People migrate to the United States from all over the world. Migrants’ cultures and backgrounds vary tremendously; as a result is impossible to condense their lives into a single “immigrant experience.” Nevertheless, although no two people have the same story, everyone has a story. Often, these stories share common themes such as navigating between two cultures, worrying about losing one’s heritage and traditions, and finding how to fit in to new communities. By sharing narratives, immigrants wrestle with and unpack their own experiences as well as offer others a sense of understanding. Moreover, through individual stories, the experience of the whole can start to be understood.
For the Taiwanese-American Huang family, the subjects of the TV show Fresh Off the Boat, navigating between two cultures is part of everyday life. Even the show’s theme song melds American hip-hop with traditional Asian music. Despite initial hiccups following the family’s move from Chinatown in Washington, DC to Orlando, Florida, by the end of the first season, 11-year-old Eddie says his mother, Jessica, is “assimilating like a fiend.” As a result, his parents receive an invitation to a country club, where two members tell them, “Sometimes we forget you guys are Chinese.” This comment terrifies Jessica. She begins dressing in traditional Asian clothing and cooking traditional meals. She explains her worries to her husband saying, “Maybe he is forgetting [that we are Chinese] because we are forgetting” and confesses that she feels guilty for liking “American things.” The impact of this narrative goes beyond learning about assimilation. It is one thing to read a definition of the term and another completely to see the anxiety Jessica feels when she thinks she is losing her identity.
These themes emerge in many immigrant narratives. In Mohja Kahf‘s poem, “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears,” the narrator of the poem tells the story of her grandmother, a Muslim immigrant to the United States performing wudu, a ritual washing for prayer, in the sink of a Sears store bathroom. Although short, the poem manages to convey the tension between the grandmother’s culture and US culture. While the grandmother views her actions as sacred and normal, American customers at Sears do not understand her ritual and since it is something outside their cultural norms, they find it concerning and even disgusting.
In the middle of this conflict stands the narrator, who has an understanding of both cultures. As a result, each party tries to talk through her to the other. The shoppers convey to her their dismay, while her grandmother dismisses their concerns and is appalled that they would try to stop her from performing the ritual. At once, the narrator “can see at multiple angles,”  and recognizes the differences and commonalities between the groups. Her experiences living with two different cultures give her the ability to see the situation from both sides. However, it is impossible for her to convey one side to the other in this situation.
By writing this poem from her viewpoint and sharing her story, Mohja Kahf has achieved what she could not on that day. In her voice, we understand both sides of the story, and what might appear at first glance to be a simple anecdote instead unfolds into a complex clash of cultures. The story of one happening in a Sears bathroom becomes representative of the overarching issues immigrants face. Living in a new culture means learning a new set of values, which often leads to misunderstandings and confusion. For immigrants who have lived in a new culture for long enough to “assimilate,” there is an added tension of living between two cultures and dealing with the contradictions that arise.
In recent years, immigrant narratives have begun to appear more and more in mainstream culture. TV shows such as Jane the Virgin, Master of None, and Fresh Off the Boat have tackled it, as well as the popular blog Humans of New York, and even Broadway musicals like In the Heights and Hamilton. As more and more immigrants come to the United States, their voices and stories are finally being recognized and shared. With this increase in narrative, hopefully, will come an increase in understanding and empathy.
 Fresh Off the Boat, Season 1 Episode 13, directed by Chris Koch (2015; American Broadcasting Company). Television.
 Moja Kahf, “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears,” Poetry Foundation. 2003. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/240896.
Featured Image– Aslan Media, “Dr. Mohja Kahf” http://bit.ly/23X0ic2
Fresh Off the Boat Cast– Disney ABC Television Group, “138165_8517” http://bit.ly/1KbPPmm
Wudu Ritual– Eder Fortunato, “Wudu” http://bit.ly/1KbPX5t
Lin-Manuel Miranda– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, “Miranda 2015 hi-res-download 2” http://bit.ly/1SIqbbT