The first thing to begin with is life is rarely black or white, good or evil. There are pros/cons to any decision, including uprooting and emigrating to a different country - one with different people, different behaviors, and a different culture. Much of what one can consider a successful decision is based on apprehending those differences and preparing one’s children for what lies ahead. On that front, it is difficult to say the 1st gen showed enough concern & engagement regarding the unique environment their children were to face.
You used the term “opportunity”; I reference it here because it is one of these nebulous watchwords that those who repeat the “immigrant as hero” narrative use religiously. It is cited so frequently that through the power of repetition, we are led to believe that it means something so significant as to ignore all the other costs of the decision to emigrate. But when we really examine the term, what does it mean? Truth be told, it really means we can “make more money”.
Many Asian-Americans are engineers and they could just as well be engineers back home, although earn less. China and India are on the march; the professional opportunities there abound and may even be greater in scope in some ways (although less in others) given the Wild West nature of their economies and greater entrepreneurship opportunities since there are fewer entrenched corporations. The “immigrant hero” narrative leaves all this out. To be fair, when some of our parents emigrated, they couldn’t have known what rapid development India and China had; hindsight is 20/20; nonetheless you have to evaluate the decision based on its totality just like you couldn’t have known everything about a stock before you bought it but going forward looking back, you can decide if it was worth it.
The problem with our calculus, and perhaps stock purchase is a good metaphor, is we measure “progress” in terms of price, or in our case, financial well being. Neglected in all talk of ‘opportunity’ is that the common thread in all people, from the poor shop-keeper to the wealthy hedge fund trader is the desire to be happy. It is a function of much, much more than income. Studies show that beyond a middle-class income, more money doesn’t make you happier. The “immigrant hero” narrative tries to get us to believe 1st gen Asian immigrants were dirt poor; but many actually came from middle-class families. Too often “opportunity” becomes the sales word of choice of countries interested in cheap foreign labor; they dub their proud ‘customers’ as heroes so as to create “success stories” for the next batch to aspire too. However, if the scorecard took into account social well-being especially of their children, it would complicate their narrative.
I say especially the children because 1st gen Asians met their own social needs already through a few ways:
They had the opportunity to grow up with people similar to them; during that formative period of childhood where self-esteem is established, not being the othered minority. If they were bullied, it was not because of their race. They didn’t always have to guess at cultural norms. 2nd gen did and ultimately the 1st gen didn’t care enough to understand those norms and were of little help.
They often married back home or to “fellow traveler” Asian immigrants here. It was a done deal, a relatively simple arrangement. Asian kids born here… different story.
They develop a social circle also of birds-of-a-feather Asian immigrants; whose identity is uncomplicated by growing up with whites as the majority and a manufactured need for social approval by whites. To understand how this works, travel abroad and see how easily you get along with other Americans in a different country. They had that dynamic, we did not.
As you can see, 1st gen had MOST of their social needs already met. We did not. Did they care? For the most part, no. This is practically criminal. And it keeps happening. Asian immigrants happily pursuing “opportunity” (read: more money) while blithely oblivious to the challenges their children face, all the while congratulating themselves for living the “American Dream”. The ledger shows: nice house, good schools, a bigger bank account. “I sent my sons to top colleges!”. The narrow-mindedness of 1st gens translates across their worldview. Selfishly, their own social needs were met with little effort; they are uncurious, indifferent towards those needs not being met in their kids. When greeted with news of this, they trivialize it. To admit as much would cast down on their decision to come here, and raise questions of their fitness as parents. It’s these inconvenient truths that lead us to believe the “hero narrative” leaves out a few key bits of the ‘plot’.
The social dynamics of growing up as a child, as a minority growing up among a different race are very poorly understood. Think of it this way- Asians only started coming to the US en masse (yes I know some were here before) after the Immigration Act of 1965. So in some cases, our parents were among the first to raise minority children among whites- or the first large community of Asians to do so. But the power of the ‘immigrant hero’ narrative is so overwhelming, still today, people are not aware of the full ledger of pros/cons of moving here. They still emigrate to America by the boatload for “opportunity”. And all the social pain Asian kids must endure repeats; the factors of quality of life that can’t be quantified still work against Asian-Americans.
When your life’s meaning is about “making it in America” as defined financially, why would you step back and ask bigger questions about how America treats Asians? You are too invested in the choice to come here to step back and wonder if there are serious downsides of that choice, especially to your kids. Problems are “not problems”. That is the mindset of millions of 1st gen Asians who’ve simply refused to examine the bigger picture and the effect on their families. Are there exceptions? Sure.
It’s tempting to call 1st gen selfish, but what’s more fitting is that their worldview is narrow and the cost/benefit analysis has to be understood in that context. I say we have to awaken from this false comfort that we have professional opportunities and money therefore all is fine. That narrow mindset intentionally overlooks discrimination in the workplace for example; it tries to affix all the shortcomings of social satisfaction on the 2nd gen individual. In other words, it magnifies our problems, it whitewashes them; it unwittingly aids the white supremacy model.
Did their moving here make our lives better financially? From between a middle/upper-middle class existence in CN/IN to a middle/upper-middle class existence here? Sure. The 99% of the rest of life - and the challenges we inherited not of our making - are now our burden. Putting aside who’s fault it was and the blame game, it is now up to us to actually show resolve and effort to identify these issues and do something about them.