First Generation Americans’ Double Lives

Sierra Jackson, News Editor

With NYU students hailing from all 50 U.S. states and 133 countries — statistics found on the first NYU brochures students receive and the university’s website — NYU has been able to boast about the geographic diversity of its student body.

So it’s not unusual to discover that your current NYU roommate, best friend or classmate has traveled hundreds of miles, uprooted their previous lives, and left friends, family and familiarity behind just to attend this university. Even more surprising is that this entire process takes place in just a matter of months.

No doubt, this rapid uprooting and replanting comes with its own string of subconscious side effects, like feeling guilty about living a double life — one at home and one in your new college environment — or questioning your new identity as a transplant New Yorker calling a dorm your home.

But for some NYU students, specifically first-generation Americans, the messiness of converging multiple identities occurs years before they even know what college they will attend.

CAS freshman and first-generation American Daniel Li said his educational experiences and upbringing have made it increasingly difficult to tell people where he is from.

“Though I was born in the United States, my parents hail from China, and I went to school in Hungary before I moved to the United States for high school and college,” Li said. “Now that I have come to NYU as a first-year student, this burning question gets asked every time I meet someone new, and for a matter of fact, to this day I still do not have an answer.”

Li also said President Donald Trump’s election and the corresponding rise in pro-white supremacy protests, like the one in Charlottesville, have caused him to question his own Americanness and what it means to be an American.

Although at times, current events have increased his confusion about his identity, Li credits CAS’s cohort program with helping him further explore his identity.

“Through the discussions I have had with my fellow cohort members about identity in America, I had questioned even more what it means to be an American, and just about identity in general,” Li said. “Though one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that these discussions were extremely thought provoking and I think I am one step closer [to] reconciling with my identity.”

He also said finding a friend with whom he could identify as both an ethnic Chinese and as an American has helped him answer some questions about his origins.

“Through talking with him, I started to realize that I do not have to fit a mold to be American because that is very principle the identity of being an American is built upon,” Li said. “Though America is far from perfect, I still believe that America is the only place in the world where I can be myself and would not have to fake being anyone else, because that’s what being American means.”

Just as your definition of Americanness may vary with your experiences, first-generation American NYU students’ struggles with fitting into multiple cultures — or lack thereof — also differ. Whereas Li is still exploring his identity, Tandon sophomore Karan Ganta, whose parents hail from India, said he discovered who he was early on. Despite this difference, Ganta said finding people with a similar background also helped him adapt.

“I knew my identity coming into the school, and if anything I have met more first-generation Americans that I share those similarities with,” Ganta said. “But it isn’t different from high school, as I had similar friends there too.”

Although many first-generation American students have had different experiences defining their identities, there is a general consensus that their lives in America presented them with opportunities their parents did not have.

Li believes NYU students take their intellectual freedom for granted, considering his own parents did not have the same freedom in China.

“My parents went to school in a country where not only freedom of speech is restricted, but the lack of opportunity was a real issue as well,” Li said. “Many of the people who ended up going to school stayed within China, often living their entire lives in their province with only a few exceptions, including my parents, who went abroad.”

Li also said although he has been education in two different countries and has been able to learn five different languages, his parents’ experiences have caused him to consider opportunities as a form of privilege.

CAS sophomore and first-generation American Liliana Zuluaga agrees that being a first-generation American has helped her appreciate her opportunities and her parents’ sacrifices.

“My parents always tell me how my education means everything,” Zuluaga said. “They want me to graduate college and become someone important in life. They want to give me the opportunity and support that they didn’t have.”

Zuluaga also said her parents’ experiences — her Colombian father has a high school education and her Peruvian mother has an associate’s degree — encourage her to commit to her studies because she does not want to lose the education her parents struggled to give her.

Although being an American citizen has given him more opportunities, Li also admitted that the gap between himself and multi-generational Americans is a drawback to his status as a first-generation American.

“[People] talk about how American it is to have a proper Thanksgiving dinner with an oven-baked turkey and cranberry sauce, or how America was different when their parents went to school, or how people’s grandfathers fought in the Second World War,” Li said. “I feel disconnected with the history of America because my story in America does not start with my great-great-grandfather who came from Ireland, but it starts with me who is trying to forge an identity for himself.”

Ganta also noted this disparity between himself and other, non-first-generation Americans. He  added that there was a cultural gap between himself and non-American Indian students.

“Those from India — or the homeland — don’t respect you as much because you don’t know the language, customs or culture as well,” Ganta said. “They believe you to be stupid because you never learned these things or they believe you to be less of a person because you don’t know these things.”

Regardless of the obstacles like those mentioned above, Li believes being a first-generation American is a status worth fighting for.

“Blacks, Latinos, Asians and even Whites had to face immeasurable obstacles to establish themselves in this country,” Li said. “America is imperfect, and there is discrimination and inequality in America. However, nowhere else in this world can you become a part of a society and an identity where it does not matter where you came from, and what you look like. Though many immigrants, including my parents, went through many hardships, ultimately they always work hard everyday for a brighter tomorrow.”

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Sept. 5 print edition. Email Sierra Jackson at [email protected].