When I was little, we used to play this game. We’d put a jump rope on the ground and hop from side to side as the person in charge would say, “In the river, on the bank.” The game was a great way to pass the time at any gathering of eight or more West-Indians. It seems simple enough, but after a few rounds there’d be just two or three of us left. We were the ones with quick reflexes and sharp ears.
I was ill at that game back in the day. Tried to play it with my American friends once and kept them interested for point five seconds. Making it in this country is less about listening or doing the right thing and more about doing the thing no one else can think of at all. This was The American Dream as I understood it: progression. The idea that with effort and innovation each generation could do more—fair better than the one before it and, like building blocks, go higher and higher.
So what is the fear that haunts me the most as the daughter of immigrants? That I might jenga what my parents have built thus far.
Illogical? Insecure? Probably, but there’s some truth lying there, just ask any other second gen-er. West-Indian, Indian, wherever—being the child of immigrants in a country we know as home is no small task. We’re bred to do the things our parents dreamed we could—go to school, get a job, own a piece of this land. We are “blessed” to live freely in this country, “privileged” with a leg up they never had. We have every resource we should need to succeed. No reason to fail.
And yet so many of us feel like we are building in the wrong direction—across, but not up. As if for all of our prized navy passports, acceptance letters, and hassle free job applications, we aren’t building mansions—just more expensive ranch-style homes. I remember the realtor showed us these types of houses when my parents went to look for a second home in Florida. My father called them “uninterestingly sprawling,” and my mother, well, she was never great at hiding her disappointment. It’s a quality she’s passed on to me. So, as we stood there on some lot, surrounded by secured gates, our brows furrowed together despite our best efforts to smile.
I wish I had inherited other things too. Coming to this country, learning to balance between two types of Blackness, working on McDonald’s parts and tennis courts to becoming business owners and home owners with a disposable income; it’s a journey that breeds specific kinds of survival skills.
My mother’s lips, my father’s cheeks, my round face and rounder eyes that are still the subject of two-family debate—all of these things I have taken on. But the rest? The pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps determination, the newly revised Protestant work ethic seems to come and go? Mine is interrupted by stretches of very American complacency. It’s not the so-called lazy American or welfare American. Nothing as politically incorrect as that. It’s a “churning of the mill and this will pay off and 401K will eventually be in 4-digit numbers, doing it by the books” type of complacency. Which is fine until something in the back of my head screams out, “Failure!” or “Recession!” or something equally unsettling.
You see, telling children of immigrants that they will turn out “ok” is the equivalent of playing the Chinese national anthem on loop in an auto factory in Detroit. “Turning out ok” is as acceptable to us as anything red, white and blue coming in second place. We’ve seen our parents achieve the extraordinary. Even if it isn’t notable to anyone else, every day that we grow older, their journeys (even the small parts) seem more and more remarkable.
My mom once told me about the first time that she drove in snow. She says it was terrifying, that she wanted to pull over and stop but that she knew she had to get me to school. So, in the driver’s seat with tears flowing down her face, she battled through the snow. I was strapped into my car seat, stuffed into a neon snowsuit, facing backwards, only seeing the parts of the road she had already gotten through.
Now that we, their children, are driving on our own, the road ahead can seem covered in black ice. Student loans, career choices, love—all of it. There’s really no reason to think we’re bound to end up as utter disappointments. But for all the things we’ve battled through, it can be disconcerting to look up and realize we’ve still got a good stretch of turnpike left.
Sometimes it’s hard to see past the anxiety, but I have to remember that what my parent’s built was not done in a day. It took years of going at it every day, with relentless and unshakable faith. While their success seems inevitable to me, it probably looked unsure at the time. What overcomes the odds is not some magic “Fievel Comes to America” dust, but insistent confidence, discipline and belief.
It’s hard to put into perspective, but we’ve got possibility ahead. Sure, there may be black ice, but there’s resiliency and faith there as well. We’ve got our own oceans to cross but borders only where we draw them ourselves. It may be unremarkable to our peers, but that realization can open doors to the incredible. Our reality is a combination of our parent’s dreams and our generation’s common fears.
I used to think how enormously helpful it could be to have someone calling out “in the river, on the bank” so that I could make it through by simply following along. But there’s no model for this. We’re Americans with skin and hair that doesn’t quite blend in; with narratives untold and stories made for Howard Zinn’s unfinished books; with all of our history—and what is written on the next pages is ultimately up to us.
With that kind of control, maybe our parent’s were right—there is no reason to fail.