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 highlights 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.

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Intro: Name, age, place of birth?

Kajal Sakhrani, 34. Born in Huntington Beach, CA.

Where are your parents from and why did they come to America?

Both of my parents were born in Varanasi, India. My father left India and moved to Hong Kong at the age of 16 to work in the textile industry with his eldest brother. After about 8 years of living in Asia he decided to move to New York, then Florida, then California, to continue working in textiles, with the hope and dream of starting is own company, which he finally did in California.

My mother, the youngest of 12 siblings, moved to Florida after her mother passed away. As the youngest and last child at home with her mother, she became her mother’s caretaker. When her mother passed, her brother, who was living in Florida asked her to move to the United States and live with him and his family so he could care of her.

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How did their choice to come here alter your life?

How did their choice to move to the United States alter my life? Well, I think this is a tricky question because I am not sure what my life would or could have been, had they stayed in India. I’m not sure my life was altered, to me it was created with a different destiny than some of my other family members. I think their choice to have kids in America enriched my life by allowing me to be bi-cultural, American and Indian American.

What have your parents contributed to the United States?

I think my parents have contributed to the U.S. by positively fueling this idea of the American dream. My father came here with nothing (as most immigrants do) worked his butt off (as most immigrants do) and made a living for his family. He is the face of the American dream. He, amongst many others, is a strong thread in the cloth of America. As such, his hard work allowed his three children to perpetuate the idea of the Americanism: “do and be who you want to be,” or is that the army? Either way, it’s an Americanism. I think all of us pushing to survive and be great, helped allow other non-Americans to see that it is possible, and for white people to break the homogeny of what they see America to be. Along with perpetuating the American motto, by helping build our temple, and always keeping a tight connection with our community,  my parents kept the Indian culture and religion alive, for me and for our larger community.

What do you currently do and what are you dreams for the future?

I am officially (by that I mean, finally) a psychologist. My dream and goal is to provide mental health services to underserved and underprivileged populations. I would also like to teach and somehow (still figuring this out) destigmatize mental health and mental health care to youth and young adults to prevent severity in mental health issues.

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What does it mean to be American?

What does it mean to be American? It means total exploration of self. I have been gifted a privilege of hearing that “we” as in my people, and “we” as in women can be and do anything we want to do. And, although the idea of choice is subjective in many senses, I feel it is what encompasses what it means to be American. Freedom to choose anything. Expression of self through ANY kind of fabric, religion, diet, education, friend group, partner, sexuality, etc. I get to choose to be the person I want to be, and if I don’t like or want that, I can choose to be a new or different me. As an Indian American, I feel there is no greater gift. I don’t feel like this is a gift that was given to me directly, but given to my parents and then passed down to me. They were given these freedoms which they used when parenting us.

However, along with this perceived freedom there is a lot of contrast—consistent contradiction—like, you are free, but you really aren’t. In a way, you are free to obey…you obey the rules and the laws and you are good. You are free to say what you want, but only within a certain context or platform. So, it can also be very deceiving.

What does your culture mean to you? What has it taught you?

My culture is my true identity. It is home. It is what grounds me. It is what shapes my ideals, my morals, my beliefs, my values. It is my guide and my religion is my protector. It is what I see in the mirror and what others see when they see me. India. Indian. I am not sure I would understand what it is to be American without it. I can see contrasts, deficiencies, and strengths in America, with it.

I think America, is a place where everyone is trying to find this “American identity” or become this American “thing” (hamburgers, BBQs,  hotdogs, wild teenagers, broken families, borrowed and glamorized sports events, capitalism, autonomy, autonomy, autonomy and the list goes on). So, in a place of searching for what fits, I thankfully have something I can always find familiarity in, family in, something that can stimulate all my senses at once and, something that feels like home.

Why are you the face of America?

Because I am beautiful.

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Written by eraem

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