Growing up as the daughter of parents who came to the United
States from Taiwan, there were certain things I heard over and over again (Take off your shoes! You're so lucky to eat
meat at every meal!), and some things I thought were just my family's weird
quirks. So I asked around and found a few major themes came up time and time
again, out of good intentions and sometimes just plain survival.
1. Save, save, save
Whether they're Latino or Scandinavian, one thing immigrant
parents have in common is a penchant for saving napkins from fast food
restaurants. It's so central to Korean American Phyllis Myung's experience that
she even named her blog Napkin Hoarder.
But my friend Kristina Kanemoto's grandmother took this
habit to an extreme. "My
grandmother always stashed some McDonald's napkins under her bra strap," says Kristina. "Every time
we'd get a nose bleed, she'd whip one out and save us."
For Alexandra Rosas of Good Day Regular People, it wasn't
just napkins but also wrapping paper: "We watched every penny and Christmas and
birthday gifts were never opened without my abuela's high pitched voice in the
background, 'Guarden el papel!' 'Save the paper!'"
Don't eat the rice—especially when at all-you-can-eat sushi.
Who needs the latest diet trend when you have immigrant
parents to dispense their wisdom? They might tell us to eat up because we are
lucky we are to have so much food or they may give us some traditional
post-childbirth advice, like Phyllis' mother: "Don't drink cold water after giving birth because you
will get arthritis."
Ken Lu told me that nearly every Chinese parent he
knows tells their kids, "Just eat the meat."
And blogger and speaker Kathy Khang says her Korean parents'
mantra is "don't eat the rice"—especially when at all-you-can-eat
So Asian immigrant parents invented the paleo diet?
3. Lost in translation
If your parents were not native English speakers you've probably heard some idioms come out … not quite right. Angela Lim Aviles
says her Chinese American father once told her, "You are the tops of the
cream." Um, dad, I think you meant to say "cream of the crop"?
Jeanette Kaplun of Hispana Global says her parents often said, "The
check is on the mail." Native Spanish speakers seem to have a hard time
distinguishing between "in" and "on," says Jeanette.
Photographer Benji Tittle Ortiz's Puerto Rican abuelita's canine training
techniques give new meaning to the term "dog whistle." While trying to train
the pup to speak she called out, "Duke, SPIC!"
Oriana Lot MacGregor's Italian father was raised on a milk farm
and learned English by reading the newspaper. This is her pappy's advice on boys and
sex ed and dating:
"The bull and the cow make together and have the
calf. Don't be the cow."
My friend Larissa says her parents' often told her "I
wish you have a nice time" meaning, "I hope you ... " I think it
is the same word in Taiwanese. But somehow, we always know what they mean and appreciate it anyway.
You are lucky to grow up in America.
4. Do as I say
Even though it's especially challenging to pick up a new
language as an adult, some immigrant parents are adamant about learning
English. This is especially common among the older generation, who arrived in
America at a time when speaking a foreign language—or even speaking English
with an accent—was considered suspect. So they did their best to learn English
and insisted that their peers did, too. Samantha Fein shares this anecdote:
"My grandmother, Estella Vela De la Garza used to tell
the workers at McDonald's when she'd go for her senior breakfast, 'DON'T SPEAK TO
ME IN SPANISH!!!! I AM AN AMERICAN AND WE SPEAK ENGLISH. If you want to do more
than make my breakfast with the rest of your life, you'll speak to me in
English. Also, I like my coffee HOT.'"
No matter where they come from, immigrant parents
often prepare their children to face discrimination and to persevere in the
face of prejudice.
"I remember my mom telling me before school that I had
to work harder than the other kids in my kindergarten class because I would
already be at a disadvantage," says Filipino American Erwin Ordonez.