Growing up, I was always aware of how different my parents were from everyone else’s. It’s not just that we ate different food at home, that they dressed differently, or even just that they had accents. It was all of it; this feeling that they could never understand me. I now recognize this as the universal and quintessential trait of adolescence, and not unique to having immigrant parents. Every kid feels this way.
There’s more to it, though. I first saw it expressed by Jhumpa Lahiri. She captured this sense of what makes growing up the children of immigrants so different: Parents’ fear that they’ve made a terrible mistake leaving their homeland and that their children will pay the price. There’s a sense of being lost in time — as much as they come from a different country— they more importantly, came from a different time. It wasn’t just living in India that my parents were thinking of when they evaluated my behavior, it was of living in an India of 30 years ago. It’s a yardstick frozen in time and vulnerable to the same malleability that afflicts all memories.
All of this adds up. It’s why, at a certain point, I realized that my brother and I probably seemed like little aliens to my parents. They grew up in small villages in India spanning the 1940’s-60’s. As relatively spoiled kids growing up in the 1980’s-90’s in America, we were pretty far afield. I won’t list out what differed in our relative experiences, because it’s probably everything. We were their little alien offspring.
I recognize that this cycle will repeat. While I’ll have the shared experience of an American childhood with my kids, there will be a huge difference. My youth was so marked by scarcity and my parents’ fear of not attaining upward mobility for their kids. There weren’t really vacations, we didn’t go out for meals, no new cars, clothes were out-of-fashion and ill-fitting, braces that came too late, and all the other dressings of the working class. As important, I always felt the ominous cloud of worry — that our position was precarious, that something worse was lurking — and it still lingers with me. While the expenses of my lifestyle are basically unfathomable to my parents, it’s also well below what I could spend. It’s the mark of upbringing.
My (imaginary) kids will grow up without this cloud of worry. They won’t suffer from without and they won’t be working class. It was such a defining part of my growing up, that I imagine in someways it’ll be hard for me to relate to them. Going further, back then I resented those other kids. My (still imaginary) kids will be those kids. As a kid I felt marked as an outsider due to my ethnicity, my parents being different than everyone else’s, and by our working class lifestyle. While my (still totally imaginary) kids will probably look different than other kids, that’s much less of a big deal in today’s post-racial America (ha!), and their parents will be culturally and economically similar to their peers. They won’t want. They won’t be outsiders. They’ll be little aliens to me.
In fact, I’ve seen this already. I have three cousins who I consider far more siblings than cousins. In my role as baby of the family, everyone’s much older. All married, there are 7 kids in this next generation. The eldest offspring off to college next year. As I’ve watched their whole gaggle of kids over the past decade+, I’ve always been struck at how stunningly different their adolescence is from mine. Aliens, indeed.