In this Moving Story conversation with Peter, we hear about how unsupported migration can lead to an experience of crippling social anxiety and a sense of being a “bundle of trauma and dysfunction.” Peter is left behind as a toddler in China with his grandparents as his parents peruse their immigrant dreams in Spain. When his grandmother dies in his early childhood, he is reunited with his parents, whom he barely knows in Spain. Plucked out of one environment and thrust into another, he finds himself navigating a new land and languages largely on his own. In Spain, his peers brutally tease and bully him and harass him constantly. He is made to feel like an alien in his new land and is told that he underwent a personality change. He used to be a prankster and an extrovert, but he has now become quiet and withdrawn. While he successfully navigates the transition, learning Spanish and English and receiving a bachelor’s at the London School of Economics before his master’s at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the psychological price of his voyage is steep. Peter’s narrative is a reminder of how children are caught in the net of familial migration decisions and journeys. Unsupported, the voyage can be a lonely and painful one.
Kenu-woo confides, like so many children of immigrants, confides that “home is complicated.” Born in Iowa of South Korean born parents, she had resided in several states by the time the family settled in El Paso when she started kindergarten. Though she spends most of her childhood in El Paso, she always felt like an outsider. As one of just a handful of Asian children, most of her friends are Latines. She reflects on what contributed to a sense of belonging by first sharing what made her feel excluded – like judgmental comments around what she brought in for lunch. Conversely, peers who approached her with open curiosity, contributed to a sense of connection.
She shares her experience with Teach for America in the Bronx where she finds herself being one of the few Asian folks with whom her largely black and brown preschoolers have interacted. While at first, she was inclined to minimize her own migration background, she comes to realize that a shared experience with most of her students was their moving stories—something almost all her students could share and relate with.
Alan was born and raised in the U.S. of Chinese born parents. The details about their decision are fuzzy, as his parents (like so many other immigrant parents) do not speak much with their children about why they migrated. He does know that they did not plan on migrating to the United States. Having a second child during the era of the One Child policy while on (what was intended to be) a two-year work sojourn, led to a change in plans, however.
Alan’s story is a classic story of assimilation. After multiple early moves, the family settled into a suburb of Chicago where there are many other Asian families.
He somewhat sheepishly confides that as a child, he was not much of an enthusiast of Chinese food—preferring a hot dog if given a choice. Nor did he enjoy or look forward to family visits to China. Most complex, is his fragile grasp of the Chinese language. While his mother is a Mandarin teacher and speaks to him in Chinese, he responds in English. As a result, when they “want to speak about deeper emotional things,” they find it difficult to do so as they “don’t share the same language.”
Alan has many Asian friends and as a result, he did not grapple much with his identity until college. He explains that prior to that, in the context that so many other peers share Asian immigrant parents, the topic of ethnicity simply did not come up as, “you don’t discuss what is everyone is experiencing.” He insightfully points out that discussing ethnic backgrounds comes through cultural contact between folks of different backgrounds. When he attended Vanderbilt, where there are few Chinese American but a large cohort of Chinese international students, he begins to grapple with the complexity of his identity. In that context, he realizes that he was not perceived as Chinese, by his Chinese international peers–suddenly he felt deeply American. He asks, “how Chinese can you authentically be if you haven’t spent that much time there?”
Alan realizes that as a member of a visible minority in the U.S., coming to terms with his identity is a complex pathway. He is drawn to teaching where there are “Zero Asian males.” In that role, he looks forward to the opportunity to be a role model to other students like him who grapple with finding their healthy ethnic racial identities.
Brayan describes himself as “a man of two homes.” Born and raised in El Salvador, Brayan’s parents migrated early in his childhood sending regular remittances which provide him the opportunity to attend a private Catholic school. He and his younger brother are raised by their grandparents and uncle and at age 10, Brayan joins his parents in Washington, D.C. where he spent the next twelve years studying.
Upon his arrival to D.C., his family immediately applied for asylum for Brayan. He poignantly describes the frustrations and impatience with backlogs and ever shifting policies under varying presidential administrations. A dozen years later, he is still waiting for his case to be resolved.
Brayan recounts his “big culture shock” as he first arrived to the U.S. In addition to the language shock, he is struck by the distinct experience of coming from “a place where everyone looks the same” to one of such diversity. He describes the Mt. Pleasant migrant community in DC as being helpful in easing his transition and as a space where folks were “looking out for each other.”
Brayan does not allow his liminal status or the “constant fight to prove that we are part of this country” to immobilize him. Though he cannot vote, he knows he and his peers “can contribute to the country and be engaged in the civic process… as mavericks and trail blazers.” During his undergraduate years, he takes a leadership role in beginning a campus organization to raise awareness about, and serve, migrant students. He enters the educational leadership and entrepreneurship program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education with the explicit intent to “open up the world to new ideas … so we can engage in dialogue…[to] make a better world.”
Migration was never part of Marcela’s life dream or agenda. Instead, after the sudden death of her mother– with no other family members available to care for her—joining an uncle she barely knew in California was the only viable choice. At age 13, she suddenly finds herself migrating – not only to a new land – but also to a new family system.
Marcela describes the before and after chapters of her life. In the initial chapter, she describes her homeland of Nicaragua—its familiar language and cultural practices and most poignantly her mother, friends and social supports—all which she profoundly values and misses. In the new chapter, she describes “going from 0 to 100” linguistically—she is rapidly immersed into an almost entirely English speaking world as her school have limited Spanish supports, and, though her uncle speaks Spanish, neither his wife nor children do so.
Marcela over-stays her visa and has little understanding of the long-term implications of that status. While she soon realizes that she is unable to travel back to Nicaragua, it takes several years to realize that her status had implications for her future opportunities. Crucial in her successful academic pathway to U.C. Berkeley are a handful of high school teachers including her home room mentors and an AP government teacher who provide her information about the California Dream Act and help with her college applications. She applies and is admitted to several colleges and universities and ultimately settles on U.C. Berkeley, in large part, because of the supports it provides to its undocumented students including academic advising, legal advising, counseling, a study space, among others.
Marcela speaks of the opaque college pathway access routes that undocumented college students must navigate. She names the burden of disclosure that falls on undocumented students’ shoulders as well as the lack of training and misinformation provided by many in roles of ostensible support for members of the undocumented community. Recognizing the critical roles that helpful educators and peer advisors played in her own success, she chooses to go on to graduate education in order to pursue student support and mental health services so that she can, with “cultural humility,” support unaccompanied and undocumented youth to be successful.
Estella’s moving stor(ies) are a testimony to, and a celebration of, multilingualism.
She shares with us, her complex and “unique” identity as the daughter of Japanese origin second- generation immigrants growing up in Brazil. They remind her that her “only inheritance is education” – a message reinforced by observing them peruse higher education at night after long days of physically arduous work.
While she grows up in a Japanese Brazilian community, as a child, she learns to speak only limited Japanese and identifies fully as Brazilian. At college age, she peruses a unique opportunity to study abroad in Japan in a program conducted in English. Embarking on this educational, linguistic, and cultural journey she begins a life-changing course. She describes how language became “an entry point into culture” and a “way to connect to people by understanding their viewpoint and language.” She speaks to her privilege of becoming multilingual through an alchemy of her exposures, “encouraging environments,” and natural curiosity.
As she continues her graduate education to deepen her understanding of the process of language acquisition, she comes to recognize that many emerging bilingual students face discrimination and exclusion from both their peers and their teachers. This sparks in her a “bright desire” for children to have a positive experience of learning a new language and culture as they make their way into a new land. She reminds us of how language is so deeply interconnected in the experience of immigrant children and, in her parting words, reminds learners of new languages to “be brave” and “not be ashamed” as they make inevitable errors that come with the process of learning. Indeed, Estella’s philosophy of “approaching life through a learning heart” is a lovely reminder to us all.
Born and raised in Chicago, Sheila is a super-achiever who exemplifies many themes of being the child of immigrants growing up in a vibrant diverse immigrant community.
She speaks to the importance of community resilience and being “surrounded by people like you” who are engaged in activities and “having fun together.” The Catholic Church, community pageants, and her involvement with orchestra all provide her with a sense of belonging and purpose even though sometimes she feels “too Mexican for Americans and too American for Mexicans.”
Her parents cross with coyotes as youths and though active participants in their community for a quarter century are never able to regularize their status. Their motivation to cross the border was to break their families “cycle of poverty” and to provide their children the opportunity for good educations—a dream fulfilled through Sheila’s educational trajectory through John Hopkins as an undergraduate and the Harvard Graduate School of Education for a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership. Consistent with finding revealed in the new ground-breaking book Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success by economists Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan (based on longitudinal linked big data examining the pathways of immigrants over the last century and a half) while the first generation may struggle, the second generation reaps the benefits.
Sheila speaks to her gratitude for her parents sacrifices and the ways in which they point her to jobs that are not like theirs entailing hard physical labor. At a young age, she thinks deeply about how to advance her life and lands early on a passion for the violin. Through a mixture of a bit of luck in connecting with a community-based music organization and great persistence and drive on her part, the “violin changes [her] life.” Though her parents are not able to guide her through the college access pathway, their dreams and faith in her provide wind in her sails. She has the good fortune to find mentors and educators who also support her along the way, and she is admitted to and graduates from the prestigious John Hopkins Peabody Conservatory.
Though she does not find herself represented amongst her peers and sometimes feels a bit of an aesthetic dissonance in the choices of the music world in which she finds herself, she also finds her calling—to bridge the worlds of music and higher education to become more culturally responsive in such a way as to become a transformative opportunity for Black and Brown students like herself.
As I listened to Sheila’s interview, I was particularly reminded of the important work of Marjorie Faulstich Orellana and her colleagues on immigrant children’s language and cultural brokering. That work has shown the important skill and mind sets that children of immigrants learn as they translate for their parents. At a young age, “as the first to learn” English, Sheila (like many immigrant origin children) takes on the role of translating for their family in important, often high stakes, situations like at the consulate, bank, and for legal processes. Charged with these responsibilities, she developed extraordinary skills, self-discipline, and a sense of responsibility that have served both her and her family well. She carries this into her sense of life purpose and drive to provide transformative opportunities to others. Her passion and dedication are nothing short of inspiring.
Daishi was born in Japan of a Filipino mother and a Japanese father. As a child of mixed origins, he finds himself bullied in school in the monocultural context of Japan.
His mother’s father who had become a citizen in the US, volunteered to sponsor the families’ migration. When Daishi is six, the family come on tourist visas, expecting the process to take a few months. Lamentably, they learned that the US immigration system has become far more Byzantine then when the grandfather had entered. The country quota system in place
disadvantages immigrants in queue from larger countries with long histories of migration streams like from the Philippines. After more than a decade, the families’ application is still not resolved.
Having over-stayed their visas, they become undocumented. Daishi shares some of the many burdens and sacrifices his parents go through because of their status, and the heartbreaking decision they make to self deport once their son has achieved some protection through DACA and has established himself at Harvard. He shares the heartbreak of not being able to see them or share in milestone events like graduations or holidays for over seven years as neither he nor his parents are able to travel abroad.
Daishi and Bruno share their experiences as undocumented students at Harvard, including the dread and vulnerabilities they feel when the 45th president is elected having explicitly run on a commitment to anti-immigration policies. They also describe how this mobilized them on their course of civic engagement and change agency.
Many lessons can be taken from this important conversation including some insights into the current Faustian policy dilemmas. But the importance of belonging, community, and acceptance is certainly a take home that stands out for me. When Daishi first arrives as a first grader in Los Angeles, he finds himself in a place where everyone in his schools are different and yet are (in his words) “holding hands under the same flag.” The relief in finding a place of potential inclusion is immense. He describes the comfort finding community that “implicitly, or explicitly, know what it means to be an immigrant and are unified and supporting one another. For Daishi, at Harvard, after the election, the activism and community building work with Act on a Dream is about establishing a community of support. As he says, what we wanted was “to know that tangibly and symbolically the campus cared about us when the country did not.”
Arguably, belongingness to community and country is a fundamental human need and right denied to countless deserving folks represented in these Moving Stories.
Though Stephanie was born in Mexico, she left when she was 2, and has no memories of there, as she has never been able to return—as such (in her words) she has nothing to miss from her birthland. On the other hand, she grew up in a community in Southern California with many others from similar backgrounds who supported one another in a variety of ways—indeed she explicitly says that her strength comes from that community. They exchange emotional, tangible, and informational supports that are invaluable and life sustaining.
It is (as she says) “an open secret” that many others in the community are Undocu (the affectionate term she uses to describe member of the undocumented community). While some young people do not come to realize their status until mid-adolescents at milestone moments like when they wish to apply for a driver’s license or college, Stephanie recognizes early in her childhood of her family’s and her own precarious status. She vividly recalls a moment in her early elementary years walking with her mother as she pushed a stroller and realizing as an ICE vehicle passed that they could be deported at any moment.
In her adolescence and in college she becomes actively involved in activism to promote change though she confides, “Activism is exhausting.” Juggling, navigating her own status, helping her family, being a good student, working, being in survival mode, and healing traumas, have stretched her thin—During the interview, she laments, “I am too tired to be the change I want to see in the world. And I am only 23.”
Stephanie also shares insights into how intersecting identities play a role in complexifying her developmental journey. As she says, she is Brown, Undocu, and queer. She finds the UC Berkeley community a particularly welcoming place to first openly disclose and then explore those intersecting complexities.
Despite the challenges of her journey, Stephanie is experienced by her peers as a warm, humorous, engaged, and a beloved friend. Her interview sheds light again, on how her Undocu status complexifies access to resources and imposes precarity and uncertainty on what should be promising life pathway.
Michelle immigrated to Miami — somewhat reluctantly — from Mexico City as an adolescent. Like so many other young people, migrating was NOT her agenda but her parents.’ She was a good student with lots of friends attending an international school. All of a sudden, she finds herself migrating not just to a new country but also to a new family living situation as she leaves behind her parents and moves in with her much older brother and his wife.
Michelle’s migratory journey points to significance of the context of reception as the city to which she arrives blunts some of the typical harsh cultural shocks. She has the advantage of having well-honed English skills prior to migrating as well as migrating to bilingual/bicultural Miami so extreme acculturative shock is attenuated. On the other hand, she is rapidly thrust into new roles of managing daily living tasks and working while adjusting to a new schooling system without the benefits of parental support.
In Michelle’s voyage, we again see the role of a strong sense of social responsibility. Michelle, prior to migrating, already was something of an empathic helper. After immigrating she harnesses her bilingual and bicultural skills to support other young people in transition who need a role model, understands them, and can serve as a guide.