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On being 2nd gen
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I’ve always felt the third world nipping at my heels.
Don’t get me wrong, I was born here in the States, and while my parents immigrated here, they didn’t arrive on boats as refugees or anything like that.
But the thing is, I went back to the Philippines every summer as a kid, so I always got an annual reminder of just how good I had it.
On one trip to the Philippines, I was in the car with my family, stuck in the typically horrendous Manila traffic amidst the pouring rain, and I saw this kid walking from car door to car door, begging. He must have been around 6 years old, around my age at the time. In a soaked shirt and shorts, the kid was ankle-deep in dirty water when he walked up to our car.
Although we were just separated by inches and a glass window, we couldn’t have been further apart. Me, the undeserving winner of the birth lottery. Him, the undeserving loser.
To me, that’s the story of being an American whose parents immigrated from the Global South. We got lucky with the birth lottery while also having some awareness of that fact.
While my kids will also end up winning the birth lottery by virtue of becoming American citizens, they’ll, unfortunately, end up taking that fact for granted. And their kids, even more so.
After each consecutive generation, those stories of mosquitos, humidity, and hunger from the Philippines will fade into the background and will just become stories that some old Filipino grandpa will say that he heard from his grandpa who long ago had immigrated to the States.
At which point, all the kids in the room listening to the old man will merely nod their heads robotically, without truly understanding how good they have it because they’re simply too far removed from the immigrant experience.
Sadly, you just can’t replicate the second-generation experience further down the ancestry tree. Throughout our childhoods, we absorbed our parents’ anxieties and fears about grinding third-world poverty, and that’s never going to be something we can truly pass down to our kids.
Is that a good thing?
On the one hand, there certainly are advantages to the specter of third-world poverty scaring the shit out of your parents. Your parents will likely push extra hard for you to get good grades so you can eventually get that well-paying job.
On the other hand, there are some things you miss out on from being a second-gen kid growing up in America. Here’s a random list.
Not going on family camping trips: Our parents didn’t come all the way from the sweltering humidity and rainstorms of their home countries in order to be uncomfortable in “The Great Outdoors” of their new country.
Not learning to ski or snowboard as a kid: Snow isn’t really a thing in much of the Global South. Also, snowsports are inherently the antithesis of an experience that immigrant parents would want to pay for. They’re expensive and don’t provide the perceived long-term value that other costly investments provide (e.g. Mandarin classes, piano lessons).
Not ordering beverages at restaurants: Drinks just aren’t a thing in Asian culture. I don’t know what it is, but you’ll have a hard time finding an authentic sit-down Asian restaurant that asks you “What would you like to drink?” when they take your order.
Not not hoarding napkins and sauce packets: When the underlying common denominator of the immigrant experience is fear of poverty, you get lots of frugality.
Personally, I really like being second-gen. Ya, I didn’t know how to ski as a kid and I didn’t go camping until I was in college. But with their well-placed anxiety about developing country poverty, my parents infused me with a sense of pragmatism that only immigrants could.
Without it, I wouldn’t have any napkins or sauce packets in my cabinet right now.