Rebellion: An Innate Reaction to Being a Child of Immigrants

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Last week on the subway, Zadie Smith’s novel, “White Teeth” sent me on a half hour writing reflection frenzy of whether or not I’m inherently rebellious. Note, I mention character development details so spoiler alert for the paragraphs ahead! 

Part of the novel follows the story of Millat, the Bangladesh English son of one of the main characters, Samad. Throughout the book, Millat develops a rebellious streak. He becomes known as the tough cool guy that smokes, skips school, and sleeps with girls starting at the age of thirteen.

Even though I fought urges to throw my parents’ morals out the window completely (never skipped a day of school until college…), I deeply relate to Millat’s teenage angst and urge to rebel. When I entered my teenage years, rebellion took form in talking back to my parents.

Talking back to elders within the Filipinx culture is seen as incredibly disrespectful. Those who keep their mouth shut in the face of an elder stating homophobic or racist remarks are rewarded for their silence. Because silence as respect has greater value than opinion backed up by true facts.  If I had been raised by my grandparents in the Philippines, I would most likely have experienced physical discipline the moment I opened my mouth.

I heard lots of messages that my teenage angst was just a product of my age. Yet, as I reflect on my post-teenage move to NYC, sometimes, I realize how much of a rebellious move it was (depending how you look at it). I am the only cousin on my mom’s side who didn’t stay home my first couple of years out of college. I knew I needed to get out. The move was a rebellious act long overdue.

Millat’s similar defiant urges brought me to the conclusion that perhaps, there’s a different kind of rebellious streak common among children of immigrants who moved to the country that colonized them.

Samad, Millat’s father, is Bangladesh. He marries, lives and bears children in England, one of its many colonizers. As a result, his son, Millat struggles to bring together his father’s Bangladesh traditions and values, and the English culture he’s been steeped in.

The storyline sounds all too similar.

My father is Filipinx. He marries, lives and bears children in the United States, one of its many colonizers. As a result, his daughter, AnneMarie struggles to bring together her father’s Filipinx traditions and values, and the American culture she’s been steeped in.

Okay, there’s more nuances in this parallel but this struggle is a common experience between immigrant children. It’s this very struggle that creates so many “cultural” clubs at universities — hubs for the descendants of first, second, third-generation and so on…relatively new immigrants.

How else do you bring together the culture and values of your oppressed ancestors and your shared oppressor internally? It’s one experience to be a Philippine-born and raised person who lives in the United States. It’s another to be born and raised in the States while steeped in Filipinx culture at home.

It’s a constant search for balance between embracing the oppressor and loathing the oppressor — between embracing the oppressed and loathing the oppressed. The clashing of values takes form in lived-out nuanced experiences. What was and is most challenging is how my parents had little desire to dig deep and understand why I was so frustrated. Too many emotions. Too many details. No time. In their own way, my parents were struggling to uphold their Filipinx values as they worked to keep up and compete in the capitalistic 9 – 5 world of the United States.

Likewise, Samad struggles to understand why there is a growing gap between his son and Bangladesh tradition. He fights his son’s school, his wife and his friends for every opportunity to instill some Bangladesh culture in Millat.

My parents took a similar parenting approach: steeping me in Catholic values by having me accompany them at daily mass, First Friday devotions, Bible study groups and retreats. My dad shared stories of the history of the Philippines with me, often painting the United States as the oppressor. My mom threatened me with the strict kind of discipline she grew up under when I talked back or acted out of line.

At the same time, there was this feeling that their beliefs were being shoved down my throat. As I encountered more people and learned about a variety of perspectives in school, my parent’s perspective seemed increasingly one-sided. Soon, I grew to associate them with my Filipinx side and disassociated them from my American side. As if my identity has sides like a coin.

Pressured by my American peers to navigate the world in their way, I started to act “American.” I talked back. I dressed the way I wanted to instead of feeding my mom’s expectations. I got a boyfriend earlier than they wanted. I moved out and left them for a different coast. Me acting “American” was me rebelling.

As a child of immigrants, I feel like I’m constantly going through an identity crisis. Constantly feeling like I have to choose which part of my identity each of my actions align with. Struggling to sit with how an action causes dissonance for my Filipinx side but harmony for the American and vice versa. It’s painful. And when you can’t talk about your pain, you get frustrated… you act out to survive…you rebel. That, or you go crazy. Or a combination of both.

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