By Nsiona Nguizani
Immigrant parents pay a huge price to give their children a better future. I know this because my children are first-generation Americans – my wife and I are both immigrants. We came to the U.S. almost eight years ago, from Angola. Like millions of people around the world who juggle different classifications, our children are multicultural. I consider my children Americans, and Africans, and Angolans – and every day they are exposed to all three of these cultures.
As they mature, my children are noticing what is unique to my family and culture, and what is common to everyone else around them. They are able to distinguish what is Angolan from what is African, what is French, and what is American. One of the distinguishing features of their personal stories and experiences is that they were born, and are being raised, in a country different from their parents’ country of origin. This can cause them to be misunderstood when they are viewed through a narrow lens.
So, when they come home from school, they have lots of stories to recount. For example, “Are you even black?” a Black American student asked a Black African immigrant student. Indeed, the African thought he was Black; he thought his skin complexion settled that. But the significance of “Blackness” is a cultural confusion that first-generation immigrants share. Back home, everyone was Black, so we never thought about it, although in the U.S., at this point, being Black is a minority characterization. We constantly remind our kids that they are “Africans.”
Once they asked if it was true that “refugees are all people from Africa who come to the U.S. to escape death, starvation, and diseases.” We laughed, not because it is a funny topic, but because that is a generalization. As our children grow to become teenagers, and later to men, we know their questions will become more complex.
Misconceptions and complex cultural issues deeply affect bicultural children. We force them to choose the most popular culture. So, they are tempted to adapt their uniqueness to fit in with the dominant culture – to be included. They want to fit in, so they stop speaking their mother language, girls borrow hairstyles of the dominant culture, they use lightening cream, they stop eating fufu, they cancel out one of their cultures – and get lost.
First-generation immigrants are torn between two cultures. They feel the responsibility to pay homage to their roots, but at the same time they claim the culture that they’re born and raised into. Forcing them to feel like they must choose one eventually leads to a loss of cultural fluency. While trying to conform and assimilate to the dominant culture, they lose the culture of their heritage.
This is part of immigrants’ constant quest for balance. We try to live our lives in a way that values our kinship with the host country where we are living and raising our children, with our countries of origin, and with this label :”immigrant.” We live as hyphens between our pasts and our legacy – our children – and proudly display who we are and where we come from. We’re pushing our truest selves forward, but we’re also giving the people around us the exposure they need to become culturally fluent.
By being culturally fluent we all gain strength and perspective as we learn from other cultures, and we create pathways that lead to meaningful conversations in a country where people of color constitute 38% of the population. It’s important that we acknowledge diversity by taking what we can from each culture to grow as a community. We must model behavior that reflects acceptance, respect, and love of other ethnic backgrounds to pass on to the next generation.
So, engage us in conversation; discover who immigrants actually are; see us apart from one-dimensional characterizations, or limited media narratives, or even who we might appear to be. As Michael Rain, the well-known digital storyteller, said, “We are walking melting pots of culture, and if something in that pot smells new or different to you, do not turn up your nose, ask us to share.”
Nsiona Nguizani is the president of the Angolan Community of Maine. He arrived in the U.S. in 2012, and is now a permanent resident. In Angola, he built a successful career as a project manager for organizations such as UNICEF, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the European Union. Before moving to the U.S. he was the national representative of Comité d’Aide Medicale and traveled between offices in Paris and Luanda. When he arrived in the U.S., he was obliged to start all over again, and earned degrees in Accounting and Economics. He is currently employed as cultural broker for the City of Brunswick.