Two pants. Two T-shirts. The socks and shoes he wore. His life savings of one thousand dollars. That is what Sabreet Kang Rajeev’s father brought to America at the age of twenty-three. Together, he and his wife started from nothing. They struggled in blue-collar jobs and poured their souls into two American-born children. They were Generation Zero.
For most of her life, Sabreet searched to find meaning in her family’s immigration story. She read books about extraordinary immigrants’ triumphs and everyday tales of hardship, but the stories of her family — and other Generation Zero families — often felt invisible.
So, Sabreet decided to write the book she couldn’t find: Generation Zero. I recently caught up with Sabreet to learn more about how this book came to be and the ideas she shares.
What happened that made you decide to write the book? What was the exact moment when you realized these ideas needed to get out there?
There was a two year stretch in my life where I read almost every single immigrant nonfiction book or memoir I could find. Every single book I read, instead of feeling connected, I felt isolated. I was trying to understand how to feel both American and Indian, but the lack of representation made feel invisible. Every immigrant story I read did not capture the experiences of my family and community. I tirelessly searched for any story that made me feel like I was not alone. I could not shake off this feeling that I needed to do something about it.
I started researching and detailing notes on different books, publications, articles, TV shows, movies, and songs that talked about the immigrant experience. I organized them by themes and highlighted what themes that I felt like were being left out. Slowly I started to realize that I needed to do something, but I was not sure what.
One night after a long draining day, I was getting ready for bed. As I was brushing my teeth and looking at myself in the mirror, I realized that maybe what I am looking for has been right in front of me this whole time. I ran to my husband and blurted:
I am writing a book. I am not sure what type of book yet, but I know our stories are missing. I know there are people like us out there. I know there is someone like me out there searching for meaning in their parent’s immigration history. Maybe something about my parent’s immigrant story? Who moves to America to work a working-class job for the rest of their life? Who’s okay sacrificing their life, every single day for their children? People like us. Americans.
What’s your favorite specific, actionable idea in the book?
Choosing to be aware of your emotions and to address the suffering you feel, to yourself first. For most of my life, I was on autopilot. I was afraid to admit and speak, even to myself how I felt because I felt voiceless. I believed that existence into reality. You can make anything come to life if you truly believe it. Being born a girl is hard. Being born an Indian girl is a little harder. Being born as the eldest daughter to a first-generation Indian American household felt like a punishment. Being a hyphenated identity is challenging. Being a woman that came from a strict Indian American family that was working class, I believed nobody could understand my experiences. I silenced my own voice because I was afraid of my own potential.
I was wrong. The first step is being brave. The only weakness I ever had was thinking I was not enough. I was born enough. The world will show us time and time again that we are not enough. Be stronger than your deepest insecurity and open your mind to understand yourself and be cognizant of your own emotions. To be aware is to live a life that is unapologetically yours.
What conversation are you avoiding? That you are afraid to have more than anything? What’s always on your mind? Why are you on autopilot? What are you yearning to find out? What keeps you up at night? What makes you never be present in your own life?
Take a moment and think. What would happen if you had that conversation today? Tomorrow? Where would you be? What would you learn? And what would it ultimately help you realize? People can spend a lifetime agonizing over a moment. Trying to find a simple truth. Why not take a leap of faith and try today? It may change your life.
What’s a story of how you’ve applied this lesson in your own life? What has this lesson done for you?
The story of how I applied this lesson in my own life is talking to my immigrant parents to ask them if I could marry the man that I loved (now my husband), instead of getting an arranged marriage. That was only possible because I had the courage to understand my emotions and try to figure out where I was hurting and why. I started becoming aware of my emotions, both the good and bad. I kept a journal that detailed my experiences and I slowly started to have the courage to have uncomfortable conversations with both myself and the people that I love.
Every moment I became aware of my emotions, I became more of myself. When I became more of myself, I was able to learn more about the people around me and their suffering. The more I discovered, the deeper I understand not only my experiences but of everyone around me. We were all trying to be the best possible version of ourselves, regardless of the identity (Indian or American) that resonates with us the most. Having that conversation with my parents helped me understand how they were as American as I am and how I spent most of my adult life thinking that they were not. Because of that conversation, not only do we have a deeper bond with them, but we have a bigger, more diverse family now.