My journey as a first-generation immigrant

February 22, 2021

A timeline of major events in Avi’s life. (Alena Zhang (’23))

When I ponder upon the transitions I have undergone, each one, one of the most prominent memories that come to mind is how I struggled to determine which culture and society I belonged to. From my early childhood and attending my first days in a public school, this applied. This applied to a private school for one year, followed by four years in a public elementary school. This only continued for the next three years in a fairly small-scale, public middle school, and where I am today—a public high school from which the outside appears enormous and, yet, somehow undersized when tightly compacted with students charging through the halls before the bell rings.

The difference between culture and society to me is that one remains constant while the other continuously evolves. How one defines “culture” and “society” may contrast with that of my own. Some people, such as myself, view culture as the one-term to summarize the tradition of food, heritage, language, customs, among more, into one term, while others think of culture as society itself—perhaps a community of people that share similar lifestyles, habits, and achievements of art, from music to human intellect. Both terms may be interchanged with one another. However, my definition of culture implies that parts of me, such as my ethnicity and values, will always be incorporated in how I present myself to those around me. On the other hand, society will never remain the same. With advancements in all aspects, from objects to philosophies, today will be different from yesterday, and tomorrow will be different from today. This is simply beyond human control. Although, as each day comes to an end, it is the responsibility of every individual and every community to decide amongst themselves what they believe is best for the future. Their creations change society, whether for the greater good or the worse.

Why do I say this? I felt as if I lived in too very distinctive, dissimilar worlds. Sometimes I still feel like this, but not as often. Each society has its own culture, but each culture does not have its own society. Being a first-born, first-generation American in an Israeli-Bulgarian household, I was tasked with navigating through my life and discovering who I am through attempting to balance my ethnicity and the American environment surrounding me. To this day, I accept guidance from my parents and choose to take their wisdom and experiences to form my individual identity and beliefs. By accepting guidance, I advocate for my needs and learn from their mistakes, leading me to finding a solution to resolve those of my own. But how do I do this when my peers, who are not all first-generation Americans, are influenced by their parents that may or may not have been raised in the same town, let alone the country? I am constantly being told what the “wrong” and “right” choices are to make on a daily basis. This is why it is significant for not only me, but every individual to have their independent values, interests, and philosophies. No one should rely on others to make decisions for them. Everyone has their own truths that may be false to another. It seems complicated, but this idea is undemanding.

Expectations, generally, tend to be prompted by the people that an individual typically surrounds themselves with. The culture is within the people and the society is what the people inhabit. My parents’ expectations are, undoubtedly, lower than the expectations I have for myself. This is not a cruel thing. Rather, I have standards for myself academically or based on my capabilities in all aspects. My parents remain beside me to encourage me to set realistic goals that I can achieve in short-term or long-term time frames. Maybe the expectations I have for myself are higher than those of my parents because I know my strengths, all the while acknowledging my limitations. As they are not me, my parents do not know these traits as well as I do, but they use their culture and society in their countries to assist me in thriving in the society around me. Surely, nevertheless, expectations vary from culture to society, and, especially, the individual themselves. Once again, it is crucial that every individual has their own values.

I cannot count the number of times I have had a friend or classmate come to me and hold forth how their parents are so displeased with their grade, which usually rounded to above an A, that they were punished for an extensive period of time. I could never understand this because my parents do not believe that punishment teaches discipline. They believe that the consequences one will face is how the individual will self-motivate themselves. For instance, when one doesn’t study and receives a poor grade, it will teach one not to neglect studying and instead receive a good grade. This circumstance correlates with my thoughts on stereotypes for how a student should perform based on their ethnicity. I understand that there are cultural factors in what a parent believes are the “proper” ways to raise a child. So, yes, it is not uncommon that two students of the same heritage, separate from one another, have parents that share a similar cultural upbringing that reinforces the idea that culture, race, or heritage raises children using the same methods. This is culture. This is society. What this is not is the individual parent. Think about it: if you are raised in an area where everyone shares the same lifestyle, interests, goals, achievements, and more, would it be that unusual for you to have the same values as those around you? I doubt so. Again, each individual must have their own values.

Moreover, to my parents’ friends who come from countries out of America and to the Americans around me, I used to feel as if I was excluded from both cultures. I understand all three languages—Hebrew, Bulgarian, and English—but I only speak Hebrew and English. This used to seem abnormal to me, given that Bulgarian was the first language I could speak. Consequently, when I used to be around Americans, I would feel as if they perceived me as just the “daughter of foreigners.” Some of them had, and some of them do, which they have made clear to me through their disrespectful comments and remarks. As for those who come from my parents’ countries, I am “too American.” If I do not speak the language fluently or do not have the same values, I am seen through these lenses. This is okay with me, now more than ever. I have accepted the importance of having my own values, and they are concrete in my brain even when others feel it is necessary to tell me where I belong. For me, there is nothing more to do but smile and walk away.

I guarantee anyone that when they are confident and definite in their values, it does not matter who tells them what they think of them. I will never neglect to mention how difficult it can be for anyone and everyone to feel that they are obsolete from a community or be told, constantly, that their values are wrong. As long as people choose to nurture and encourage one another through their values and choose to respect each other for their differences, their values are not dishonorable. Have your own values. Advocate for yourself. As long as you are self-assured that your decisions are made with moral consideration, you will find a place of truth.

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