Opinion | Columns

This American immigrant life, through the generations

A few months ago, I revisited one of our family’s leather-bound photo albums. There were some memories from my childhood, but most of the content featured my parents in the early years of their romance—swimming in Goa, hiking near Australia’s Ayers Rock, attending my mother’s MBA ceremony. Through washed-out matte photos, I lived vicariously through the joys and struggles of my father, moustached and dweeby in his ill-fitted sandals, and my mother, a brazen businesswoman with her ever-dramatic slash of red lip.

These pictures deftly tell the proverbial immigrant story: two quixotic dreamers who met in their youth and moved to Melbourne in the 1990s. They are vignettes of assimilation, toil, and success. On election night, as I nervously watched NBC’s coverage from an East Campus suite, I found myself recalling those sanguine images and clinging to them as the outcome turned increasingly grim.

At around 1 a.m. on Nov. 8, I knew Donald J. Trump would be the next president of the United States. Excessive libations and tight hugs couldn’t quell the realization that bigotry, misogyny, anti-intellectualism, and fascist impulses triumphed. For all vulnerable groups, for my Columbia brothers and sisters, my heart still grieves.

But nothing can match the pain I feel for the man and the woman who raised me: my dark-skinned immigrant parents who, like most victims of Trump’s percussive rhetoric, remain faceless targets. The political climate accuses them of contributing little to this society. They are scapegoats, blamed for catalyzing America’s racial, social, and economic anxieties.

Yet my parents raised me to think that I—a foreign-born woman of color—would always be welcome in America. They instilled within me a workman’s ethic; I believed I could achieve anything in this land of diversity and cherished meritocracy. But I took their confidence and unwavering sacrifice for granted. I have always known that they worked tirelessly for a better future; somehow I never got around to asking them just how hard it all was.

Perhaps that’s because I despised how different they were. I envied my friends who bantered with their parents during our middle school car pool. They gabbed about favorite jam bands, grandma’s scrumptious leftovers, and idle town gossip. It made me acutely aware of my parents’ peculiarities. I began shuddering when they spoke in foreign tongues in public. I would switch out their rice leftovers for PB&J in the cafeteria. Yes, I’d seen plenty of pictures, but it felt like we didn’t share a single interest or colloquialism with one another.

For I only knew India through Bollywood and weeklong vacations. My parents studied for exams by candlelight, facing habitual power outages. They took public buses and walked miles to their office buildings while I flew to boarding school and attended college classes next to cozy, red-bricked dorms. With such a stark generational and cultural divide, my parents—no matter how much they resemble acculturated immigrants in a photo album—seemed to rarely understand my cosmopolitan stories and jokes.

Until election night, I excused my spurning as juvenile churlishness, and for that l am truly ashamed. In a country that labels my parents worthless despite their arduous work, for all the pleasures they sidelined so I could go to an elite institution with boundless opportunities, I owe them everything. On Nov. 8, I realized I hadn’t cared enough.

I misunderstood moments in my childhood that seemed anesthetized and unloving. I resented them for not being like other parents, for their ostensible lack of interest in both the banal and personal. But it was never that. I read their love wrong. Their actions were a result of never wanting me to experience adversity and suffering. My parents knew, long before I did, of the passions in Trump’s America. They were cognizant of an atmosphere that could metastasize against those of alien origins. And still they tried to give me the world, its wonders, and then some.

As I continue negotiating my identity as the child of immigrants, I know one thing for certain: I am not and will never be embarrassed of my parents’ heritage. How I treated them as a child reminds me of the inchoate mindset of too many nativists, of the hateful and ignorant people who assume their inherent lack of worth. My mother might not know how to cook pasta, and my dad might not care for football, but they constitute the backbone of a stronger, kinder, more multicultural America.

They never needed a pithy slogan. My parents were already making America great.

Nikita Singareddy is a Columbia College senior majoring in history and concentrating in statistics. She is the former president of the Roosevelt Institute. For irreverent political and social commentary, follow her on Twitter: @singareddynm. Nik’s Declassified School Survival Guide runs alternate Tuesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.


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