Thursday, December 8, 2011

Top 10 Things That Happen to First-Generation Americans

I was the first person in my family born in this country. My parents, and every other member of my family who preceded me, were born in Lebanon, which is a perfectly lovely place when it's not embroiled in civil war and shredding itself into hummus-flavored ribbons.

This makes me, like millions of others, perhaps some of you reading this blog, a first-generation American. And there are some things that go along with being the first. Some might call them sacred rituals. Others, rites of passage. So let's get right to them, shall we?

1. There's Been a Discussion About Medical School

For immigrant parents, there's something talismanic about a medical degree. In other countries, physicians are accorded the same level of respect that E! heaps upon the Kardashians. You know that means crazy respect. At least we can rest easy that the U.S. educational system will brutally weed out those (like me) who are too scientifically inept to diagnose a hangnail, much less practice medicine. The good news is that if you are not "scientifically inclined," you can do what I did -- go to law school and get a Juris Doctor degree! No one will know the difference. And if you practice insurance defense law, one day you'll second-guess the decisions of a doctor in open court!

2. There's Been An Ethnic Thing Happening in Your Lunchbox

At a time in your life when you want nothing more than to disappear into the herd, you will invariably open your lunchbox and discover a spinach-and-goat-cheese-and-seasoned-ground-beef pie. This may sound delicious to you trendy suburbanites and urban hipsters who like re-gentrifying old neighborhoods, but to a six-year-old, it's like being lathered in A-1 sauce and dropped into the tiger pit at the San Diego Zoo. You don't want to be the winning answer to the borderline-racist trivia game of "One of These Things is Not Like the Other."

3. There's a Problem with That Girl/Boyfriend Whose Ancestors Arrived on the Mayflower

YOUR BRAIN: I like making out with my new girlfriend. I can't believe she's attracted to me. This is awesome. Maybe I will see her naked.

YOUR PARENTS' BRAINS: Sdifhudfuasdfussdf!!!! He's going to marry her and run off and I'll never see my half-blood grandbabies and why did you bring me here to America!?!?!?!?!? Have they ever even TRIED tabouli?

Yes, your parents will initially hope that you marry one of your own kind. Eventually, they will realize that you're a gigantic bag of crazy and if you can find someone to love you just the way you are, then hell with it, they love all the colors in God's Crayola box of 64.

4. You May Have, But Just Once or Twice, Pretended to Remember the Names of Cousins You've Forgotten Even Existed

I've got 27 first cousins. We've got at least 50 children among us. But yes, I totally remember the one time that the five-year-old accidentally drank a shot of Ouzo! Actually, I do remember that. He's 28 now, so is it OK for me to say that was funny as shit?

But I confess, sometimes, I can't remember all their names, and there are many, I'm sad to say, that I've never met. And I'm sure many of them cannot remember me beyond "that one that lives in America. Their national soccer team stinks."

Oh, yeah, little cousin? Our soccer team may be average, but we've got Donald Trump. FACE!

5. In Space, No One Can Hear Your Parents' Heavily Accented Scream

You don't hear your parents' accents until you do. And then you REALLY hear it. That your parents' English is so precise and correct that it's the grammatical equivalent of a cruise missile is irrelevant; all you hear is "WE ARE DIFFERENT. COME TOILET PAPER OUR HOUSE. DON'T INVITE ME TO THE COOL PARTIES."

6. Really, Would It Kill You to Learn a Little ArabPortItalianese on a Sunday Morning?

Yes. It would. I don't care that knowing a second language will give me a leg up academically. What I do know is that this little lesson is cutting into my BUCK ROGERS and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA watchin' time, and it's 1983 and we still don't have a VCR. (I'm going to assume my readership is old enough to know what a VCR is). You weren't even letting me be the best dork I could be!

7. Shared Nationality Goes a Long Way To Covering Up the Fact That Guy is a Douchebag

At some point, you will realize that someone you've known since birth is a total jackass, quite possibly a thief. You will keep this largely to yourself while you hear your beloved relative talk about said jackass in this fashion: "It's not a LOAN. It's venture capital! We went to school together in the same village, so that means he's totally good!"

Ummm, no. If there's one thing that knows no race, ethnicity or creed, it's Douchebaggery.

8. There's a Huge Disconnect Between Your Parents' High School Memories and Yours

It's probably safe to say your parents didn't attend an all-night kegger at the home of a classmate, said party being sponsored by his attractive, newly divorced mother. This lack of perspective makes for a rough landing when you're 14 years old and discover that your classmates are plowing through illicitly obtained Coors Extra Gold on the weekends and smoking cigarettes.

I even remember where I was when I learned this. It was like discovering Santa didn't exist. You mean other teenagers don't sit at home on Saturday nights watching Mr. Belvedere with their parents?

9. That Awkward Moment When You Realize These Grape Leaves are Fucking Delicious

At some point in your young adult life, you will attend a [Insert Your Country of Origin Here]-ese food festival, and you will spend sixty dollars on a meal that, when presented with it four thousand times as a child for free, you turned on it like a body rejecting a transplanted kidney.

And then you tell your parents that you make your own hummus now, but you go easy on the tahini because it makes it a little overly pasty, and their eyes light up like the Emperor's in Return of the Jedi when he says, "You, like your father, are now .... MINE."

10. At a Family Gathering, You Realize This is Pretty Close to the Opening Scene of The Godfather

A lot of kissing on the cheeks, judgmental whispers about THIS COUSIN or THAT AUNT, and a lot of delicious, delicious food that your Caucasian counterparts get from the gourmet market at 14 bucks a pound.

Just like a family gathering should be.


  1. Great combination of lol humor and seriousness here, David. Wow!! This year I'm teaching HS ELL (that's the new ESL) and my students were either born in another country or are first generation Americans.

  2. I'm a middle school teacher in Berkeley, Ca. I have made the "two languages will help you blah, blah..". SO many of our students are first generation, I really enjoyed the humorous perspective.

  3. Paul and Debbie -- thanks for chiming in. It's always good to hear a teacher's perspective on these things. glad you liked the piece.

  4. I love when my step-daughter (who's 1st gen like me/us), says to her mom, who was from Palestine, "oh mom, stop rolling your R's, I mean, you've been in this country for what, like 21 years!"....

  5. @Centaur -- aah, the rolling "R". the immigrant gangster sign.

  6. Hilarious. The same goes for first generation kids in the UK.
    I especially enjoyed: "5. In Space, No One Can Hear Your Parents' Heavily Accented Scream" My mum has an MBA and still says "weil" instead of veil.
    Also "plumb-ber" is a classic.

  7. Weil -- love that one!

    thanks for the comment. Strangely, this post has started to become one of my more popular posts, more than a year after I wrote it.

  8. Lunchbox nightmare? Nobody in grade school wanted to trade sandwiches with me! I would have killed for that pb and j on wonder bread. Instead I had to s settle for the jellied veal on rykrisp my mother packed for me.

  9. The first generation struggle is too real lol! Thanks for this well written article.