First generation American guilt

By Ashourina Slewo

The American Dream is my blessing and my burden.


As a first generation American, the fight to achieve the American Dream is a constant one. My parents came to this country not long after they married in 1992. Es­caping persecution and looking for an opportunity to be more, they have been here for more than 20 years.

They never achieved the Ameri­can Dream, though.

My mother has worked harder than anyone I know, only to fall short of her own American Dream. In­stead, she worked tirelessly to make the American Dream attainable to me and my siblings. She struggled so we could have a shot at success. She passed her dream onto us.

So why do I feel guilty?

Because of a little thing called first generation American guilt.

Everything is about my family’s journey to America. It’s a story I proudly tell. But it’s the same story that keeps me feeling rigid on my path, scared to stray or make any mistakes that are sure to cheapen everything my mother has done to make this path a reality.

I can’t falter because somehow, it’s become my job to lift myself and my family away from this dark back­story and into a bright future. I can’t take this opportunity for granted so I have to succeed. I can’t just be smart. I can’t just graduate. I have to be the best. I have to make a name for my­self. All in the name of validating my mother’s journey.

A lot of pressure comes with be­ing the child of immigrants.

Everyone wants to make their parents proud. But when you are the child of immigrants, it all becomes a lot more urgent. You’re not just pass­ing your classes because you want to go to a respectable college, but be­cause your parents were forced to flee their home and never had the oppor­tunity to go to school. Because they left their home to give their unborn children the opportunity they knew they would never have.

Everything I do is to uplift my mother and use the opportunity she gave me to the fullest extent.

It’s a running joke in my family that when I walked across the stage at my commencement in 2017 that my mother should have waked the stage with me, gotten a degree with me. But it’s not a joke. It’s the truth. Her sacrifices are the reason I could even make it to class every single day and finally walk across the stage to receive my degree.

Those sacrifices are the reason I can’t slip up. If I do, I’m squan­dering the opportunity that she worked so hard to give me.

I get frustrated at times and start to wonder what it would be like if I was not first generation American. What if I was just like everybody else I grew up with and my parents had been born in the United States? I quickly squash those thoughts, though, because I have overcome way too much and worked too hard for this to bring me down. I’m proud of my story. But I can’t help it when the guilt eats away at me and make me feel as though every single one of my actions has to somehow pay hom­age to my mother’s sacrifices.

It’s my job to validate the risks my mother took and the challenges she faced so I could have a taste of the coveted American Dream. It’s a heavy burden, the American Dream.

Now, I’m not complaining about the opportunities I’ve been given or even having to make my mother proud – I appreciate them more than anyone will ever know. However, as a first generation American, everything you do slowly becomes about your parents and their sacrifices and less about your own individual journey.

Where in the book does it say that I have to sacrifice pieces of my­self to make my mother proud?

She’s certainly never said this was the case. She just wants me to be happy. But I can’t shake these thoughts that I have to do it for her. I want to do it for her, but I’ve allowed this guilt to cloud a lot of my own journey.

It’s hard to put these thoughts into words; it almost feels selfish to voice them (there’s that guilt I was talking about), but my fellow first-generation Americans will under­stand where I’m coming from.