• Ultimately, being the daughter of immigrants is a source of pride, not negativity. (Getty Images )
Second-generation migrant guilt is real, and it’s potent.
By
Ankita Bellary

26 Apr 2018 - 9:46 AM  UPDATED 7 May 2018 - 10:29 AM

 “You’ll have no time to focus on your studies! This year is such an important one for you.”

 I remember, rather than being elated, how worried my parents were the moment I was elected School Captain in year 12. What if it compromised my academic results? They wondered. At the time, I was quietly sure that previous and current captains – a roll call of mostly white women – would’ve been lauded by their own families for the same accomplishment.

As the child of Indian immigrants, it has always felt right — if not obligatory — to repay their sacrifices by being academically successful and financially stable. It’s a feeling that has played a part in everything from how hard I worked at school, what I decided to study at university, and what I choose to spend my money on.

It became clear how damaging it was to have grown up barely seeing a brown person as a protagonist in a Western novel, memoir, TV show or movie, and how that lack of representation had subtly influenced the way I viewed my own sense of self worth.

Anything deemed a ‘wasteful’ use of my time leaves me feeling like a failure, like it was all for nothing. Being School Captain was just one example. Spending $30 on brunch with a close mate is another, as is draining three years worth of savings for a semester abroad in England. But the biggest stomach-churner by far has been choosing to pursue writing professionally.

Sometimes, it’s impossible to think of a career in the arts without a measure of guilt. Namely, the luxury of betting years of hard-earned school fees against a notoriously unreliable career path in terms of dollar bills. And the knowledge that my parents would hardly have been able to keep their family afloat if they had wanted to pursue the same dream.

Second-generation migrant guilt is real, and it’s potent.

My parents moved to Sydney in 1992, some 10,000km away from all they knew and loved in Pune, India. It was a big feat for a young family of three (my older sister, four years old then, came along for the ride, too), with no idea of what job, community or school they would find themselves in once they arrived.

My parents used to tow their groceries for blocks, hauling halved cauliflowers and watermelons because they were cheaper and lighter to carry. Once, Mum lost a single clove of ginger on her walk home and felt so guilty she nearly burst into tears.

With no car and little money for public transport, my parents used to tow their groceries for blocks, hauling halved cauliflowers and watermelons because they were cheaper and lighter to carry. Once, Mum lost a single clove of ginger on her walk home and felt so guilty she nearly burst into tears. There’s the story about how they didn’t see another Indian person for the first few months they were in Brisbane. Or the one where Vinnies gave them furniture as well as blankets, because they didn’t realise how cold it got in Sydney.

When Dad got an engineering job in Queensland later, the family moved up to Brisbane, where I was born. Over time, things got easier for my parents. They bought a car (then two!), built a house, while we received glowing report cards and developed urban Aussie accents.

But underlying many of these immigrant ‘success stories’ is the narrative of undeniable struggle to get there. It’s the same for my parents, and the same for many others too, whether Indian, Malaysian or Maltese. And it’s that struggle my parents have experienced, the sacrifices they made for me and my sister to leave their homeland for better opportunities, that I’ve felt indebted to for most of my life. 

 Underlying many of these immigrant ‘success stories’ is the narrative of undeniable struggle to get there.

And while I am mindful of my privilege, there’s a belief that by virtue of being the daughter of immigrants, the path I tread in life is somehow less rocky than that of a generation who toiled before me. This has been a hard pill for me to swallow, especially because it’s not always true.

Growing up and asserting myself as a woman of colour in white-centric spaces, is a pressure and struggle my parents are less familiar with. I graduated from a mostly white all-girls school, pursued two white-dominated degrees at uni, and I exist in two overwhelmingly white spaces when it comes to my careers in law and writing. At times, fighting against these less visible barriers has felt frustrating and exhausting.

I graduated from a mostly white all-girls school, pursued two white-dominated degrees at uni, and I exist in two overwhelmingly white spaces when it comes to my careers in law and writing. At times, fighting against these less visible barriers has felt frustrating and exhausting.

In my writing classes, I quickly realised how few people of colour were studying alongside me, and how rarely we read their works in class. It became clear how damaging it was to have grown up barely seeing a brown person as a protagonist in a Western novel, memoir, TV show or movie, and how that lack of representation had subtly influenced the way I viewed my own sense of self worth.

And I'd be remiss to leave out the iconic, ‘Where are you from? No, originally?My answer never seems good enough. Sometimes it feels like I’ll forever be tethered between two worlds – not Indian enough for India, not Australian enough for Australia. Despite trying to prove myself at both, it seems like the bar is always just out of my reach.

It has taken me a long time to recognise these as unique and valid challenges of their own. The struggle of immigrants doesn’t begin and end with the first generation; it flows down, in different but equally important ways, to the second and third generation, and so on.

 It’s important to realise our battles of dreaming big and trying to break into white-centric spaces, are no less significant, or brave, than how our parents have had to battle to get here, and live, in the first place.

 The myth of second-gen migrants having it easy is a simplistic narrative. In reality, inter-generational struggles are rarely stagnant – my aspirations growing up in Australia are likely vastly different to the two young Indians who arrived in Sydney in 1992, unsure of what lay ahead for them.

 And while the pursuits of second-generation migrants today may sometimes get lost in translation, it’s important to realise our battles of dreaming big and trying to break into white-centric spaces, are no less significant, or brave, than how our parents have had to battle to get here, and live, in the first place.

 This guilt will probably be with me for a while yet, but acknowledging and working to manage it has been the start of a long journey in understanding how my heritage shapes who I am today. And how, ultimately, being the daughter of immigrants is a source of pride, not negativity.

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