The Immigrant Experience: Students of immigrant families reflect on the transition to life in America

Back to Article
Back to Article

The Immigrant Experience: Students of immigrant families reflect on the transition to life in America

Janvi Kukreja

Janvi Kukreja

Janvi Kukreja

Julia Robbins, Staff Writer

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

For many immigrant families, changing location does not mean abandoning their heritage; these students often have unique perspectives about education and culture.

In an anonymous Record poll answered by 212 Upper Division students, 6% reported that they were born in a country other than the US, and 49% reported that their parents were not born in the US. Many students cited higher education and economic opportunities as the primary reasons for immigrating to the US, while some also mentioned revolutions, communism, apartheid, and religious discrimination. These are some of their stories.

When Meryeme Elalouani (11) was four years old, she moved to New York from Marrakech, Morocco with her mother. Elalouani’s father moved to the US for college, and, a few years later, he applied for permanent American residency. Permanent residents are legally allowed to bring their spouses and children to live in the US, so when Elalouani was four, she moved with her mother to join her father in New York.

Young Joon Kim (12) still remembers going to a small convenience store next to his apartment in South Korea when he was around five years old, he said. Every day he would buy the same snack, shrimp chips, and usually he would return home to play videogames with his close childhood friend.

Kim left South Korea after his mom was offered a higher work position in the US that allowed her to be more creative. He was five years old when he left and hasn’t returned in six years.

Simon Yang (11) moved to the US from Seoul, South Korea to start eighth grade at Horace Mann. The transition was easier than expected, but he still had to adapt to new educational customs, Yang said.

“I thought it was going to be very challenging considering that I had never really been in an American school type of environment,” Yang said. Having to meet new people was intimidating as well, he said.

“I needed to get used to participating in class,” Yang said. In Korea, students are not expected to speak up in class or talk with teachers outside of class, he said.

Pana Persianis (12) has also found that the American education system places more of an emphasis on participating in class. Persianis was born in the Netherlands and has lived in Poland, Italy, and Greece depending on where his parents’ work took the family. He eventually came to the US so that his mother could attend graduate school at Columbia University.

Kim has found the education system in the US to be less intense than in Korea, he said. South Korean students work until 12 or one A.M. at an afterschool center before coming home to work until about two or three A.M., he said. “My brother and I are both grateful that we didn’t have to go through what those kids are going through.”

In Korea, students’ entire academic performance is based on two tests per semester that students study for at academies every day after school, Yang said.

Along with the positive aspects of living in America, students have also experienced difficulties with language and the college process.

Not having legacy status at American universities is an obstacle that almost all first generation students have to face, Yotam Hahn (10) said. Hahn’s parents moved from Israel in their early twenties to  attend graduate school in the US.

Persianis was surprised to see how much legacy status is part of admissions in America because the idea of legacy doesn’t exist the same way in other countries, he said. The US is normally seen as a meritocratic country, and legacy status does not live up to those meritocratic ideals, he said.

“There are times when I think it would’ve been easier if I had a parent that grew up here and went through the whole college process when they were in high school,” Elalouani said. But, overall, she has not found anything particularly surprising about the college process, as both of her parents work in the education system, she said.

Besides the college process, Elalouani also confronts other obstacles in the US that she wouldn’t have encountered in Morocco, she said. “I have faced people coming up to me and ranting about how Islam and Muslims don’t belong in Western society and that I need to go back home,” Elalouani, who wears a hijab, said.

“Even reading or hearing about racist attacks that have happened makes me think about the obstacles my parents had to go through as immigrants in this country as well,” she said.

Additionally, there are many ways in which students need to adjust to everyday aspects of life in the US besides dealing with the obvious positive or negative aspects of American society.

The rhythm of life is much faster in New York City than any of the other countries that Persianis has lived in. People in the US have an almost religious belief in hard work and capitalism, he said.

Persianis still hasn’t grown fully accustomed to the speed of New York. “Naturally, I adjusted slightly in terms of pace; I now have breakfast on the go, but nothing major,” he said.

Yang has noticed that, compared to Koreans, Americans are much more willing to talk with people they don’t know. “To me, that was something really new [which took] some time to get used to,” Yang said.

Unlike in Korea, Yang’s neighbors in the US often greet him and say “hi” when they see him, he said.

However, for Alex Binnmyr (12), it was easier to connect with people more quickly in Russia, where he is from, he said. Binnmyr emigrated from Russia to receive a better education and so that his family could escape the struggling Russian economy.

“People in Russia were far more receptive to being open with a stranger. While Americans are very friendly, they are not as open with new people,” he said.

Still, Russians smile much less frequently than Americans, he said. “Culturally, smiling in public is seen as something an insane person would do,” Binnmyr said. “But it’s not necessarily because people are cold, it’s just the way the culture happens to be.”

Hahn also notices distinctions in how people interact with one other in America versus Israel.

“The way we talk with each other is a lot less formal than the way I find my American friends talk with their parents and their family,” Hahn said.

Compared to American children, Greek kids are more open to talking with their parents about what goes on in their lives, Persianis said.

Grace Ermias (11) has noticed how her extended familial relationships have been affected by being a first generation American. “When you come to a different country, you need your family,” she said. “Versus when you’re already here, you’re established and you don’t need the support of your family.”

Ermias’ mother moved to the US in 1991 to join her family members who already lived in the US. Her father escaped Ethiopia as a political refugee in 1994 due to the country’s oppressive regime, the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia (the Derg).

“I can’t imagine not having the massive family that I do,” Ermias said. “My dad has ten brothers and sisters and my mom is one of six.”

While most of Ermias’ extended family lives in America, that is not the case for Elalouani.

Growing up in Morocco, Elalouani lived nearby much of her extended family and saw them frequently. But in America, Elalouani’s only family members are her immediate family and one aunt. “Now, we see each other every summer [when] everyone travels back to Morocco,” she said.

Cuisine is another distinguishing cultural factor for immigrant and first generation students.

Elalouani’s parents often cook Moroccan food for dinner, including couscous or tajine. Every day at five o’clock, her family comes together for caskroot, the Moroccan equivalent of British tea time, to drink tea and eat pastries, Elalouani said.

Both Yang and Kim often eat Korean food their parents make, while Ermias’ mom cooks Ethiopian food once every few nights for her family.

While food is one of the main ways that students from different cultural backgrounds preserve their heritage, families also use traditional furniture and room designs.

“We have a Moroccan living room, and we also have a more Western style living room,” Elalouani said.

The living room, which is filled with traditionally detailed Moroccan upholstery, tables, and carpets, serves as a welcoming room for Moroccan visitors, she said. It also serves as a reminder for Elalouani about the country she was born in. “This is what it would’ve been like if I’d grown up in Morocco,”she said.

Being a first generation or immigrant American also draws most young people to think about their families’ pasts and how their parents’ journeys have impacted them.

Janvi Kukreja (12) is a first generation Indian-American whose parents met in India before marrying and coming to the US.

“My dad has worked so hard for his life,” Kukreja said. “He’s given me everything, and he has literally gone from the bottom to where he is now, which is really impressive to me.”

Kim is also very appreciative of the situation that his parents have put him in, he said. “I want to make my parents happy,” he said. “[Being raised in America is] something that they didn’t go through, so they’re jealous of what I’m going through, and I want to make the most of that.”

One of the ways that Kim has tried to make the most of his opportunities is by rowing on the crew team, an activity that most Koreans don’t have access to, he said.

“I think that part of what New York City has taught me, and what my parents have taught me is to be open to anything: open to opportunities, open to cultures, open to people, open to different perspectives and views,” Elalouani said.

“I consider myself a New Yorker, because there are certain things you do as a New Yorker that make you a New Yorker,” Elalouani said. “It’s like risking food poisoning by buying from a hot dog truck; it’s those sort of things.”