A foot in both worlds: East students reflect on their multicultural lives

by Trinity Tran

10 May 2018


Hyphen 1

Hassan Rquibi, Leila Rquibi, and Dominique Rquibi gather in celebration of her annual dance recital. “My mom often works as an intermediate between me and my dad. I have the normal generational gap with my mom that any teenager has, but this gap is exacerbated with my dad because there is also a cultural gap,” Leila said. Photo courtesy of Mary Nigro.


On almost any important form, you’re asked to fill in the bubble that describes your racial or ethnic identity. For most people, this is a simple task. They simple bubble in “White,” or “Hispanic” or whatever other option that is as second-hand nature as writing their name. For some students, it’s not as simple.

Students growing up as first generation students often struggle with their cultural identity as they have to figure out how to balance their heritage along with the “American.” The seemingly black and white task of scribbling in the bubble that best describes themselves becomes an endless mess of gray as they attempt to discover who they truly are.


Picking a side of the hyphen

For sophomore Anh Troung, the “Asian-American” bubble has slowly started to split into two: “Asian” and “American.” She finds that on some days, the hyphen tilts slightly more towards “Asian” and other days, it tilts more towards “American.”

Both of her parents are from Vietnam, although a long time ago, their ancestors originated from China but her family mostly identifies as Vietnamese.

When she was younger, she found herself having to compromise certain parts of herself to fit in but eventually learned how to acknowledge all parts of herself.

“As I started maturing, I started embracing my culture and I didn’t really care if I fit into the American standards because I had surrounded myself with individuals who appreciated my culture and people who understood the difficulty of being first generation,” Anh explained.

Anh was around eight when she first remembered encountering blatant racism in America. She was in school, standing around waiting for the rest of her classmates. These kids who she’d never seen before started to say certain phrases in Spanish and laughing.

Initially, she didn’t understand them so she just ignored it, but as the school year went on, the taunts became so frequent that she was able to memorize what they were saying in Spanish.

Then one day, she repeated back the phrases to my neighbor who spoke Spanish and it turned out that they were calling her “dog eater” and “chink” and that she should go back to China.

After learning what it meant, it became too late to confront them as the kids went on to middle school. What was most disappointing to her was the fact that there was staff at the school who spoke Spanish, just a few feet away from where the students were taunting her, who failed to help or even discipline the bullies.

Not only has she faced discrimination in America but Anh also said that in her homeland of Vietnam, cultural and gender differences can still play a vital role in one’s life, even in areas where one would imagine there is cultural homogeneity or equality.

“For gender roles I believe in gender equality and being able to do the same things that guys can. However in Vietnam, girls are taught to be quiet and weak, and to take care of the house and all of that,” Anh said. “In regards to beauty, there’s been a lot of focus on my skin color. Vietnam favors pale skin and my skin color does not fit their standards.”

Anh understood that although these Vietnamese standards aren’t forced upon her by her family, she can still sense the difference whenever she visits Vietnam and interacts with those who live there.


The heavy focus on academic achievements

A common expectation that comes with being an immigrant child is the expectation that they will take advantage of the endless opportunities that their parents lacked, something senior Alex Hwang is not stranger to.

“In regards to my family’s Korean values, there is that typical strict emphasis on getting good grades and I had to study a lot when I was younger,” Alex said. “I was kind of forced into it, but I’m glad I was because it has definitely benefited me as a student.”

Senior Leila Rquibi similarly shoulders the weight of academic pressures and expectations as she feels the need to honor her father’s accomplishments with her own.

Leila’s father is from Morocco, he grew up there and went to college in France. Her mom grew up in the U.S and went to study abroad where she ended up meeting him.

“My family’s background has played a role in my upbringing because I have to work to bridge between the two cultures. My dad has very high expectations,” Leila said, “But also, since he didn’t have a ton of resources at hand for his education when he was younger in Morocco, it’s really taught me to appreciate the resources I do have which pushes me to work harder on his behalf.”

Leila said that her appreciation for her father stems from her acknowledgement of the struggles he had to endure to assimilate to an American life.

“I think people primarily focus on the physical and economic struggles of being an immigrant such as obtaining your citizenship and getting a job,” Leila said. “The cultural struggles, I feel are the most difficult, because it’s difficult to keep their values in what we consider such a melting pot, but even in this melting pot, it’s still hard to find a place to balance your home and this new country.”

Leila’s father, Hassan Rquibi, was born in Morocco. While he never has regretted his decision to immigrate to America, he acknowledged the adversity behind assimilating to a new culture.

“It’s like taking the fish out of the ocean… and [expecting] him to survive in a bowl of water. It’s not the same,” Hassan explained. “When I came here, I had to adjust to the new life but I still resisted to completely submerge myself into the American lifestyle. It’s not easy for me to teach my kids all they need to know about my culture and it’s not easy for them to embrace my culture either.”

Some complications that come with being a child of an immigrant is the fear that assimilating to American standards will result in a disconnect with their parents’ heritage.

“I do find myself having to compromise parts of myself to fit into American culture– especially growing up in an interfaith household,” Leila disclosed. “A lot of Christian values are ingrained as American traditions so it’s hard to be able to participate in those without being disrespectful toward my dad who is Muslim. It’s hard to practice aspects of Islam without neglecting my mom’s family who is Christian.”


“Being a child of an immigrant is beneficial because you get to have two different perspectives and cultures. You can pick and choose from each side in order to create yourself, and that helps discover who you truly are.”

— senior Alex Hwang


Language becomes a barrier

Hassan explained that a prominent gap between him and his kids was language due to the fact that teaching Arabic to his kids was very challenging.

“Learning the language would have helped my kids expose themselves to more what the Arab and Muslim world have to offer in so many fields,” Hassan said.

Despite this gap, Hassan said that he hopes that he has instilled in his children the values that would be the pillars in their lives, values that are a summation of his years living in Morocco and living in America.

The Rquibi household is not the only home where language plays an important role. Sophomore Laura Salavejus’s parents knew slim to none of the English language when they came to the U.S. from Lithuania.

This meant that I myself had to teach myself throughout school. Also, my parents were taught math and most subjects much differently than they teach now. This may be viewed negatively, but I see it as being more positive because since I had to basically teach myself,” Laura said.

Being a first generation American also comes with the difficulty of assuming the role of the translator.

Being the only child and the only one who speaks English fluently, I had the burden of translating when there are problems with the bank, immigration and residence, insurance, and many other things,” Anh said.

While Anh and Laura have learned how to fluently speak their native language and English, other students still struggle with navigating a bilingual household.

“At home, my parents speak to me in Korean and I respond in broken Korean–half English, half Korean,” Alex admitted.

He finds that his home is a reflection of himself as it has became a myriad of his parents’ customs and his own. Certain nights, they’ll have hamburgers for dinner. Other nights, they’ll have an intricately complex Korean dish.

The Hwang household is merely one of many where multiculturalism has encouraged diversity, tolerance, and exploration of identity.


Important life lessons

“Being the child of an immigrant has taught me to do what I want. My mother came to this country to take advantage of opportunities in the US that she didn’t have in Mexico and faced her fears of entering a new place, learning a new language, and integrating with an entirely different culture,” senior Michael Birtles said.

Michael’s mother, Rosa, grew up in a small town called Bocaneo in the state of Michoacán, Mexico. She went to college for a couple of years in Morelia but with dim job prospects and not a lot of other opportunities to succeed, she left.

Rosa took a three-day bus ride to the San Diego border and stayed with family near Oceanside, CA, for a couple of months. After that, she joined her brother in the Chicago area. She was 19 years old and said that she has never regretted her decision since.

“At times, I feel there is a cultural gap but it has not been a problem. We overcome this gap through mutual respect. My child is happy to embrace some Mexican traditions and I do my best to educate myself about American culture,” Rosa said.

Birtles said that his mother’s background has been nothing but a positive aspect of his life as it introduced him to a life of food and customs he wouldn’t have had the privilege of appreciating otherwise.

Though balancing multiple cultures while also dealing with the pressures of adolescence can be tiresome, these students have become enriched with diverse ideas and customs, leading to an inherently positive experience.

“It has taught me a big sense of tolerance and appreciation for what I have. I know not to take anything for granted because I know what it took for me to have it. Everything I do is to honor the struggles my dad have gone through to make what I have happen,” Leila said.

No matter how vast the gap between these students and their parents can feel, these few students have obtained life lessons, appreciation, and experiences that showed them that they don’t necessarily have to choose a side of the hyphen.

“Being a child of an immigrant is beneficial because you get to have two different perspectives and cultures. You can pick and choose from each side in order to create yourself, and that helps discover who you truly are,” Alex said.



Trinity Tran is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the HOWL

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