Price of the American dream: Do immigrants have to forget their past?

Wu Guo, a US academic and first-generation immigrant finds that second- and third-generation immigrants, whether Asian Americans or otherwise, are more keen to trace their roots the more their parents and grandparents try to shield them from certain memories. Maybe more oral history projects and open discussion of the past will build stronger American identities?
People walk on the historic Doyers Street in Chinatown that has been painted over by Chilean-born street artist Dasic Fernandez, 24 June 2021 in New York City, US. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)
People walk on the historic Doyers Street in Chinatown that has been painted over by Chilean-born street artist Dasic Fernandez, 24 June 2021 in New York City, US. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

An American friend recently forwarded me an article by a second-generation Chinese American. The writer said that when she was growing up, her parents never told her about their lives in China before they emigrated to the US. She has no idea what her parents went through.   

My American friend is a third-generation immigrant herself. Her ancestors are from an Eastern European country. She also shared that her parents never talked about her grandparents’ generation as they firmly believed that they were “Americans”. She lamented that forgetting the past is perhaps the price to pay for the “American Dream”.   

Interestingly, both my American friend and the second-generation author of the article started tracing their family histories as they grew older. My friend told me her parents and grandparents’ reluctance to tell their stories may have been the reason for the dogged pursuit of her roots.

Trying to accept rather than suppress the past

Prior to this, I had never given much thought to the deliberate avoidance of talking about the past. But this reminded me of my experience as a teaching assistant when I was studying for my PhD over a decade ago. Back then, my world history professor gave undergraduate students an assignment to write about their family history. He asked them to interview their grandparents and record their stories because he thought that for a majority of students who were not going to end up as history professors, this would be the closest thing to understanding the relevance of history. This American professor clearly knew that in an immigrant country like the US, asking students to do this would no doubt unearth a chequered immigrant history.

People walk down Fifth Avenue on 25 June 2021 in New York City, US. (Angela Weiss/AFP)
People walk down Fifth Avenue on 25 June 2021 in New York City, US. (Angela Weiss/AFP)

When those assignments were turned in, I read about the hardships of early European immigrants, the effects of the Great Depression, and the fear that ordinary Americans had towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War. I read many vivid life stories that could not be found in books. Without this assignment, these students would be ordinary American university students living in the present. But this assignment made students who might have been oblivious to history or viewed it simply as big events listed in history books feel deeply about history, find it relevant, and understand that they too, are a part of history. This was indeed a good learning process for them.

Nevertheless, I also fully understand the reluctance to talk about the past. Whatever the reason, immigration is a process of uprooting your adult self. This naturally comes with massive psychological and cultural adjustments, coupled with happy or unhappy memories of the past. The problem is, how do we deal with these memories? 

Knowing the past to feel alive in the present

The two previous examples of not talking about past memories is a reasonable approach because it helps to reduce the mental burdens that immigrants carry. It is impossible for them to completely erase these memories, and they probably reminisce about them in private. But they believe that not passing down their past to the next generation can lighten the latter’s burdens and help them live in the present. 

Yet through the assignment by my world history professor, students were encouraged to dig up their family history through conducting interviews so that they could feel connected to history and have a sense of history that is beyond a one-dimensional existence. Additionally, even in the two examples where their elders refused to talk about the past, their descendants ultimately embarked on a journey to find their roots. Thus, I still feel that it is better to face the past directly rather than avoid talking about it.

Cultural heritage must be faced head-on and we need not, and also cannot, use our memories to pay the price for emigrating to another land.

People ride their bikes along the waterfront at Liberty State Park on 24 June 2021 in Jersey City, New Jersey, US. (Angela Weiss/AFP)
People ride their bikes along the waterfront at Liberty State Park on 24 June 2021 in Jersey City, New Jersey, US. (Angela Weiss/AFP)

I grew up in a family that likes to remember the past and I often listened to my parents talking about their memories. Many years later, I also conducted oral history interviews and even organised a group discussion session for the elderly back in my China hometown. I never felt the need to avoid talking about the past in front of my children.  

Although my children are second-generation immigrants born and raised in the US, the fact is that trying to integrate into US society by not talking about or intentionally forgetting the past is going to be futile. This is because race, skin colour, and family background are objective realities. Cultural heritage must be faced head-on and we need not, and also cannot, use our memories to pay the price for emigrating to another land.

Fostering empathy and a better grasp of one’s own identity

I think that when Chinese American parents teach their children Chinese, it does not need to be limited to the language and its words. When interacting with their children, they can also talk about what historical events they know about or have experienced in their own past. Documentaries or even cartoons about history could also be used as supplementary materials. The story of any family is bound to be filled with happiness and sadness, as well as successes and failures.    

If the next generation learns from a young age that aside from their own American identity and the future progress of modern America, there is also the past of their parents and both of their families, as well as the struggles and memories of several generations to draw on, it would help them gain a clear understanding of their Asian American identity.  

In addition to fostering empathy, understanding the convergence of one’s individual history and history writ large helps one make an objective judgement of history, and in turn, a new generation of Chinese Americans who have a richer spiritual world and better social and political awareness can be nurtured.

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