What it means to be American through the eyes of the children of immigrants
“Most of my friends have that hyphenated American part of them,” Ithaca College junior Rudy Outar said. “I just get along better with those people because I have more in common.”
Outar was born in and lived in Guyana for three years. He then lived in Venezuela for five years before moving to the United States with his parents. Though he was not born in the United States, Outar experienced living in two worlds: American society and his family’s culture at home.
Many first-generation Americans and children of immigrants share Outar’s experience in which their identities were shaped by influences such as their parents, the media and the desire to conform to American society.
For sophomore Rita Bunatal, finding the balance between her American and African identities was difficult. Her parents kept their African cultures alive at their home in Dallas, Texas, with dishes that combined all sorts of foods with African sensibilities.
“I wasn’t eating hamburgers every day. I was eating food from different countries,” Bunatal said.
Growing up, Bunatal was exposed to her African heritage via food, clothing and the occasional word in Tri — her mother’s native tongue — or Swahili or Seychellois Creole — the two African languages her father speaks. But even then, Bunatal did not know much about her home continent and only spoke in English. Though both parents were proud of their cultures, Bunatal felt embarrassed by them when she was young.
“[Our mom] would play a lot of music in Tri, and my sister and I would sing along,” Bunatal said. “Sometimes, when my friends would come in our car, my mom would have CDs on repeat. My friends would be like, ‘What’s that?’ and I’d be like, ‘I don’t know, my mom plays it all the time.’”
To Bunatal, her African identity was elusive, but her family regularly reminded her of her African roots.
Freshman Zihui Adams said she was more personally responsible for cultivating her cultural awareness. Adams said she has a close relationship with her single American mother, who adopted her when she was four years old from Anhui Province in eastern China.
“[Some] people would say, ‘Is that your real mom?’” Adams said.
Adams decided to retain her Chinese name and protested even when her mother called her Zoey when she was young. Throughout her life, Adams experimented with how to make the pronunciation easier for people unfamiliar with Chinese. At one point, she even called herself Christine, but it was short-lived.
“I love my Chinese heritage,” Adams said. “I find I identify more with being Chinese than American or even Chinese American. …My roots are in China.”
Outar had a similar experience with taking responsibility for his cultural immersion. Coming from Guyana and Venezuela meant Outar had to leave behind relatives, he said, but he did not forget his upbringing.
“When it comes to classifying myself, it’s tough because I’m not sure where to start exactly,” Outar said. “But usually American is definitely not the first word that comes out of my mouth.”
Outar said he never felt pressured by his parents to attend Hindu services, but by age 14 he felt a need to explore his cultural and religious identities more seriously.
“I guess I started missing my religious roots,” Outar said. “At 14, that’s usually when you start to think more about the world. I was starting to think about who I was, and I wanted to be more immersed in my religion.”
In addition to reconnecting with his Hindu faith, Outar is learning Spanish to improve his communication skills for when he visits Venezuela, which he intends to do frequently, even though he plans to pursue a career and start a family in the United States.
Freshman Charlie Vaca, the son of Ecuadorian immigrants, is not so concerned about retaining his cultural heritage. He was born and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey, which he explained is a primarily working class city where there are many immigrant families from all over the world.
“It’s basically just a big melting pot of people,” Vaca said. “I wasn’t really born into Ecuadorian culture, it was more like a Frankenstein of a bunch of different cultures.”
Vaca said he identifies as American first and foremost, and that his upbringing was not necessarily Ecuadorian. While he’s visited Ecuador a few times, he wouldn’t move there.
“My parents still consider themselves Ecuadorian, but there isn’t much of a disconnect, “Vaca said. “I know some families even fight about it…but with my parents, it’s in agreement that we live here now and it’s our home.”
From a young age, Vaca’s parents encouraged him to pursue a college education.
“In order to get out, you just gotta be really lucky, your parents have to push you somehow and then get some perspective on what it means to stay or not to go to college,” Vaca said. “Everyone thinks that you have to come to the cities, but … we [in the city] see America as the suburbs with picket fences.”
While Vaca strove toward an ideal goal of financial success, Adams has struggled throughout her life under the pressure to conform to the “Model Minority Myth,” in which certain races are assumed to be naturally better at math and science than other races.
“There’s this social norm that you have to be this amazing, scholarly person…either that, or you’re this low-end, small business person at a laundromat or seamstress,” Adams said. “You’re caught between these two worlds.”
Bunatal’s life was influenced by media messages in a different way. In the United States, the lack of general knowledge about African culture left Bunatal confused, even with her parents’ efforts.
“Sometimes I would forget that I’m African,” Bunatal said. “Our systems clump us together — everyone who’s white, everyone who’s Asian, everyone who’s Black.”
When she was about to begin high school, her family decided to move to Ghana. Bunatal was reluctant to leave her friends and home in Texas, but was also terrified of going to Africa.
“The media influenced me so much to think negatively of my people,” Bunatal said. “The pictures in my textbooks were of kids with diseases — people that I could’ve called my cousin or my brother or sister.”
At Ghanaian boarding school, Bunatal had trouble making friends at first. To her native Ghanaian classmates, Bunatal represented the United States, not a fellow African, before they got to know her.
“One of my classmates actually told me that, when he first saw me, he didn’t like me… because I carried myself like an American,” Bunatal said. “There are also stereotypes of Americans that Americans don’t realize.”
Over the course of two years, however, Bunatal became more acclimated to Ghanaian social norms. She was able to connect with her culture in a more meaningful way.
“Once you touch the soil and see people who look like your family and could be related to you, you make that connection instantaneously,” Bunatal said. “If I didn’t move, I would be a completely different person. And I tell my mom that every day.”
Sophomore Rodniel Jae Pecson, a first generation Filipino-American, has a similar sentiment regarding a connection that he feels with other Filipinos.
But Pecson also feels the pressure to conform to American society hindered his exploration and practice of Filipino culture. As a child, Pecson said he had difficulty distinguishing between English and Tagalog, the indigenous language of the Philippines. He said in preschool, his teacher called his parents and recommended he learn either English or Tagalog, but not both.
“Thinking about that now, how can you tell a parent that?” Pecson said.
Afterward, Pecson said his parents only spoke English at home, except for when they argued in Tagalog. They also enrolled him in speech classes until fifth grade.
“Of course, I live in the United States, so I gotta learn English, and I lost my Tagalog,” Pecson said. “I wish today I could remember it or practice it.”
As the public relations officer for Ithaca College Asian American Alliance this year, Pecson said he was able to have discussions about racism that he had never had before.
“Although I like being different at times, it’s necessary to have someone who has a similar background as you,” Pecson said.
Adams, however, said she sometimes had trouble connecting with other Asian Americans, particularly Chinese children with Chinese immigrant parents.
It wasn’t until Adams saw “Somewhere Between,” a documentary about adopted Chinese-American girls visiting their birthplaces in China, that Adams’ struggle to discover her identity felt validated.
Adams decided to pursue a career in occupational therapy for orphaned and adopted children. She said she plans to move to China to work at orphanages like the one she grew up in.
“I’d like to find my parents, but if it doesn’t end up happening that way, then just being in my culture will be sufficient,” Adams said. “It’s my past, my history.”
Michael Tkaczevski is a sophomore journalism major who is a kid at heart. Email him at mtkacze1[at]ithaca.edu.