Not too long ago we sent out a survey to stimulate responses we felt would give us a better insight for our work at Our initial responses were from a diverse group of people who anonymously answered our seven question survey. Like most of our submitted material, the responses covered the gamut of emotions. Mostly, we found that the words of these people left us hungry to learn more, to dig deeper. In fact, the more we learn and hear, the more we want to know. Here is our sampling that we hope will also whet your appetite:

To be the child of an immigrant means growing up faster than your peers in non-immigrant families.

Almost 67% of our responders agreed with this statement, adding comments such as, “My parents were very fearful about my well-being, so I was pretty sheltered.” This comment reflects what is often the case when the parent or parents are unfamiliar with the customs, practices or traditions of their new world. Until they feel comfortable, they certainly are unlikely to release their young ones into the strange new environment in which they live.

Others saw the statement from a different perspective, saying, “It might be true in some families but not in mine. Only one of my parents was an immigrant so my parents didn’t depend on the kids as much as I’ve heard in other immigrant families.”

Another respondent spoke of the responsibility they faced at an early age. “I was expected to know how to care for myself from a young age. My brother and I were expected to figure things out on our own. No one sat with us to figure out homework or plan our days. No one was saw us off to school, even in the elementary school days. We got ourselves ready, made our own breakfast and packed our own lunch. It was expected that we manage our lives ourselves.”

We were particularly impressed by the familiarity of this comment: “The moment I could drive a car, I was sent all over to run errands or pick people up/drop people off at O’hare (Airport in Chicago). My friends could barely drive outside of a 5-mile radius while I was driving to Milwaukee to deliver items for my parents.” This is also a common thread in immigrant families. As the oldest child is often forced to break through barriers and fight for independence, once attained, he or she becomes the family’s connection to the new world. The young person’s education means he or she can understand “scary” letters from the likes of the water company. The driver’s license means he/she can take Mom to the store or drive Dad to work so he doesn’t have to wait for a bus on a rainy or snowy corner.

Our next statement is semi-related to the first:

To be the child of an immigrant means taking responsibility for transferring American culture (or the culture of the country in which you live) to your parent(s).

The responses to this statement were overwhelmingly in agreement.

One respondent said her parents were much stricter with her older siblings with regard to school involvement. The older siblings were all at least ten years older, and were the ones who blazed the trails she would eventually travel. “Luckily, they broke my parents in, making it much easier for me to join activities and even go away to college and live on campus.”

One person spoke about the differences in food. “Food was a big deal. Why did my Mom always have to bake a hazelnut torte for my birthday? Why couldn’t I have a Cinderella sheet cake like my ‘American’ friends?” For this person who also observes a strict fast from animal products during Lent, her mother would lovingly prepare lunches of tuna fish on Vienna bread with pickles and onions, or  she’d pack a can of sardines wrapped heavily in aluminum foil to protect the lunch box. “Needless to say, I was excited when my Mom finally learned from a neighbor about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”  

To be the child on an immigrant is to carry the hopes and dreams of your ethnic culture and people into the future.

The majority of our respondents agreed that a certain burden, often carried with honor, is to know that the hopes and dreams of others rest on your shoulders, particularly if those others are your parents. As a part of the next generation, there is an expectation to rise above the last. However, some respondents felt that this pressure came from others, or from within, not necessarily just from their parents.

One respondent spoke of the loss of contact with her ethnic community after completing college and moving to another city.  “I lost a bit of contact with my church, however, managed to continue attending (ethnic) social events.” This woman married outside the ethnic community. The draw to return was strong after she had a child. “I began making my way back…” She started to attend her church again, enrolled her daughter in church school and dance group to learn the dances of her people. She brought her daughter to church camp each summer where she would learn more about her religion, culture and traditions. “She thanks me today for providing her with that cultural experience while growing up.”

One respondent felt that the pressure to remain in the community came from the community itself. “I always felt pressure to date and marry someone who had the same cultural background. I didn’t always feel it from my parents but definitely from the community.” She admitted that church attendance was central to keeping the ethnic lines “pure” saying they attended church regularly more as a social gathering than a religious experience. The ethnic churches are meeting places for the older generation who are seeking the companionship of others sharing similar backgrounds and experiences. At the same time, church attendance and church sponsored functions served as a great meeting place for young people to find a mate.

To be the child of an immigrant means learning to translate documents, bills, and even laws to parents, creating a shift in the normal parent-child relationship.

Over 83% of respondents agreed the role of translator and interpreter of documents was automatically theirs. Often, the job extended to assist relatives, neighbors and newcomers. One woman said, “I was second generation American-born. This was something that never happened in my home growing up. But when I married an immigrant his upbringing was entirely different, even though we were of the same ethnic and religious backgrounds. He came to America as a small child and was totally educated here. But by the time we got married, he had grown tired of this job and it automatically fell to me. I used to smile privately when my in-laws were so grateful to me, and they treated me with such respect because I would not only sort their mail but explain it to them. I realized it was scary to them when he would just throw a piece of mail in the trash. It made them feel more reassured when they understood why they didn’t have to worry about it.”

Others said they didn’t remember having to do this, perhaps because their parents had someone else do it until they learned how to speak and read the language. One respondent said that even though she and her siblings didn’t have to help in manner, she can clearly remember her parents helping others.

Being the child of an immigrant placed an immense pressure on me to make my parents proud and to live out the American dream.

Those who disagreed with this statement said they didn’t feel this pressure any more or less than their friends, conceding there was pressure, but it was typical among their friends of all backgrounds.

There seemed to be one recurring theme among all the respondents: that they often would hear the stories of how bad or difficult their parents’ lives had been. This would urge them, directly or indirectly, to appreciate all American had to offer and not waste any opportunity given.

There were times I felt embarrassed/ashamed of my family’s culture and customs. 

Although the majority of immigrant children responding agreed with this statement, those who left comments quantified their answers. One said she was from a marital union in which only one parent was an immigrant. She didn’t feel and shame or embarrassment related to her own home, but she did find the community difficult and clannish, describing them as “backward and judgmental toward people who were different than they were. I was embarrassed to bring my friends to ethnic events sometimes because people were not welcoming of people outside of the ethnic group.”

Most of the time I felt proud to be the child of an immigrant family and loved the culture and the customs.

Despite any previous answers, a whopping 100% of our respondents agreed with this statement.

“It wasn’t until I was in college that I truly realized that being from an immigrant family provided me a leg up on appreciating cultural diversity, on being more tolerant, and understanding hardship and sacrifice,” said one respondent.

Another agreed with the statement of ethnic pride, but was more critical once she spread her wings by going away from home to attend school. “I felt that way until I went away to college. I lived in a bubble, but had no idea until I was outside of it. I could still appreciate the culture, but my opinions changed. I saw it almost like a stranglehold once I left it. Looking in I could see how so many people never grow because of how caught up they are.”

Another agreed with the statement, yet said she liked being classified simply as an American rather than being identified as a hyphenated citizen.

Thanks for responding! Leave your comments or start a discussion below the post. Are your answers to these questions similar to what our survey participants told us?

~ Joanne and Sandi