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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: The guilts of being a first generation immigrant


UNC students walk through Polk Place on Aug. 14, 2022.

The pressure is on for first-generation immigrants. 

You grow up trying to maintain your family’s culture while also assimilating into the one in which you live. You understand the harsh realities of immigrants as soon as your consciousness develops. And you feel the pressures of navigating life without the same resources as your peers. 

It’s a challenge, and with it comes the guilt of having opportunities your immigrant family never had. And the guilt can manifest in many ways.  

Pursuing your passions at the cost of your family’s approval

Your family made a sacrifice by leaving their home country to experience a better standard of living — whether they were fleeing from war or seeking opportunities for their children. As a former STEM major, I was hesitant to mention my major change to journalism, as if I had made a mistake due to the expectation of doing something “greater” to make up for their sacrifices. There is this understanding that your family left all they knew so you could have a life they never had growing up. 

Moving out from your family home to go to college or work

Your family moved across the ocean for a better life for you — but it’s hard to come to terms with, especially when you’re packing up your stuff to live miles away from them. This is even truer as they get older and cannot see you as much. At the same time, you just wish they could’ve had the same experience and excitement about going out into the world. 

Going abroad is a privilege

It’s bittersweet when traveling outside the U.S. for vacation or fun with friends. You likely had conversations about the reasons your family came to the States. It can be hard to shake off the guilt of knowing they did not have as much flexibility in deciding whether or not to travel, especially for their own passions or for fun. It becomes more complicated when they ask you to send pictures of places they never had the chance to go to while wishing they were there to experience these ventures with you. 

Making money more comfortably than your family 

You feel shame in working remotely from the comfort of your bed while your family is out working in the heat, getting paid minimum wage in demanding jobs. It’s a frightening concept, even more so for those who make more than both parents combined at a young age. So, your desire to succeed stems from the desire for your family not to have to fatigue themselves in working.

Trying to focus on yourself, too 

From translating legal paperwork to writing emails for your parents at a young age, it becomes difficult to focus on your own needs. You want a fulfilling life, not just because of your family but for them, too: It's hard to navigate your life when you spend most of it helping them. Thus, you feel guilty when you start looking after yourself.

Balancing mental health and a strong work ethic is complex, and the thought that “failure is not an option” may plague your subconscious. There is often guilt in feeling unhappy or directionless. It is often interrupted by thoughts of your family trading what was familiar to them for the unknown in hopes of the best outcome. You tend to devalue your own struggles because they don’t compare to the struggles of your immigrant family. 

Buying 'wants,' not 'needs' 

Buying a cute flower vase or an overpriced candle can be triggering when going to checkout. You get immediate anxiety and start thinking you’re wasting your money instead of saving it. 

You pray that, later in this life, your family does not have to work as hard just to be American. The guilt is very real; however, there should be no shame in upward mobility. Your family's sacrifices are honored when you progress and go after what fulfills you and it’s to be remembered that they made choices so that you could live to your fullest potential. 


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