The Hidden Curriculum Children of Immigrants Have to Navigate in American Culture

navigating american culture

Immigrants are an integral part of American culture. Their contributions should be celebrated, honored, and appreciated. Unfortunately, the word “immigration” has been demonized by politicians and the broader society that has created a negative undertone when referencing the immigrant experience. The truth is immigrants are not only valuable members of our society, but they are living proof of the American dream. They’re the reason our country is beautifully diverse from sea to shining sea. Immigrants are everyday heroes who embody resiliency, strength, hope, and love.

Growing up as a proud daughter of Mexican immigrants, I can testify to all those qualities representative of the immigrant experience. Being raised by immigrant parents has directly affected how I parent my own children in more ways that I can probably realize. As with anything in life, there are its benefits and challenges when you were raised by parents who were not born in this country. I attribute my success to the love and support given to me by my incredible immigrant parents. However, I feel that children of immigrants have also had to learn to navigate unspoken rules and expectations set upon us by both American culture and our parents’ upbringing.

Below is a reflection on the hidden American curriculum I discovered as a child of immigrants. And how I have adapted to find my way in the balancing act of being part of two cultures: American and Mexican.

 

1. Learning American expressions and idioms

Ever since I can remember, there are words, phrases, music, and food that I witnessed at school with my friends and teachers that I did not experience at home. This continues even to this day. As a child of immigrants, we are not raised with the same cultural norms as families who for generations have been living in this country. American idioms like, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” and, “Spill the beans” are expressions I learned in my adult life. 

Just the other day, I was in a restaurant and found myself stumbling on how to express what kind of eggs I wanted. Apparently, I was supposed to say “over hard” but I was confusing the server with my description. They grew impatient as I was grasping for words to tell them my order. If only they would have realized that I didn’t grow up knowing the terminology for the many ways an egg can be prepared. This example goes to show children of immigrants are constantly learning regardless of age. Because of this, I always ask for clarification so that I do not continue to feel like I have been left in the dark.

 

 

2. Adapting to expectations of being “outgoing” and a “go-getter” in American work culture

I was raised to not interrupt someone when speaking, especially someone older than me or in a position of privilege and power. In Mexican culture, it is a sign of disrespect, especially as a woman, to be too assertive in any space. However, in American culture there is an unspoken expectation that you must exhibit qualities of strength and outspokenness to be seen as a leader. This plays out in many ways, but one that comes to mind is the dynamics within a typical work meeting when I do not speak up unless I feel there is a natural gap to add my thoughts. I tend to want to show respect to the person conducting the meeting by not interrupting them and, in my opinion, usurping their voice. 

 

In Mexican culture, it is a sign of disrespect, especially as a woman, to be too assertive in any space… in American culture there is an unspoken expectation that you must exhibit qualities of strength and outspokenness to be seen as a leader.

 

Yet, I have realized that the opposite is true—I need to be more assertive in work spaces to be seen as a leader and prove I have successfully mastered my job. Not doing so can brand you as weak and not a “team player” in the workplace. I am a work-in-progress and, therefore, invest in professional development to develop my leadership skills further.

 

3. Lacking social networking capital

Having connections in life is everything. It can set your path in a completely different direction if you have the social networking capital for opportunities, money, and referrals. Children of immigrants are the first in this country to begin to establish a new American-hybrid generation. As such, we, generally, do not have much social networking capital as we establish our careers. 

In job searching, I have found that having connections can open so many doors. As a child of immigrants, I realize many of those doors are not available to me because my parents were not raised in this country. My family’s heritage and roots are elsewhere. I have adapted by working extra hard to establish new relationships through informational interviews and investing in ongoing networking opportunities.

 

 

4. Understanding what being first-generation in college means

Much like the challenge of creating your own social networking capital, many children of immigrants also have to learn to navigate the American university environment independent of their parents. Some children of immigrants are the first in their family to go to college in the United States.

This is not saying immigrant parents are not supportive or involved in their child’s education. Quite the opposite—immigrant parents can be our biggest cheerleaders. However, learning how to complete a financial aid application or understanding how to speak to faculty may be something children of immigrants have to learn on their own. This can be a burden to them on top of all the other college pressures. The best approach is to seek out resources when navigating the university so that those first-generation children of immigrants do not feel a disadvantage when pursuing their degrees.

 

5. Having obligations to take care of family

Children of immigrants tend to be very loyal and supportive of their family. In fact, many children of immigrants financially support their parents, serve as translators when completing government documents, and are their strongest advocates in receiving services to support parents’ needs. This level of support is a wonderful contribution to our families, but it can also be an added level of responsibility and stress to the children of immigrants. 

Many children of immigrants feel obligated to take care of their parents when they are old and frail. Putting them in nursing homes can be seen as culturally unacceptable. Personally, between my sister and I we will both be taking care of our parents when this time comes and not outsource this care, if possible. We were raised to do this and we hope to fulfill these expectations for our parents who gave us such a loving childhood. This level of commitment may seem foreign to those not raised by immigrants and may result in misunderstandings. 

 


Even though being a child of immigrants can present some challenges, I consider it also one of my superpowers. I embody my parents’ perseverance and optimism. Ultimately, many of us who are children of immigrants want to make our parents proud and give back all that has been given to us.

How I’m Turning My Intercultural Struggles Into Insights for Raising My Own Children
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