Read more about Chosen Traumas and Chosen Glories

Inherited Legacies and Expectations

by Sajan Mehrotra

I inherited a legacy the moment I was born. A legacy not limited to any one ethnicity or religion, but one that transcends these dividing factors, forming what is almost a new nationality, one with nuanced but shared aspirations and cultures. A legacy of immigrants.

Every immigrant recounts the story of their epic journey to their children, of the sacrifices to get to this country, and the work required to get to their current station in society. Most sons and daughters of such migrants swell with pride at the hard work invested by their parents or grandparents. The stories are unifying forces, bringing together immigrants under one common experience. They act as motivation for first and second generation immigrants to work harder, knowing that their parents were able to do the same under worse conditions and bigger obstacles such as a language barrier or poverty, and often times both.

My grandparents immigrated to the US from India with my parents about 40 years ago. Both of my parents had similar experiences growing up, but my dad recounts his story more often, since it is a key part of his identity. My paternal grandparents left what would have been a prestigious life in a village in India to give their children better opportunities and education in America. My grandmother was the daughter of the village doctor, and thus commanded respect and wielded influence, because the doctor was one of the most essential figures in rural Indian society. My dad was treated like a prince in school, as befit his social rank. My grandmother left all of that, traveling with my grandfather across the world, carrying two small children and arriving at a cramped one bedroom apartment in Queens. They had next to nothing, not even an understanding of English, but there were more opportunities and better education systems in America, and that was more important than any amount of influence or respect.

My grandparents believed education was the key to success, the metric which determined social mobility, so they went to the teachers at the public school their children attended and asked for the workbooks and homework given to 5th graders when their children were in third grade. They forced my dad and uncles to finish their schoolwork first, then the extra work a few grade levels ahead, and only then could they have fun. After mastering such a rigorous curriculum, my dad was admitted to Stuyvesant High School, and later Cornell University, eventually earning his MBA from Stanford. Currently my dad and his brothers work in the financial sector, and my mom works as a physical therapist; they both made huge progress from where they started.

The story of my parents and of all immigrants has an uncanny habit of popping up everywhere. When my dad tells of his parents’ sacrifice and the strict method in which he worked, tears come to the corners of his eyes. The story he tells is one of the American dream, the common aspiration of all immigrants, achieved from a shared tradition of sacrifice and hard work. It evokes deep emotions in both him and the listener, pride in this culture of immigrants. It is an inspiration, a model for me and my siblings to follow. A legacy to continue.

Every time I think about just skipping an assignment that seems more tedious than it is helpful, or about napping during a class because of a lack of sleep from the last night, the story comes to mind. I remember my dad’s words: if you work hard in school, you’ll have infinite options when you graduate. This idea of having lots of opportunities is critical because my job is to “advance the generation,” the way my parents and uncles did, a goal I fully intend to realize. Advancing the generation includes anything from distinguishing myself to being successful in monetary terms to changing the world. The story is both a heavy burden to live up to, a mental pressure like no other, and an inspiration, an example of just how far hard work can take anyone who puts in the time and effort.

I inherited not just a legacy, but an inspiration, and a duty that must be fulfilled.

Commentary by Bernice Arricale

Sajan identifies with the immigrant struggles of his grandparents and feels connected to the larger community of immigrants in America, many of whom came looking for greater opportunity. How does his immigrant story compare with some of the immigrant stories in the news today? What has changed? What remains the same?