DKC Voices: Immigrant Heritage Month

Pieces from Rachel Aquino, Krittika Bhadra, and Danielle Tarabay

As a young girl, my grandparents would always tell me stories about their time as a dynamic duo of doctors and surgeons. Whether it was about how my grandfather had to perform surgery on a tribal leader in Nigeria or how different their life was there compared to their life in the Philippines, it was always an interesting story to hear on my way home from school and always something I loved asking questions about. But there was one question that did not come to mind until I was in my college years — my grandparents had been telling me these stories about their careers as doctors but were never doctors here in America.

Asking them about how they immigrated to America, they had told me they first came in the late 80s to visit my Aunt, who had just finished college and started her career in New York City. Being in the U.S. all alone by herself, my Aunt had soon convinced my grandparents to move from the Philippines to stay in America. With six months on a visitor’s visa, they both were determined to find a job. My grandfather was lucky enough to land a job with Blue Cross Blue Shield New Jersey as a medical claims specialist and soon got a temporary working visa to stay here in America. It wasn’t until 1997 when Blue Cross Blue Shield sponsored my grandfather to stay in America permanently.

My grandmother on the other hand was able to also find a job as a caretaker for a highly regarded racehorse artist, John Henry Rouson. Most of her favorite stories to tell would come from her time spent with Mr. Rouson, especially when Disney came out with the movie Secretariat in 2010 when she told my cousins and I that Mr. Rouson was the famous artist who painted the well-known racehorse. After Mr. Rouson passed in 2000, she continued her career at Quest Diagnostics as a Medical Technologist until she retired in 2014.

I had asked my grandparents why they were never doctors here in America, and what they had told me that retaking a test in their 50s was not an option and they had to focus on surviving here in America to provide a life for their other children (my uncle and mom who were just in college at the time).

I also never realized that a lot of my other family members around my grandparents age also did not pursue the career they had in the Philippines. From engineers, accountants, and doctors, they all came to America to pursue their American dream but were focused on one thing only: surviving. They all survived for their children and grandchildren in hopes to have a life they never had, and for sure all their hard work and sacrifices have paid off. Their sacrifices have created CEOs, Vice Presidents, Nurse Practitioners and many more. I could not be more grateful for what they have done for all of us.

Living the Big American Dream — This is My story.

FRIENDS has a huge impact on my life. So do Gossip Girls/ Sex and The City/ How I Met Your Mother and countless other American sitcoms and movies. They made me fall in love with this country, NYC to be specific. A love so profound that I ended up moving here. Every time I watched these characters roam around the streets of Manhattan, my heart desired to live like them, in the city of dreams and land of opportunities. Not to mention Bollywood, which never fails to glorify the NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) living a supposedly exotic life in the US.

Finally, in 2018 I heard those four golden words, “your visa is approved,” and I landed in the country of my dreams. But unfortunately, due to some unanticipated circumstances, I had to return to my home country, India. As luck would have it a week before leaving, I learned I was accepted to Rutgers University for a Master’s course. Thus began my Life 2.0 journey.

After a colossal amount of paperwork, I finally landed in the U.S. in 2019, and this time as an international student. My mind was full, with a zillion thoughts. I was nervous and anxious as to how I should communicate with others, how I would make friends, if at all, and how would I be able to adapt to this culture and lifestyle? These thoughts kept me worried until I arrived on the first day of orientation. I felt at ease from that very moment. There was a friendly and welcoming vibe all around.

However, I got the biggest culture shock of my life finding out people address each other by their first names, irrespective of age, seniority, or position. It took me a while to get used to calling my professors by their names, not even last names but their firsts! Hailing from India where British rules are still diligently followed, we have been conditioned to call our seniors especially professors/ supervisors or anyone older, by their last names prefixing either Sir/Madam or Mr./Ms as a sign of respect. So this was a huge change and I am still familiarizing myself with it.

The two school years were nothing short of amazing. I met people from different countries, made friends, had intense cultural discussions, learned their stories, struggles, cultures, shared mine and so on. I was ecstatic to find so many “little India”s (colonies) in and around the tri-state area.

Starting a job at DKC, I actually started living my dreams of working in the land of opportunities. As someone who recently moved to the U.S., my experience is different from other first- or second-generation immigrants. So far it has been very positive. It makes me proud to talk about my culture, my country and my city. Majority of my non-Asian friends have been fascinated by Indian food, jazzy Indian weddings and all the associated rituals. I love explaining how we have different languages in different parts of the country and how tikka masala is not really an Indian dish!

Unlike many other immigrants my struggle is not the language but the accent, pronunciation, and usage of certain words like lift, shift, flat, dustbin etc. Transitioning from European to American English is tricky and time consuming. Previously I have used these words and after shifting moving here I am unlearning and learning, trying to switch words appropriately like apartment instead of flat, elevator instead of lift (because lift is considered taxi service LYFT!) and so on. I sometimes feel lost in the labyrinth of tongue rolling “R”s and “L”s, American/European word maze, but I am getting there taking one step at a time. Still a little worried about my heavy Indian accent, wondering if people have a hard time understanding it, but kind friends keep reminding me that an accent is a sign of courage.

Moving here and leaving an already comfortable life was a different experience. My appetite for better opportunities, to provide a brighter and better future for my next generation and to experience different cultures, lured me here. As much as I look forward to a slow life sometimes, I absolutely love the chaos of this fast-paced city. It has so much to offer. Much more than I had expected and desired.

As an outsider, I was neither made to nor felt pressured to fit in. I was welcomed and accepted with love and kindness. I am glad I am able to hold on to my roots and heritage even while living miles away from my native country. Having the best of both worlds is awesome.

Growing up as a first-generation child to Lebanese immigrant parents led to an interesting upbringing to say the least. My parents spoke Arabic at home but didn’t teach my brother and I to speak it for fear that we would develop accents that might cause discrimination in the future. We ate the best home-cooked meals every night, and always brought the leftovers for school lunch the next day. It seemed like my parents made friends everywhere we went because something as simple as speaking a common language could create a bond. We spent summers visiting Lebanon where the majority of my family lives. Gifts are not something saved for special occasions, they are small acts of love that we share as often as possible, with as many people as possible. There were so many things about my upbringing that connected me to my culture, and were my own version of “normal.”

However, there’s a phrase that comes to mind often when I think about how my American-ness and my Lebanese-ness coincide: not enough. Not speaking proper Arabic has always been one of my biggest insecurities, because I can see the disappointment in people’s faces when I say “I understand, I just don’t speak,” — not Lebanese enough. I have a vivid memory of bringing my favorite meal to school for lunch one day in second grade, stuffed grape leaves made fresh with love by my father, and when I asked my teacher to heat them up she looked at me with disgust and said “tell your parents to pack you real food for lunch from now on,” — not American enough. I spent the rest of my school days eating peanut butter sandwiches and looking forward to going home and eating what I thought of as “real” food. Being the child of immigrants has put me in this in-between spot where I am deeply connected to both sides of myself as a Lebanese American, but still fall short of being fully one or the other.

I am so grateful to have been given the opportunities here in the United States that I might not have gotten in Lebanon, but I still love connecting with my culture and sharing it with those around me. I still love going to Lebanon and spending time with my family eating the best food — even when the power cuts out in the middle of the day. I may not be “fully” Lebanese or American, but I cherish both parts of me and try to bring out the best of them every day.

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