A few weeks ago, I was waiting to board a flight when I looked up to see my neighborhood Chinese convenient store owner’s wife and eldest son. They were off to China for the summer to see her parents. The experience reminded me, strangely enough, of my maternal grandmother and her sister and got me thinking. Here is what and why:
Interestingly enough, Spain actually has a significant Chinese immigrant population (along with larger Ecuadorian, Moroccan, and Romanian ones). The Chinese immigrants generally run convenient stores and “5 and Dime” like thrift shops. As a matter of fact, there is one Chinese convenient store on almost every two or three blocks. Personally, I feel particularly akin to immigrants, not only because all of my grandparents were also first or second generation immigrants, but because I am also a foreigner living abroad.
For me, immigrants are a romantic and extremely courageous lot who have left their homes, cultures, (oftentimes) languages, and families behind. Both of my maternal grandmother’s parents and my paternal grandfather’s father, left their entire families behind to never see or speak to them again. Three of my four grandparents were raised in non English speaking homes. Consequently, whenever I see my neighborhood Chinese family, I always feel a little brotherhood towards them, and I always chat them up while buying water, milk or cookies.
So when I ran into the mother and eldest son in the airport, I was pleasantly surprised. We also happened to be on the same flight (they were then connecting to Shanghai). While waiting in the line to board, we spoke (or tried to speak). I asked, “When was the last time you went home to China to see your family?” She answered, “Twenty days”. Then I tried to rephrase the question a couple of different ways until she could understand (her Spanish isn’t very good). Finally, her son said in Spanish very much annoyed, “Mom!” He then told her in Chinese and she answered “six years”.
It was funny to see how embarrassed the kid was by his mother. It could have been anywhere in the world, just as all kids are often embarrassed by their parents. The difference here was that he was embarrassed by his mother’s language skills. This is what reminded me of my grandmother and her sister.
My grandmother and her sister did not speak any English when they first entered elementary school. At home, they had only spoken their parents’ language and had probably little or no exposure to the English language. So in their first year of school, they felt very much embarrassed about not knowing the language and at feeling like total outsiders. As a result, my grandmother’s sister totally rejected her parent’s native language and refused to speak it at home or elsewhere. She became strictly English only. This is very common amongst the children of immigrants where they feel ashamed in front of their friends and schoolmates because they are foreign. They end up speaking their new adopted language even to their parents, and their parents respond in their native language. So there is this funny bilingual communication going on between parents and kids.
Most studies have shown that the children of immigrants suffer incredible stress in trying to belong both in the schoolyard and at home with their families. This is especially true when their parents’ expectations and values are radically different from those of the adopted country. For example, in the US, the children of Asian immigrants often have incredible pressure from very strict parents to succeed in academics, while their “native” friends usually have other preoccupations (athletics, dating, going to the party, or just being popular). People often talk about immigrants not integrating, but this totally misses the point. The children of immigrants want nothing else than to integrate. Kids everywhere want to belong and feel accepted, that’s just a basic fact about growing up. Combine that with the fact that immigrants precisely take the long arduous journey with the hope and expectation that their children will succeed and have a better life. The children do not fail at integration, but society fails at integrating them.
Yesterday, I was taking the metro home from work, and I noticed that I was surrounded by the children of immigrants. They were from Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, and China. Depending on their age, they spoke with a stronger foreign accent or more of a Spanish accent. It was fascinating to see that these kids were just like my grandparents when they were young, all doing their best at being kids and belonging.
Luckily, my grandmother never lost her mother tongue. Once my great grandparents passed away, my grandmother began to travel back to her family’s homeland in Europe where she was able to reunite with the family that her parents had left behind. Luckily for my Chinese neighbors, the world is a much smaller place. There are so many ways to communicate with the friends and family we have left behind (email, telephone, webcam), and you can even grab a plane and easily go back to visit. That’s what I will be doing in the next few weeks!