Letter to the First Generation Immigrant

You are the secret engine.

Hello my friend,

You did it! You made it to the dream land! I take my hat off to you. The journey you have been on is not easy; it’s not for everyone. It takes a tremendous grit and resilience to start over in a foreign country, where everything is new – the language, traditions, food… everything!  But you are special my friend. You are resourceful. You are a dreamer. YOU ARE THE SECRET ENGINE OF THIS COUNTRY. Be proud of who you are and where you are coming from. Be proud of your new home.

I have been there. I came to the US as a hopeful 20-year old scared and excited. There were some beautiful moments in my journey, and some not so much. But, this land is my land. It is my home and I am so honored to be here.   

EVERYBODY came from somewhere!  Whether you are the first or 19th generation immigrant you are the foundation of this great country. You are an entrepreneur, a student, and a rebel! You built the bridges, the highways and the skyscrapers. You are the creative and powerful force behind the success of this nation. Be proud of who you are.

Enter the rat race.

I have lived in several large US cities, heavily populated by the immigrants. Most of us fall into a similar situation: get to the US, find group of expats from your country, stick to them like a glue and get advice on about anything – job, car, house and education. Unfortunately, and this has happened to me, some of “your people” might not only give a bad advice, but could also take advantage of you.

Before you know it, you are buying a car, a house, you get student loans and open several credit cards. Pursuing high FICO score becomes the pinnacle of your success in the US. You want the expats in your community to use your family as an example: “Did you hear, so and so got a brand new Mercedes, built 6000 sq ft house and has two kids in medical school?!” You want the news of your “success” to travel far beyond this land: “They made it big in the US! Bravo!” This is the moment when you need to step back, regroup and rethink your purpose and your life goals. If you fail to do this, the journey you took to get here will be wasted as you slave away your freedom.

Land of opportunity.

List of actionable tips for the first generation immigrant.

  1. The Big Why.

You need to decide why are you here? What is YOUR American Dream? Pursuing education? Fleeing religious persecution? Starting anew? Getting out of poverty and providing a safe life for your family? Giving an opportunity for your children to have a better life? This “WHY” has to be so HUGE that nothing in this world will veer you off your purpose.

 

  1. Learn English.

THIS IS NOT EASY, especially if you are an older adult. Remember, bad English is better than no English. What I see often are immigrants clinging to their communities, and watching TV in their own language. In fact, you can survive in the US without speaking a single word of English!

 

But this is not a good idea for several reasons. First, your job outlook is not very bright; you might end up working in terrible conditions for a very low salary, and some might even encounter abuse. I know, because this happened to me. Second, without English, you might miss an opportunity to receive an education or learn a skill that will elevate you to a different level. Third, speaking the language could help you become a vital part of this community.

 

There are many ESL (English as a Second Language) resources – local library, churches, senior centers (for older immigrants) and community colleges. Today, even youtube is a fantastic source to learn a conversational English. I still watch American movies with subtitles; what a great way to learn some new words. There is absolute nothing wrong with saying: “I don’t understand, would you please write this down/repeat?” Don’t let your ego miss an opportunity to learn.

 

  1. Frugality is still your best friend.

Regardless of which country you are coming from, the sheer amount of consumption in the US will shock you. You will slowly adapt to the habits of your new country. Don’t fall into this trap. Being frugal (not cheap!) is one of the habits you should retain. My grandparents went through famine and devastating war years ago; they would have disowned me if they found out that I threw away food. Being wasteful, whether with food or money is not cool.

Instead, adapt great habits this country has to offer, like being generous with time and money (tipping for example), taking it easy once in a while, smiling and talking to strangers. Borrowing money to buy food or stuff to impress others is a terrible practice to acquire. BE CAREFUL!

 

  1. Stop showing off!

The need to impress others is a colossal problem in so many immigrant communities. Families are willing to sacrifice their health, time and sanity to buy unattainable items like cars and homes. I live in a fast growing community with million dollar houses popping up everywhere. Who buys these outrageously lavish and expensive homes?! The immigrants.

 

I had a chance to visit some of these residences. Imagine my shock when I found these homes empty. The residents literally ran out of money “to fill” their places with stuff. But to the outsiders they are doing quite well. I heard of a family that won’t ever use an expensive bedroom set they splurged on; instead, the entire family sleeps on the floor. The bedroom is used as an exhibit to showcase their wealth to the guests. Enough of this insanity! Stop impressing people that don’t even like you.

 

  1. Keep moving up.

Your first job is rarely glamorous when you first come to the US. My father-in-law, a former General of the Army, worked at the Central market marinating olives. Everyone lovingly called him: “The Olive man.” I have met neurosurgeons that delivered mail and professors that washed dishes in restaurants. This is a price to pay for the opportunity to pursue your American dream.

Everybody starts at the bottom, but don’t get stuck there. Learn your job fast and keep moving up. I know many immigrants that have been working at the same grocery store for decades! Get out of your comfort zone; you are worth a good job, keep looking.

Consider getting an education. But be very smart about it! Interested in a medical field? Being a doctor is not the only way to get into a lucrative healthcare field. Please check out Nursing or Physician Assistant degrees – these are fantastic fields for those who love science and have compassion for people. Medical stuff grosses you out? Then look into apprenticeship programs; there is currently a huge demand for plumbers and electricians. Also, don’t forget to check out jobs like truck and Uber drivers. The opportunities here are endless.

  1. Stop being a tiger parent.

Ok, I’ll be honest I am very guilty of this. There is a reason why my 8-year old speaks four languages, plays piano, attends martial arts classes and already knows he will become an engineer when he grows up. Once I googled an image of MIT campus and told my son that this is the school he will be attending.

 

Thankfully, I realized early enough that I am robbing my son of an opportunity to be his authentic self, to discover what makes him happy, to make mistakes and to learn from them. My parents sent me to the US with barely any money and no place to stay. Though it wasn’t easy, I did figure out so much on my own and I am grateful to my family for trusting in my abilities.

 

As any parent you only want the best for your child. But remember, your child may not have the same ambitions as you do. Gently guide them, be there when they need advice and support, encourage and challenge them, but let them figure some things on their own even if they make a few mistakes. This is not easy. I am still struggling to find the balance between an encouraging and overbearing parent. Your children are not extensions of you, but rather their own individual selves. Having a different opinion from you does not mean that your children are betraying their culture, religion and family. Give your love and support no matter what. I promise you, they will do amazingly well!

 

  1. Give back to community.

Some of the best ways to learn American culture is by volunteering. Contribute your time and talents at the senior center, local church/mosque/synagogue/temple, library, and school. Make food that is traditional in your culture and share it with your neighbors, coworkers or classmates. Find out about international events at your community. People would love to hear about your country, learn a few words, and try your food. We have so much in common as human beings despite our backgrounds. Be open to American tradition and be generous to share a piece of yours.

 

I urge you to get to know this country. Learn the language, visit as many states as you can. You will be shocked at the diversity you will find here. This is truly a wonderful place to be; a land of opportunity where dreams do come true through grit and resilience. Welcome to your new home, my friend. Keep dreaming and keep working hard.

If you are an immigrant, please share your story! What challenges have you encountered? What advice would you give to someone who recently immigrated to the US?

Everyone has a story to tell. What is yours?

Much love, 

MF

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