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What they don’t tell you about immigrating to America

  • Photo courtesy of Peter Khant.

  • Peter Khant and his family at his high school graduation. Photo courtesy of Peter Khant.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

In the summer of 2016, prior to the start of my junior year at San Gabriel High School, I believed that the “American Dream” was all lies, that “America, the land of opportunity” was a fallacy. That summer was the 10-year anniversary of my arrival in this country, a harsh reminder of a decade-long struggle that my parents have endured to this day.

As an immigrant child from Myanmar, I was wired to chase higher education and a comfortable lifestyle. From ninth to tenth grade, I couldn’t bear any grade less than an A. I couldn’t understand why my academic success had to define me. I simply listened to my parents and tried to fulfill their expectations of me, but what they didn’t imagine was that their hopes and dreams would cause me to break down.

It was hard to feel “normal.” I lost confidence and trust in myself, and my grades plummeted along with my desire to go to college. The facts were right in front of me. Straight As wouldn’t transform my parents’ lives, and college loans would only add to the burdens they had to shoulder.

I drove myself crazy wondering why my parents made the choices that they did. “Why did you leave your middle-class lives, independent businesses, and family and friends in Myanmar? Why did you come to the U.S. to wind up with the exact opposite?” Those thoughts clouded my mind and made me feel helpless. I worried that I was causing their health to decline.

Since arriving in Alhambra in 2007, my mom has taken on blue-collar jobs regardless of the low wages and dreadful working hours. It’s ironic that my mother, who could afford a maid in our native country, became one herself in our new country.

At 11 p.m. when most people are getting ready for bed, my mom is getting off her second bus and walking a mile to get home. As soon as she comes through the front door, I can see the calluses on her fingers and food stains on her clothes. Yet I have never heard her complain.

Because of a physical disability, my dad had a much harder time finding work. After 10 years and hundreds of applications, he finally found one as a customer service representative, but I know it’s not satisfying to him. Back in Myanmar, he had been a rice merchant and our family’s main breadwinner, but the difficulties of starting over here in America damaged his confidence as a man, father and husband.

In June, my 78-year-old grandpa came to visit from Myanmar. It was awkward at first, spending time with someone whom I hadn’t seen in 12 years, but for him, the long separation was no barrier to sharing what was in his heart.

“When your dad was little, he fell off the bed and immediately started holding onto his right arm and leg,” Grandpa said, “We rushed to the doctor but were given the wrong dose of medicine. Ever since then, he hasn’t been able to move his right side of the body freely.”

As my grandpa spoke, I glimpsed tears in his eyes. I had never heard the full story or known how my grandpa felt like a failure to my dad because of the accident. I choked back my own tears because I felt the same pain and blame.

Grandpa feels responsible for the physical challenges that his son faces everyday. As my father’s son, I can’t help but feel partly responsible for the hardships he endures at work just to help my family and me get by.

I don’t have any memories of my grandpa in Myanmar as I left for the U.S. at the age of six, but when we shared our thoughts on the struggles of being an immigrant, it touched me deeply. It was almost as if our bond was never broken.

Now, another summer is nearing its end but on a different, more hopeful note than two years ago. Talking to my grandpa has empowered me to change my mentality. Instead of torturing myself about grades and feeling pressured to succeed, I’m going to take each day’s challenges as they come. I’ve set my sights on college again, maybe to study neurology to help people like my dad. I’m not yet living the “American Dream,” but I’m ready to go after it.

Peter Khant, a rising freshman at UC Riverside, is an intern for the Alhambra Source.

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