Updated: July 1, 2013 2:14AM
Jerica Tan is 15 and fully aware of her father’s successful career as an expert in infectious diseases. Her dad finished high school early in Singapore and at 16 enrolled at Duke University to launch his studies in the field.
But until last week, Tan never considered what her dad left behind when he immigrated to the United States.
“I never looked at my father as an immigrant,” she said during a break from a workshop at DePaul for International Baccalaureate students in Chicago Public Schools as well as Trinity, Tan’s high school in River Forest.
The annual weeklong summer workshop draws about 20 selected juniors-to-be from the rigorous IB program. Each must prepare an oral history on the immigration of a family member or relative.
Saturday, each student delivered a video presentation that incorporated an interview with their loved one.
Immigration can be tough to discuss because there is always a sense of loss, even among success stories. Family and fond memories are left behind in the old country; feelings of guilt and loss associated with that tend to be raw and emotional. The struggle to make it in the U.S. involves feelings of despair.
It takes guts for a teen to bring all that up to their parent or grandparent.
In every presentation it was apparent the students had embraced their family histories.
“Several say it’s the first time they talk about immigration as a positive thing,” said Brian Spittle, an assistant vice president at DePaul. “We tell them, ‘Don’t leave the culture behind. Don’t leave the language behind.’ For some, it’s the first time they’ve heard that.”
Tan told me she had not realized how much guilt her father felt for leaving his parents. He was the only son, and in many Asian families there is pride and responsibility attached to that. His mother never really got over his move.
For her dad, “it’s stressful,” Tan said.
Gabino Sanchez, from Prosser, described an eagerness at the project’s outset to know more about his mom’s move from Mexico.
“I always figured it was hard to move to another country,” he said. “You don’t know if you’re going to find a better life or a worse one. It’s really risky. She came to find a better job to send money to her family. She still does it.
“I didn’t realize how much she missed her family. It was really powerful: How much she loved them to separate herself to make their lives better.”
Taylor Shirahama, of Taft, chose to interview her grandmother, a Japanese-American in her 90s. Her exact age is unknown because her birth certificate was lost during many moves in the U.S.
Those moves were forced on her grandmother, Shirahama said. First she stayed in a Salvation Army orphanage after both parents died. During World War II the government forced her grandmother, a citizen of this country, to live in an internment camp in Arkansas because of her Japanese roots.
After the war, the grandmother eventually had her freedom, but finding a job and a home was rough because racial and ethnic tensions had not eased.
“It makes me proud to be Japanese-American,” Shirahama said. “I know how hard they worked to build themselves into the U.S.
“I really want to be like my grandma. She’s so strong. She made the best out of everything.”