It was 1992, and the civil war in Tajikistan drove my family to seek refuge in the United States of America, the land of great opportunity. Growing up as a first generation American, my identity has been vastly shaped by my familial history and American culture. While many intersections of my identity make me who I am today, there is a particular key concept in American studies that I would like to focus on, being race. Race is considered one of the most prevalent issues in American culture and has shaped me into the person who I am today.
Growing up in a dual-cultured household has been, in one confined word, a journey. My ethnicity is essential to who I am today, but accepting my cultural identity and all of the vigorous traditions that come with it is a personal victory that I had to fight societal stigmas and, more importantly, myself for. I was born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan and moved to the United States at a very young age.
I grew up completely content with myself and never understood nor acknowledged labels such as Tajik-American. Due to living in an immigrant household, my parents were also unaware of the American culture. While attending school; as all young children of preschool, I did not see color; thus, I did not understand differences in race, religion, or ethnicity. I did not feel any different from my American friends, therefore I was not any different in my mind. I assumed that all my friends practiced the same traditions and ate the same food as me.
It was not until I started kindergarten that I began to realize my cultural identity was different from that of my friends. My inability to speak proper English was suddenly noticed by my peers and which led me to be aware of my differences. Later on as I went into elementary school and became fluent in English, it allowed me to have more opportunities to explore myself and develop new skills. Even though, I still managed to face obstacles throughout the way. Having unseen food dishes for lunch was a foreign concept to my peers at my elementary school. Unlike the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches of my friends, my lunch generally consisted of rice and other Tajik side dishes. Because my meals looked different and smelled of pervasive spices, my lunch was often the object of my classmates curiosity. As one of maybe five central Asian students, my main priority was fitting in with the other children. My nonnative lunches did not help my case. After a numerous amount of days bringing home full lunch boxes, my mother sat me down and explained to me that my differences made me unique. My mother revealed to me the cultural significance of my meals and the rich history behind it all. She taught me to be proud of my heritage and to always stay connected with my traditions.
As time went on and I grew older, I started to face challenges which made it difficult for me to succeed not only in school but also out of it. The community I grew up in was predominately Caucasian which being a person of color was a little strange to others. During this time I became aware of discrimination. Discrimination is the belief that members of separate races possess different and unequal traits coupled with the power to restrict freedoms based on those differences (325). This showed me how there is inequality in our society due to race. Race refers to a group of people who share a set of characteristics typically, but not always, physical ones and are said to share a common bloodline (324). During these teenage years in middle school I was awakened to a whole new perspective on life.
Race is defined as a grouping of humans based on shared physical or social qualities into categories generally viewed as distinct by society. Through the concept of race we are able to find many issues one mainly being racism. Racism is the belief in the superiority of one race over another, which often results in discrimination and prejudice towards people based on their race or ethnicity. Racism is seen throughout the world and is one of the most controversial problems in American culture. This ongoing fight with racism has been obvious from the beginning of the 1600s when the first 19 Africans reached the English colonies and arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, who were brought by Dutch traders who had seized them from a captured Spanish slave ship(Suggs). Even in todays society racial issues such as basing an individual due to their skin color is present and a problem. Now, to get into all the discrimination that has been filling this country will take time but as introduced above growing up as an individual with a diverse background I have been made aware of certain controversies based on race and identity through experience.
As I entered adolescence, I still struggled with trying to keep my cultural identity separate from my own personal identity. I vividly remember being embarrassed to speak in my native language with my family in public settings or in front of my friends, because I was afraid they would judge me. Luckily, around this time I started to make new friends of the same origin. This allowed me to begin sealing the breach and to start accepting my Tajik-American label. I was able to connect with people of the same origin, leading to minimal room for discomfort and embarrassment. My family and I also went to Tajikistan for the summer; reconnecting with my extended family gave me the essential exposure to my beautiful roots that I needed to finally embrace my cultural identity. As I transitioned into high school, I began making a conscious effort to include my heritage and beliefs into my daily life. I began taking a more serious interest in becoming proficient in the Tajik language. Being trilingual has taught me to appreciate other languages and has allowed me to communicate freely with all types of people.
Although it was frustrating at times growing up, I think overall it benefited me to be raised this way, I was able to learn whats best for myself. This taught me to be comfortable in my own skin and put myself first; realizing no one’s opinion matters except my own. Here in America you are given the opportunity to do almost anything you want as long as you work hard for it. Being true to myself is the only way for me to identify my dreams. My parents guided me throughout my journey of life to realize the bigger picture so that I can focus on what’s important. It’s ironic how I learned one of the most important American values from my immigrant parents who didnt know anything about American culture. I thought this whole time that their Middle Eastern morals would separate me from everyone else but really they were what made me feel comfortable with myself now. They really have taught me so much about how to live a good, happy, American life. Due to my parents, I know now that I dont have to attempt to make everyone like me. I do what I please while still being reasonable and respectful. The only person really judging me is myself.
Overall, racial classifications for individuals should not exist. Racism is grounded in a fear of many individuals that is driven by discrimination. With this, human beings are taken on a physical, social, and emotional rollercoaster. There are many possible solutions to combat racism and ensure that it is not overlooked including celebration of diversity. As Cornell West states in Race Matters, None of us alone can save the nation or the world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so (109). Therefore, we must take accountability for our actions to create a more welcoming environment. Discrimination cannot be fixed instantly, nor can it be fixed over a course of decades. But, discrimination is fought against and will continue to be fought against until this country will accept every individual equally. It must change to the point where there is no oppression on people of color. But, for now there are true fighters known as activists who have been fighting these laws and social customs to secure equality for all Americans. While discrimination happens toward multiple identities, and is shown through multiple forms that does not mean anyone cannot be apart of the fight to end it. Immigrants, no matter the identity all matter. I have learned to be proud of where I am from even if I have been discriminated or misjudged because of my ethnicity. My race has helped shape me into the person I am today.