Following is the full transcript of digital storyteller Michael Rain’s TED Talk: What It’s Like to be the Child of Immigrants. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.
I remember one morning when I was in the third grade, my mom sent me to school with a Ghanaian staple dish called “fufu.” Fufu is this white ball of starch made of cassava, and it’s served with light soup, which is a dark orange color, and contains chicken and/or beef. It’s a savory, flavorful dish that my mom thought would keep me warm on a cold day.
When I got to lunch and I opened my thermos, releasing these new smells into the air, my friends did not react favorably.
“What’s that?” one of them asked.
“It’s fufu,” I responded.
“Ew, that smells funny. What’s a fufu?” they asked. Their reaction made me lose my appetite. I begged my mother to never send me to school with fufu again. I asked her to make me sandwiches or chicken noodle soup or any of the other foods that my friends were eating. And this is one of the first times I began to notice the distinction between what was unique to my family and what was common for everyone else, what was Ghanaian and what was African and what was American.
I’m a first-generation American. Both of my parents are immigrants. In fact, my father, Gabriel, came to the U.S. almost 50 years ago. He arrived in New York from a city called Kumasi in a northern region of Ghana, in West Africa. He came for school, earning his bachelor’s degree in accounting and eventually became an accountant.
My mother, Georgina, joined him years later. She had a love of fashion and worked in a sewing factory in lower Manhattan, until she saved up enough to open her own women’s clothing store. I consider myself an American and an African and a Ghanaian. And there’s millions of people around the world who are juggling these different classifications. They might be Jamaican-Canadians or Korean-Americans or Nigerian-Brits.
But what makes our stories and experiences different is that we were born and raised in a country different than our parents, and this can cause us to be misunderstood when being viewed through a narrow lens. I grew up in New York, which is home to the largest number of immigrants anywhere in the United States. And you would think growing up in a place like New York, it would be easy for a first-generation person to find their place. But all throughout my childhood, there were these moments that formed my understanding of the different worlds I belonged to.
When I was in the fifth grade, a student asked me if my family was refugees. I didn’t know what that word meant. He explained to me that his parents told him that refugees are people from Africa who come to the U.S. to escape death, starvation and disease.
So I asked my parents, and they laughed a bit, not because it was funny but because it was a generalization. And they assured me that they had enough to eat in Ghana and came to the U.S. willingly. These questions became more complex as I got older.
Junior high school was the first time I went to school with a large number of black American students, and many of them couldn’t understand why I sounded differently than they did or why my parents seemed different than theirs. “Are you even black?” a student asked. I mean, I thought I was black. I thought my skin complexion settled that. I asked my father about it, and he shared his own confusion over the significance of that when he first came to the U.S.
He explained to me that, when he was in Ghana, everyone was black, so he never thought about it. But in the U.S., it’s a thing. But he would say, “But you’re African. Remember that.” And he would emphasize this, even though many Africans in the continent would only consider me to be just an American.
These misconceptions and complex cultural issues are not just the inquiries of children. Adults don’t know who immigrants are. If we look at current trends, if I asked you: What’s the fastest-growing immigrant demographic in the United States, who would you think it was? Nine out of 10 people tell me it’s Latinos, but it’s actually African immigrants.
How about in academics? What’s the most educated immigrant demographic? A lot of people presume it to be Asians, but it’s actually African immigrants. Even in matters of policy, did you know that three out of the eight countries in the so-called “travel ban” are African countries? A lot of people assume those targeted Muslims only live in the Middle East, but a lot of those banned people are Africans.