My Immigrant Background Taught Me — and My Kids — to Embrace Difference
Brit + Co staffers’ stories on immigrant heritage and the lessons of an American dream.
Until I moved to California in my 20s, I didn’t really consider, much less embrace, my second-gen immigrant-ness. My mom had come to the US so very long ago. She came at a time when being an immigrant was common, but assimilating was 100 percent the goal. She never taught me Japanese, because she never wanted me to have an accent. She wanted me to do better and have more, and she thought being a ‘believable’ American was the only way to win.
But growing up as the only Asian in my Southern, rural small town, everyone *definitely* knew that I was the kid of a very foreign-looking and -sounding immigrant, and there was likely zero chance I’d be a believable American to them. But that wasn’t gonna stop me from trying! There were white and Black people and communities in our town, and — since I wasn’t Black — I figured I must be white. And I tried SO hard to be that white girl I thought I was. I applied all of the hardcore Japanese work ethic and competitiveness that my Tiger-Mom mother instilled in me into trying to will that whiteness into reality.
Just before high school, I finally wised up and stopped trying to be white, and just started becoming a weirdo, a decision that actually served me well. Being my own person got me out of that town and off to college in Boston. Being a poor, immigrant outcast put that fight in me to kick ass and keep pushing. And being driven by that immigrant mom made me work hard until I was good at what I wanted to do. But it wasn’t until that move to San Francisco that I truly stopped trying to deny my heritage.
Growing up isolated with my mom and no other family, I had never shared a common culture and cultural experience. Here, there were people legitimately PROUD of who their families were and where they were from, and that was very liberating. I finally had people who I could connect with on this entirely new cultural level. It took time, but I slowly embraced it. I was eventually motivated to go with my mom to Japan to meet my family, and this year I took my kids back to Japan to meet *our* family. It was one of the most fulfilling and moving experiences of my life. I’m so happy my kids don’t start out with my baggage; they can start off life being proud to be from immigrants, and to never stop feeling that pride.
After decades of literally wishing my difference away, I’ve finally lovingly accepted it. My difference now gives me a community that I never have to earn. My difference gives me dimension and stories and traditions that I can pass on to my children. And now that I’m finally here after my long journey of acceptance, I’ve never been more fiercely protective of that difference and of all the other beautifully, wonderfully different immigrants who have come here to make America *truly* great.
Annette Cardwell is the VP of Editorial at Brit + C0.
(Banner illustration by Yising Chou. Photos provided by author.)