, or Fatim, a junior in the School of Public Health. Her father was born in Mali and her mother was born in Burkina Faso, but they both grew up in Guinea. Fatim is a fellow native of Ann Arbor, and along with English she speaks French (the official language of Guinea, due to colonization) and Mandingo (a language mostly spoken in Upper Guinea). Last week, we met over Zoom to talk about her background, and after a few minutes of some classic your-immigrant-dad-does-this-crazy-shit-too? conversation, we got into the nitty-gritty. 

“I feel like after Obama leaving, I just felt no nationalism for America and was just kind of questioning like, where do I belong?” Fatim said. “I wasn’t even born in Africa, but I feel more nationalistic towards Guinea and I’ve never even been there. But my family being first-gens... that’s home, and here really isn’t. (The U.S.) is kind of just this foreign place that I'm trying to learn as much from, because my parents think that there’s better opportunities here.”

Despite feeling strong ties to her Guinean culture, Fatim shared similar fears as Alex and myself, worrying that she will fall into the trope of the child of immigrants who forgets where they come from and doesn’t care to know it. Growing up, she recalled how there weren’t a lot of other African kids at school, and how she would be teased for the smell of her home-cooked meals or for the traditional printed pants she would wear. For first and second-generation immigrants, negative experiences such as these are one of the reasons people assimilate and potentially lose touch with their culture.

But Fatim has resolve, a natural confidence, and while conversing I could recognize not only her love for her Guinean identity, but her knowledge of the country’s history, politics and people. She not only holds a deep connection to Guinean culture as it appears in her everyday life — in food, language — but also in what it means to be African.

A young Fatim (right) and her brother ride in the car in the U.S..

A young Fatim (right) and her brother ride in the car in the U.S.. Buy this photo
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“I've seen a lot of my friends who are also Africans make good friends and just forget about where they’re from,” Fatim said. “And it kind of hurts because it's like, you have such a beautiful culture, what made you forget it? And just I guess they're kind of getting comfortable with what’s easy and what’s around them.”

Perhaps this is another crucial pillar in holding on to heritage: A commitment to learning, to understanding, to getting the whole picture of your culture and not just the most convenient or fun aspects of it. It wouldn’t be enough for me to teach my future children how to make banitsa or to take them on a trip to Bulgaria, just as going to a baseball game isn’t all it takes to assimilate to American culture. History requires reflection, otherwise, the lessons learned through it will be lost. Sometimes these lessons aren’t comfortable, like admitting your home country is built on institutions of racism or sexism. But we can’t just pick the little tidbits that make us feel warm-and-cozy and leave behind those that make us cringe or cry.

Irisa, Batuhan, Alex and Fatim all knew and expressed this thought. And while they all celebrated where they are from, they also celebrated the power in evolving, the strength in adapting and the dedication to creating places that are more inclusive for all cultures — not just their own.