Giving thanks: How our immigrant backgrounds shaped who we are

Many of our staff members at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC are children of immigrants, or in some cases, first-generation immigrants. This year, we asked them to write about what aspects of their personal immigrant stories they are most grateful for.

We wish everyone a happy and safe holiday with your loved ones.

I am grateful for … sharing traditions with my immigrant community

“Friendsgiving” isn’t a new phenomenon. While we may not have had a specific name for it, immigrants have been celebrating Thanksgiving with friends for years. My parents immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in the 70s. This meant that like most immigrants, I grew up without extended family nearby. So we formed a new community and built an immigrant “family.” In my case, this was the handful of Filipino families that lived in my hometown in rural mid-Michigan. We spent summer weekends and holidays together, and gathered to mark milestones in one another’s lives. While we may not all get together for Thanksgiving anymore, I am very grateful for all of my family — my biological family and my immigrant family — and the love and support they’ve provided over the years. As we give thanks for the blessings of food, friends, and family, we should remember that all families, including immigrant families, deserve our compassion and should be able to keep safe, care for one another, and stay together.

— Marita Etcubañez

I am grateful for … not taking our democracy for granted

Among the heightened activity and conversations taking place around the midterm elections two weeks ago, I took some time to reflect about why civic engagement was so important to me and why I was doing everything in my power to convince my community of exercising its power. My thoughts traced back to my parents, immigrants from Hong Kong. I found myself remembering early childhood days when it was Election Day: after getting off work and picking my sister and me up from school, my parents would make it a priority to stop by their local election place to cast their ballot. Our family’s schedule those days would be planned around going to the polls. I even recall my mom taking me into the booth so I could watch her crank the levers to cast her vote for local and federal representatives. Voting and taking part in a healthy democracy was so much a part of my childhood that it was just subconsciously accepted that this was what the privileges of being an American meant. : It’s pretty special that the lesson was taught to me by parents who were not even born American.

I ended up texting my parents on the night before Election Day to share these feelings. My mom responded with a moving text: “We came from a land where people are fighting for the right for every person to have one vote. How could we take our rights for granted and do nothing?”

— Andrea Lau

I am grateful for … being raised with different perspectives

My favorite item on my family’s Thanksgiving Table is not the sweet and savory corn break or the piping hot turkey, but my mom’s homemade miso gravy. It’s a thick, curry-like concoction that can be slathered on garlic mash potatoes or easily scooped by sweet rolls. The gravy is also meat-free, so my vegetarian father can partake in our rather carnivorous Thanksgiving dinners.

Growing up with a Japanese mother and Indian father has always made my family’s dinner plates unique, with cool twists on traditional dishes that fuse pieces of my identity together. Our immigrant food traditions are also an interesting reflection on how my parents have raised me — that is, to not take things at face value, because new perspectives (or different flavors) can make good things even better. Through our annual holiday meals, my parents keep me rooted in who I am and always teach me to be proud of where I come from.

— Lina Lalwani

I am grateful for … this country welcoming me with open arms

I am thankful that the U.S. welcomed me and other international students to pursue an education in the U.S. regardless of our nationalities. Back in the 1800s, as a Chinese national I wouldn’t even be permitted on the U.S. soil. Because of all the fights and progress in civil rights in the past century, I am able to enjoy the equality and opportunity to become an advocate for civil rights myself.

As a matter of fact, many recent Chinese immigrants first come to the U.S. as international students. Without the open and conducive environment for academic exchange and a fair immigration system, those first-generation immigrants would not have the chance to contribute to the American economy and the progress of humanity.

Growing up in the Southwest of China, I have grown so much as a student, a scholar and a person by studying in the United States. In an increasingly globalized world, I hope that America keeps on fostering international cooperation and welcoming students and immigrants from diverse backgrounds.

— Yuchen Luo

I am grateful for… my parents instilling a love for culture

I grew up in a mixed-race family, with my Caucasian father and Taiwanese mother, and I’ve always felt a connection to my Taiwanese heritage, for which I’m immensely grateful. My mother has always been proud of where she comes from and has passed that down to me. I’m grateful for my unique upbringing and immigrant mother for always celebrating her culture and showing me how incredible it is to be Taiwanese. As much as I hated Chinese school as a child, I’m thankful that my mother pushed me to learn Mandarin and to learn about my culture. Even though she hated the dance mom drama of the Chinese folk dance troupe I joined, she made it possible for me to continue to celebrate my culture through dance by sending me to practice, picking me up, and driving me and my sister to our performances, even when they were hours away. I’m so grateful to have had a mother that instilled this love of where I come from in me and a father that honors Taiwanese culture alongside us.

— Annabelle Schmitt

I am grateful for … the generations before me

My dad once received advice from his aunt when he first left the Philippines that when you leave your birth country, you must leave the bad things behind, but instill the good values and culture in your children in your new “adopted” country. Looking back, I believe my parents did just that. My mom and dad took a chance to come to the United States and started from scratch. It is often the case that the first generation struggles and sacrifices so that their children and future generations can thrive. I definitely live and breathe this sentiment. I am more grateful with each passing year for my Filipino family and fellow kababayans who I know have similar stories. It’s because of my immigrant parents that I have understanding and love for all diverse communities. It’s because of them that I can pursue opportunities and continue the work that others have laid the groundwork for. As we experience this painful period in our country, I am beyond grateful for the generations that have endured so that we have the platforms to express our beliefs and fight for our rights today.

— Mary Tablante

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.

Advancing Justice | AAJC

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Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AAPIs to participate in our democracy. Follow: @johncyangdc @tao_minnis @meganessaheb @kjbagchi

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.