The Student
Ece Kucuk as a child, in the centre, with her family
Voices
I Am the Child of an Immigrant
by Ece Kucuk, 3/04/21

CW: Xenophobia, racism

I am the child of an immigrant, a first-generation American, in a family that dates back to three continents.

A 9/11 baby, I grew up in an America much like the one today. A society fuelled by racism and xenophobia, intolerant to anyone who looks different, acts different or believes in other things. 

Growing up in an Anglo-Saxon country without an Anglo-Saxon name or family, I was reminded that my existence was a nuisance every day. The differences that made me feel special branded me as an outsider, an alien. I was a girl they broke into conforming to fit in. 

Sometimes it happened on a larger scale, like when a co-worker refused to eat in the same room as me because of my religious denomination or threw food at me because I tried to speak to him. Most of the time, matters were written off as inconsequential to others but felt jarring to my own identity. 

I spent a decade letting people who said they were my friends call me by the wrong name. I don’t remember when it became too exhausting to correct them, but I do know it was the first step in a long line of incidences that fractured my identity the older I got. This constant need to fit in and be accepted, coupled with the shame I felt for being different, I didn’t know who I was for a long time. 

From my name, the criticism started to extend from what I wore, what I brought to school for lunch, to even moments when I spoke in Turkish around my English-speaking friends. People became comfortable asking me about personal and invasive questions like it wasn’t a big deal. When I said they were pronouncing my name wrong, they said their way was easier for them. When I spoke in Turkish, they would ask me to say something to them. When I wasn’t comfortable, they would just keep pushing and saying ‘c’mon, c’mon say something’ like I was a puppet for their entertainment. 

I came to school in a hijab one day, and I lasted about three hours before I was so overwhelmed by the stares and snares, by the intrusive questions that I ripped it off my head and spent the afternoon crying in the bathroom.

There were even times when I didn’t want my mother to pick me up from school because I didn’t want kids to see that she had a headscarf. I didn’t want to come into school the next day and have the boy sitting next to me in English class ask me what colour my mother’s hair was and if someone had forced her to wear it. 

For years, every comment from ‘go back to where you came from’ to ‘why can’t you be normal’ would tear me apart. While trying to deal with all the bullshit that came with being a teenager and growing up, I also had to feel like I had to constantly justify my existence in the country I was rightfully born in. 

I appreciate my privileges in life. I recognise that I was born white-skinned and that if you were to take one look at me in the street, I could pass as another white Anglo-Saxon woman, and honestly, there have been so many times in my life when I have wished to be nothing more. 

I have rejected everything my mother stands for. I have dismissed shreds of my mother’s culture by calling it her culture, by denying the fact that it was a part of me too. 

It took me a long time to come to that realisation and, more so, to fully accept every part of who I am, even the parts that never conformed to the society I was brought up in. 

Even though I still struggle with parts of it today and have decided that some aspects are not how I want to live my life, I acknowledge that all of it is the reason I am the way I am. Now, when someone mispronounces my name, I correct them. 

When someone assumes that I’m Christian or that I’m their version of an Anglo-Saxon, I correct them. When someone tells me I am not American, when they look at my family and threaten us to go back to our country, I tell them we already are in our country. 

That my mother has been living, working, and fighting to survive in this country for over 20 years. That this white-washed America built up in their heads isn’t what being American means or what America truly is. 

I don’t feel ashamed to speak in Turkish in front of people or change what I eat because it ‘smells weird’ or looks gross to them. I wear my mother’s culture proudly, and when I tell people who I am and where I come from, now I say, 

“I am the child of an immigrant, an American with roots dating back to different people, different countries, and different culture spanning three continents.” 

Image: Ece Kucuk