Each to their own

Thisanjali Gangoda

I have to admit, being a first-generation Sri Lankan-American growing up in Kent has been difficult. I fully acknowledge that it could have been worse, as the people of this town are generally accepting of folks who have never seen “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” or “Titanic.” This, however, doesn’t mean that I haven’t experienced my fair share of heckling for being so unbelievably culturally “backward.” When I was younger, I never felt that not knowing the hit songs of the ’90s or not eating pizza every Friday night made me any less of an American. But I sure did feel that way once I was forced to reveal that, no, I don’t know who Luke Skywalker is and that, no, I don’t know who decided that we all live in a yellow submarine and why that should make any sense to me.

All in all, there are far too many misconceptions about what it’s like being a first-generation American. Although some of these misconceptions may be relatively close to the truth (yes, I know, the Beatles), the fact of the matter is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to conceptualize the “identity” of first-generation Americans as so much of identity is based on experience and environment. In movies and in television shows, we’re always portrayed as either feisty, bullying teenagers or repressed, obedient children of parents who want the American way of life to complete their family’s future. In reality, it’s an odd balance of both, of learning how to compromise some of your American teen dreams (I’ve never seen “Spice World”) for a deeper understanding of family pride, culture and sacrifice. It’s a balance that can only be attained if you hold on dearly to your sense of humor. Otherwise, you’re bound to get lost along the way.

My parents immigrated to the United States in the late 1970s from Sri Lanka, an island nation located off the coast of India with a population of roughly 22 million people. In the United States alone, there are around 6 million Sri Lankan expatriates, my mother and father included.

They came to America for the sole purpose of raising my brother and me to be well-educated people. However, somewhere along the way, they didn’t get the memo that in order for my brother and me to become well-educated people, we should probably have some idea of American pop culture and all that it entails. This of course is how my brother and I felt when we were denied the pleasures of going to movies with friends on weekends because instead we had to go visit our aunties in Akron and eat a lot of rice and curry.

When I was young and feisty, this bothered me greatly. I wanted to be just like all the other girls come Monday morning, relaying to the class all of their sleepover escapades and fun. I couldn’t quite relate, but I held onto what I knew of my family anyway. I figured that one day it would all make sense. My roots are strong, my family is so loving, and I would never trade it in for sleepless nights of ding-dong-ditch and brownies. Still, it sounded so fun! At school, I bit my tongue and stared at my shoes anytime anyone would ask me if Wendy’s fries were better than Burger King’s, or how awesome was N’SYNC on MTV last night, yeah?

It was a world away, and to some degree, it still is, but I realize now this is what it means to be in between countries, to be a first-generation American. It’s a constant struggle to appease your family, friends and peers that you are being true to them in who you are and who you’ll become. What really matters is that you are being true to yourself in any way that you can and you find friends who find your difficulties with idioms to be so utterly charming. I suppose that’s why I laugh so much; I never know what’s going on, and for that I am thankful.

Thisanjali Gangoda is a senior political science major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].