A Word from the Motherland

By Hannah Thomas
Published: March 2010

Newton has a large immigrant population that is vibrantly reflected at South. Many students spent much of their lives in their mother countries, imigrating to the United States during their teen years or childhood. How exactly do first generation immigrants integrate and thrive in an American public high school?

Junior Amanjeet Kaur and her family came to America from Singapore when she was 14. Because the South community is full of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, she doesn’t usually feel different from her peers.

Occasionally, however, she feels as though people don’t understand her opinions, simply because they have never realized that there may be alternative stances on certain topics. In that case, she ignores them and accepts the reality that she cannot necessarily convince other people to agree with her viewpoints.

Kaur also feels segregated when she travels domestically. “I feel like they think that all immigrants are bad, she said. Her family hasn’t returned to Singapore since their arrival two years ago.

Adjusting to American culture has not been difficult for her family and her. At home, however, they maintain their Singaporean values and culture. “I don’t eat American food at home, Kaur said. “My mom cooks only Singaporean food.

Education is heavily stressed in Singaporean culture, and dating for 16-year-olds is prohibited. “My parents wouldn’t agree [with me dating at sixteen]. They would prefer [for] me to be older, and basically, I agree with them, she said.

Junior Nimra Cheema and her parents also imigrated to the United States from Pakistan, and they have lived here for six years. A first generation immigrant, she feels isolated by her peers because she practices Islam. Religion is even more important than Pakistani culture. At one point, Cheema wore a hijab* in public, and her friends stopped speaking to her. “I wondered how a piece of cloth could change them so much, she said. She stopped wearing her hijab.

According to Pakistani tradition, parents arrange the marriages of their children. Cheema, however, knows that the religion of Islam allows her the right to choose whom she marries.

Cheema’s parents hold their cultural values close, forcing her to find compromise. “When I have disagreements with my parents, she said, “I try to make them see it my way. Initially, her extended family was angry with her for defending such d i f ferent and untraditional values. “It’s important to stand up for yourself. I would hate hanging out with my other family members if they [didn't] respect me for who I am, Cheema said.

“I am an American, she said, “but a Pakistani at heart. Cheema described the challenges she faces every day as “two different worlds: one outside of home, and then one quite different at home. An immigrant cannot assimilate as easily as a natural-born American may assume. “My life at home is all Pakistani, she said.

Junior Amy Cheung was born in the United States, but her parents moved back to China when she was young. Seven years later, they returned. Cheung couldn’t speak any English when she first entered an American school. “I was completely petrified, she said. “In China, the school system is very different¦especially [in] how you address your friends, teachers and family.

Cheung’s parents are Buddhist, so they celebrate holidays such as the Chinese New Year and the Moon Festival. “For birthdays we wear red and have elaborate dinners out, she said.

Cheung’s room is also heavily influenced by Chinese culture. “My desk is where it should be kept to do the best studying, she said. “I have paint brushes on my wall to boost my creativity and Chinese characters on my door to bring me luck.

Her parents have high expectations when it comes to grades; they expect her to expend her full effort on schoolwork.

Regarding teen romance, her mother prefers that she start dating only after she turns 21. “They want me to focus on my studies rather than romance, she said. For marriage, her parents hope that she finds a husband who is both Chinese and financially well-off.

Similarly, junior Olga Rapoport didn’t speak English when she and her parents came here from Russia when she was seven years old. The language barrier initially thwarted the friend-making process, but the situation improved when she learned English through the English Language Learners (ELL) program.

Although they were raised in a completely different system, Rapoport’s parents also adjusted well to life in America. Sometimes, though, cultural misinterpretations hinder communication between parents and children. “When they don’t understand something, I just explain it to them very slowly, and several times, until they get it, she said.

Russian culture still has a place in the Rapoport household; Rapoport’s grandmother cooks Russian food regularly. With all foreign cultures, stereotypes arise relating to her Russian heritage. “Russians are good at math, dance, ice skating, hockey, and, of course, drinking, she said.

By and large, first generation immigrants have had good experiences at South. Some deal with pressure from their parents, some struggle with religious identity, some strive to strike a balance between two very divergent lifestyles, but all are welcome for who they are.

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