In Their Own Words: Immigrant Narratives

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.

The cast and executive producers of the TV show "Fresh Off the Boat"
The cast and executive producers of the TV show “Fresh Off the Boat”

For the Taiwanese-American Huang family, the subjects of the TV show Fresh Off the Boatnavigating 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.”[1] 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.

A man performing Wudu, a ritual washing
A man performing Wudu, a ritual washing

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,” [2] 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.

Lin-Manuel Miranda
Composer and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of In the Heights and Hamilton and son of a migrant from Puerto Rico.

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.


[1] Fresh Off the Boat, Season 1 Episode 13, directed by Chris Koch (2015; American Broadcasting Company). Television.

[2] Moja Kahf, “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears,” Poetry Foundation. 2003.


Image Attribution:

Featured Image– Aslan Media, “Dr. Mohja Kahf”

Fresh Off the Boat Cast– Disney ABC Television Group, “138165_8517”

Wudu Ritual– Eder Fortunato, “Wudu”

Lin-Manuel Miranda– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, “Miranda 2015 hi-res-download 2”


13 thoughts on “In Their Own Words: Immigrant Narratives

  1. There has definitely been an increase in immigrant narratives but how can we take it a step further and have people engaging with immigration issues and cultural dialogue. When I started at my undergraduate a number of students had never met anyone who had been in America for less than ten years, some had never met an immigrant. They had all read stories and seen shows featuring immigrant characters but they still struggled to understand cultural differences. I think these pop references to immigration may be a good start to getting people to think about immigration and the cultural confusion that some immigrants can face but I wonder what might help them engage with it more fully.

  2. I find it interesting that these immigrant narratives, when portrayed on tv, are almost entirely comedic in some fashion. I wonder why that is? Is it easier to talk about these issues when you keep it light hearted? Or would people tune it out when it becomes to serious? I don’t know, but I am glad that there are narratives that are discussing these issues in some way. Bringing these stories to mainstream media is a great way to get people talking about today’s issues.

    1. That’s a very good point. It made me realize that the poem about the grandmother in Sears also makes use of humor. In this case, the humor doesn’t trivialize the experience, but rather creates empathy with the reader. Hearing the grandmother quip about how her feet are cleaner than the sink really drew me to her as an understandable character and made me see her side of the situation. I think it could be very helpful to think of humor as a tool when dealing with tough issues–though it has to be approached carefully when dealing with sensitive issues.

  3. Navigating different sets of values, cultural customs, and traditions reminds me our discussion this week about Du Bois, and the “double consciousness.” These stories and poems seem to stem from the space where they collide. I hope that the portrayal of immigrant narratives in popular media allows for more appreciation and empathy for those in new and uncertain situations.

  4. I never though about that Trish, but now that you mention it, a lot of media dealing with first generation families do tend to be rather comedic or dramatic in their intent. Perhaps the ideal of American exceptionalism tries to trivialize the difficulties immigrants face when entering this country. So many of us were taught that the United States has always been a great big melting pot, welcoming of all who wish to enter. Unfortunately, history tells us that this is not the case. By trivializing the difficulties, perhaps it is a subconscious effort by the media to reconcile ideals and reality.

  5. In general, I think that popular media is necessary, even crucial to creating an accepting, knowledgeable, and diverse society. The fact that the TV shows and other works that you mentioned exist is wonderful, though there are clearly still gaps begging to be filled. I’d love to see a show featuring Arab-Americans. That could go a long way in tackling the issue of Islamophobia and raising awareness of a rich culture and a religion not so different than ones which the mainstream calls “familiar.”

    I also love that you included Hamilton! I think this story is tremendously important in establishing immigrant narrative as an integral part of American history. So rarely do we think about our founding fathers coming from elsewhere and how they might have been looked down on by their contemporaries for just that. However, these people still made a difference and left their mark on history in a big way.

  6. These are some really great examples of immigrant stories and I hope that these will only continue to increase along with perhaps a turn for a less comedic and trivial stance on the issue. However, they do still shed light on the “double consciousness” that du Bois wrote of which so many Americans fail to realize because their family has been in this country for generations. No two stories are the same, but hopefully museums, historical institutions, and pop culture can help to shed a light on the struggle that immigrants face on a daily basis.

  7. I love how you tied pop culture to the discussion. I agree that it is strange that comedy is used to digest immigrant stories, but sometimes comedy is the best way to allow people to become comfortable with different/controversial/hard to understand topics.

  8. This brings up great points of how the media can shape the general mind set of cultural experience of immigrants. I remember one episode of Master of None where Aziz talks to his father about growing up in India and the struggles he faced that Aziz did not. I feel Du Bois touches on this with his “double consciousness” where the offspring of immigrants struggle to shape their identity. Aziz’s father knew his culture and grew up in a vastly different environment. This brings up how does one maintain one’s culture while being transplanted and in fused with another. In the end, museum should understand these struggles while also educating the public on understanding cultural heritage .

  9. I like that so much of this discussion touches on using humor as a way to develop a dialogue about cultural differences. We are all aware that issues of race and ethnicity are often a point of contention in the United States, and that can make it difficult to these issues address head on. Humor can be a great way of diffusing tension and opening up lines of communication between groups with different cultural perspectives. However, used the wrong way humor can also cross a line. Another show that maybe has not handled cultural differences as well as those mentioned is 2 Broke Girls, which has been especially criticized for its portrayal of Asian-Americans. Perhaps the difference here is that shows like Fresh off the Boat and Master of None were created by people with close relationships to immigrant communities. Similarly, when creating museum exhibitions and programs that deal with issues of race and ethnicity, it likely necessary to include voices from the community being addressed.

  10. Love your post! As an avid watcher of Jane the Virgin and Master of None, I am so glad you mentioned these. Humor has been used for a long time as a way to both connect and alienate people, and it’s truly powerful when it is used for good. Mohja’s poem is such a powerful example of the role of someone who fits into both cultures, much like Aziz, and can use it as a platform to share both sides of the story. We must not forget that they have their own story as well and their sole purpose is not to connect each side. Narrative and humor go a long way in this society, and it great to finally see something worthwhile that makes use of both!

  11. The poem by Mohja is a really powerful message. The fact that it shows every person in the stories point of view from the grandmother, the grandchild, and the fellow shoppers makes the reader feel like she or he is in that department store. Your analysis of the grandchild sitting in the crossroads of these two worlds is a reality many grandchildren of immigrants face. On one hand she or he wants to know and practice their heritage of their grandparents, but they are still a participant of the new culture of the country they were born in. In addition your inclusion of the other popular media sources is another way to explore this message.

  12. Not to rope my family in again, but on the subject of “Fresh off the Boat,” I remember that my family were initially offended by the show–before having watched it–simply because of the total. It seems to me they thought it was making light of immigrants experiences and ridiculing cultural differences. After watching an episode of it, I realize this was clearly not the case and tried to convince them otherwise. But with the attempt to bring immigrant and other culturally diverse perspectives to media, there might be some who look at a comedic attempt in a negative light, based more on assumptions than understandings.

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