We have asked ourselves many times in our work and lives, “What does it mean to be American?” We drove across the country, lived in different cities, talked to many people, and when we looked in the mirror, we finally recognized the faces we were looking for. We are first generation Americans. We are the daughters of immigrants.
The beauty of this country is in the American dream. The American dream is a story of union. It is the eternally optimistic idea that no matter who you are or where you came from, this land, this place, will give your life and story the “happily ever after” that it deserves. Our identities are the products of the American mindset and the cultures that our parents passed down to us, through blood and tradition. Those traditions helped cultivate and inform not only our individual hopes and dreams, but also the greater goals of the nation.
“1stGen” is a photo series that concentrates on first generation Americans. These daughters of immigrants provide us with an inside look into our collective identity by recognizing the struggles and stories of brave immigrants, seeking a better life. As we take in the images of these women, we are celebrating the beauty of America and the ancestry emanating from each face. Supplementing the images are their stories, and their parents’ stories. Each person is an essential element, as we seek to understand their lives, their parents’ lives, and the value of our immigrant nation.
Intro: Name, age, place of birth?
Chitra Anwar, 26, Arlington, VA.
Where are your parents from, and why did they come to America?
My parents are both from Indonesia. They moved to the U.S.—Boise, Idaho to be exact—to attend college because they came from relatively privileged families and going to school in the U.S. would guarantee a better education, or at least that’s what their parents thought.
How did their choice to come here alter your life?
I don’t even know if it was as much their choice as it was their parents’. From my experience of living in Indonesia (3 yrs as a kid, 2 yrs as an adult), parents have a lot of say, if not all say, in their child’s big life decisions, like marriage, moving, etc. In fact, I just learned one of my cousins married her now husband solely based on her mother’s wishes—at the beginning of their courtship, the thought of even dating him repulsed her (they’re happily married now, btw)! Which brings me to one of the biggest differences between my life and the lives of cousins my age who live in Indonesia: I have a lot of freedom. That’s not to say that my cousins are caged possessions waiting to be married off for some dowry—we’re not that medieval. But being raised in a more individualistic society as opposed to a communal one means that growing up, I’ve had messages of freewill and individual achievement ingrained in my psyche. It has definitely sparked many a disagreement with my parents, but because they too understand that I’ve grown up in a different society than they have, luckily for me, they give me more room to make my own choices. Of course, there’s also the more tangible differences like the fact that I live in an environment with far less pollution, far less poverty (even though there’s still too much here in America), and a lot more opportunity and stability.
What have your parents contributed to the United States?
As green card holders who were just trying to do their part to raise a good family while navigating through life on a new continent, my parents have not made any major contributions to the U.S. like inspiring policy change or anything like that. But what I can say is that on a personal level, my parents have added some Indonesian flavor to this melting pot we call America, literally and figuratively. My family and I have collectively converted many of our Caucasian friends to spicy food, some of whom we call honorary Indos because they love our food just as much as we do. Basically if you’re friends with anyone in my family, you’ve had Indonesian food. On a more figurative level, my parents have added to U.S. culture just by being their very Indo selves. Indonesians are very hospitable and love to make and maintain new relationships. There’s even a term for it, “silahturahmi,” which means maintaining good relations through visits. By that same token, our home is always open to any friend (or friend of a friend) that happens to be passing through Los Angeles. At one point last summer, our house was full of friends and relatives, as in the guest room, living room, and my parents’ room were full with guests. I didn’t even realize that it was weird until one of my mom’s friends commented about how open we are.
What do you currently do and what are you dreams for the future?
I’m currently unemployed. I was a full-time, unpaid caretaker for my mom for the past year, and now I’m starting to cast my bait (i.e. resume), seeing what kinds of opportunities I’ll catch. I’m a bit of a dreamer with a wide range of interests, so to be ambiguous about it, I guess I dream of making a living off of a real passion, whether it be studying/experiencing/spreading awareness of Indonesian and/or any other culture. That, or figuring out a way to bring about more compassion and humanity, whether on a scale large or small.
What does it mean to be American?
To me, it means being more open-minded and having more freedoms. I can already hear keyboard warriors clicking away at the fact that the U.S. has a long way to go in terms of equality, human rights, etc. From what I’ve seen though, America has a much larger block of progressive, forward-thinking people. At least here in the U.S., if you’re “different” you can still seek out communities where you could belong, with relative ease. For example, there are LGBTQ-friendly neighborhoods in L.A., San Diego, and many other cities across the United States. In Indonesia, it’s pretty normal for gay men to raise a family and lead a double life as a gay man because it’s so taboo. In terms of racial divides, the U.S. definitely has institutionalized prejudices to overcome, but in Indonesia, I have friends and family who are explicitly “scared” of African American men. So yeah, America has a lot to overcome, but being American means that we have the freedom to do so, to be loving, compassionate beings (even if too many of us aren’t on board).
Have you ever struggled with your identity?
Identity is something that I’ve always subconsciously struggled with. I grew up in a predominantly white (or at least white-washed) suburb of L.A., and I’ve always harbored that feeling of being, as Pharell would put it, “other.” This was at a time (middle school/high school) when all I wanted to do was be the same. I remember times when I was embarrassed about the food I ate. I remember times after 9/11 when I was ashamed/scared that my family is Muslim. I remember wanting to look, dress, associate with whiteness. And I remember feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. I always used humor to make light of the situation, laughing about how I was the token brown girl in my group of friends, but deep down, there was a very real discomfort behind the laughter. Nowadays, my Indonesian roots is something I draw a great deal of pride and confidence from, but that can’t be said about my adolescence. I’m glad I’m finally at a place in my identity where I can say: Fuck it! We’re all freaks and weirdos anyway!
What does your culture mean to you? What has it taught you?
My culture means is my identity, my roots. I credit many facets of my personality and my being to the fact that I’m Indonesian. And I’m not talking about identifiers like “I like satay” or “I speak Bahasa,” I’m talking about identifying with words like sassy, silly, spiritual, superstitious, generous, amicable, artsy, cutesy, cynical, dark, twisted. Because these are facets of my personality that I see in my family, family that I only got to know when I lived in Indonesia myself, family that I associate with a huge part of *cheese alert* finding myself.
Why are you the face of America?
I’m the face of America because it’s a fact: in a couple of decades, minorities will become the majority. Not only that, the world altogether is becoming increasingly more global with all of the new ways of connectivity. But I am the face of America because I represent the vibrancy of American culture; the mixing of languages, traditions, religions, and perspectives that makes America what it is today.