As a teenager I resented the injustice of keeping my family afloat with money but like many second-generation immigrants Ive come to see the other side
For as long as I can remember, I have supported my parents financially. My family is broke. Like, really broke and has been my whole life. My dad cleans cars for a living and is in a lot of debt. My oldest brother used to make some money, but he died. My second-oldest brother is in prison.My other siblings are still young, studying or looking for work.
I started supporting my family in high school in England, in dribs and drabs from school bursaries and state benefits. I didnt have much cash, but I chucked 10 bucks or so their way every once in a while.
When I was at university, after receiving a mix of loans and grants, I would help them out a little more often. Sometimes I might send my mum money for a weeks shop or a pack of cigarettes, other times more. Once, I got a 1,000 award for academic achievements and sent my family a few hundred.
When I started my first job, suddenly more was expected of me. My parents barely scraped 20,000 a year between them most years, so when I started a job on 21,000, I knew that I wouldnt last long trying to keep it all to myself.
I didnt only support my parents, but my siblings too. They were becoming adults, with adult desires a night out with friends, a book, new clothes or lunch at school but our parents didnt have the money to give them anything. I began to look after my little sister for half the week, giving her a small allowance and paying for her meals.
As the sole person who got on a steady path from school to university to work, I feel like it is my job to make sure they are all OK. But my family is so poor that sometimes, it feels like throwing money into a black hole.
I hated having to support my family when I was a teenager. We had this unspoken rule that all our money was money we had in common. My dad would say that between us all, we could be rich one day as if wed signed up to a communal lottery ticket at birth.
I was growing up between competing ideologies. One said that being successful meant autonomy: moving out, getting a job, your own house, a new family. The other said that success was sharing the fruits of your earnings.
Every second-generation immigrant I know aspired to one day make enough money to support their moms, but thats not true of everyone. Some of my friends usually those without immigrant parents would criticize them for expecting that of me. Your parents are supposed to support you, they would say, not the other way around. I felt judged.
It spoke to a kind of rugged individualism that is particularly pronounced in the western world: that to be truly successful means to be completely self-sufficient. Consider this: in the US, the American Dream looks like becoming rich no matter what your circumstances, but for immigrants, its to get rich and send money back home. Immigrants in the US sent over $148bn to their home countries this year, with the highest beneficiary countries being Mexico, China and India. In the UK, Bangladeshi women and Romanian men send the most home each year.
While I didnt have to send money anywhere my family was all here the expectation was that I would do my bit to protect them against hardship, as they would do for me.
I didnt always do as was expected of me. My dad wanted me to live at home forever; to bring my husband and children to live there one day too. But I left home young out of necessity, when I was 16. When my relationship with my parents broke down at such a young age, I hated the idea of ever having to rely on them again. I went straight to university and never moved home again. I kept every partner I ever had away from my family. I made a point of rarely going to my parents house, even for just a few hours.
And yet, even during those years, I kept on giving my family money, even when all I could afford to eat was instant noodles. I was giving them money when I couldnt afford to take the train to work, before I had a single penny to waste let alone save.
Throughout, I remained resentful at the injustice of it all.Was I selfish for wanting to say no when they called me to ask for money?Why should I have to feel guilty? Did they not realize how unfair this was?
I am not a selfless person. I am materialistic. I like going out, and spending my limited money on myself. But I just still couldnt shake the feeling that it would be unkind not to help my family when they spent so long helping me.
When I talk about supporting my family, I usually get two reactions from people. Some figure that their parents did the same for them when they were kids, and see the value in returning the favor. Others think that they didnt choose to be born, and so question why it should be asked of them. Ive felt both of those things.
I finally gained some clarity a few years ago, when I spoke to my friend about my predicament. I waited for the inevitable gasp; the berating of my parents; the apologies on their behalf. None came. Me too. Immigrant parents suck, she said. The weight of the shame lifted: I wasnt the only one in this position. (In fact, as many as 1.4 American millennials, born 1981 to 1996, supported their parents in 2016.)
Eight years later, my anger has subsided. I still send money to my family every few weeks. Today I gave my mum 150 ($190) towards a holiday shes never been on a proper holiday before. At Christmas Ill chip in a few hundred towards a sofa, because my mum needs one. Ill buy the Christmas shopping and clear up any debts my mum has in the new year. I will feel grateful that I am in a position to provide for my family, not angry.
I have also started to consider the benefits of my dads worldview, as opposed to the English traditions I so valued as a teen.
Didnt the idea of relying on your family forever make sense? My worries about being able to afford to have kids one day would be soothed because my parents would give me free childcare without batting an eyelid (something that many of my friends parents would be annoyed at the prospect of). If my parents got sick, we could look after them instead of putting them in a pricey retirement home. If I got sick, theyd return the favor.
Those things wont happen for me I might appreciate my dads logic, but at heart Im someone who wants the joys of autonomy, my own home, and privacy. But finally seeing that my parents decisions were equally as valid as other parents helps me get over my shame, and even gives me some comfort.
Suddenly, I am grateful for their worldview. Before, I always saw my parents as leaning on me. What I had taken for granted was how unconditionally available they would be for me, if I ever dared to accept it.
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