The Burden Of Being A First-Generation Immigrant

I learned very early that to be an immigrant in this country meant I didn’t have the luxury of choosing what I wanted. (An excerpt from the anthology The Good Immigrant.)

I wanted more.

Shortly after I declared this fact, my father left me at the entrance of my dormitory, perhaps thinking that the college with ivy running up and down red-brick buildings was like a five-star hotel. That there would be sheets and pillows and comforters, and robes, and toiletries arranged just-so on a bathroom counter inside a spacious room. The only things he left me with were his words: “Know yuh place, keep quiet, an’ work hard.” I stood in my place with my one suitcase and watched him leave in his work van, which had all the tools he used to fix rich people’s pools in Long Island when he wasn’t driving his taxi. The van stood out on campus next to the Volvos, Lexuses, and BMWs. As the first in my immediate family to go to college, I already knew, or had given myself some reason to believe, that I was no longer my father’s problem. I looked around, almost bewildered that I was by myself — far away from my father’s apartment in Hempstead and definitely far away from home in Jamaica with my siblings, my mother, and my grandmother. I must have been terrified, because I remember standing there outside the dorm building for a very long time. I had a hundred dollars in my pocket, a suitcase, ambition, and no clue.

I could not fault my father for leaving me so abruptly. I was the smart one, the responsible one, the eldest who was going to be a doctor, after all. But as I looked around my new environment, this place where doctors were made, dread, the taste of seawater, set in. “Jus’ hol’ yuh breath an’ kick,” he said to me once, during an attempt to teach me how to swim. This was long before he left us to go to America. I was about three years old. He used to take us to the beach and help us float above sea and sand. I remember watching his face as I kicked — a face that remains the same in flashes of memory, bright like the sun, a face that had aged by the time I came to live with him in America at the age of seventeen. I had left home for more or less the same reasons he did — the ability to thrive, the desire for upward mobility — and though unlike him I didn’t have children to support, I knew deep down that I’d want them with a woman.

Now here I was by myself on a college campus where I was expected to ride the waves. The swimming lessons returned to me then, as I stood on the steps of my dormitory. Somehow I remembered the day I mistakenly opened my mouth to catch my breath and swallowed a gulp of seawater — a terrifying moment, which still nauseates me to this day. And though I cannot swim today, I’ve managed to remember the lessons.

The campus was beautiful in the sunlight (although I would later learn that the sky turns dove gray in October and remains that way until May). Parents were helping their children move into their dorms. Fathers were carrying heavy boxes, bean-bag chairs, shelves; mothers cradled special lamps, pillows, fleece comforters, and bags of snacks; siblings lagged behind, their eyes wandering around the manicured campus where they might end up, and where their parents had probably met. Once inside, I looked back at my quiet, empty room with my one suitcase.

I learned very early that to be an immigrant in this country meant I didn’t have the luxury of choosing what I wanted.

The rest of that first semester on campus was a blur. My roommate never showed up, so it was just me in my room. I spent the financial aid money that was supposed to be for books on sheets, comforters, toiletries, and other things I needed for my dorm. I drank soda and ate pizza until I stopped eating altogether. I found a spot in the library where I could scribble poems about home inside my biology textbooks. I began to miss home, my family, my real friends. And though I was feeling this way, I could never tell anyone. For how could one be sad in America? How could one complain about an opportunity to go away to college knowing they’d come out with a degree from an Ivy League, which would forever establish them in their new country?

I began to miss the community college where I’d started in Long Island, the place my father had thought would help me to acculturate. There I sat in classes with other immigrants who had already settled in America. They were pursuing dreams of careers in nursing, physical therapy, radiology, teaching, as the head sales associate at a department store — sensible jobs that could allow them to send money back home or help them to afford rent in homes where they lived with other family members in Queens or the Long Island suburbs. If they had other passions, they never mentioned them. It was common sense not to. I learned very early that to be an immigrant in this country meant I didn’t have the luxury of choosing what I wanted, only what was necessary. Following this rule, many of my classmates at the community college strove to complete their two-year degree, accepting that it might take four years given that most worked two jobs or more. They knew, too, they couldn’t afford for their ambitions to be bigger than their pockets unless their ambitions would prove to be lucrative; and they knew their American Dream was really about independence. And so, I chose medicine.

I read books to cope with my new country. I stayed in the library until late at night. Later, I applied for a job at the school library so I could stay even longer, running my hands along the spines of books as though they were visas in my passport. I yearned for what was in those books — a freedom to go anywhere I pleased without feeling lost, alien. Back in Long Island, it was my writing that had set me free. My stepmother, who had resented the idea of me coming to live with them, had found my journal and read about my romantic feelings for women. “Is it true?” my father asked me when she told him. I denied it, but I immediately sought out a college advisor at the community college and told her I wanted to go away. The woman’s eyebrows knitted at the center. Very rarely did she come across a student who wanted to go beyond nearby Hofstra University or Adelphi, maybe City College in Manhattan. She was a black American woman with a penchant for elephants. They were all over her office. She gave me a few college brochures, and my index finger landed on one. I had learned about the school from a representative a year before in my high school back home. I was able to afford college prep and SAT classes with the money my father made in America driving a taxi and building pools. So by the time I sat before this woman in her office full of tiny elephants, I was ready to transfer to the place that stood like a castle on a hill far, far away. I was bound to be happy in a place that looked like a fairy tale.

“How far is Ithaca from here?” I asked the advisor.

“About six hours?” she replied. “Five if the roads are clear.”

That was all I needed to hear. I worked extra hard that year, using school as an excuse to stay away from home as much as possible. My stepmother was furious that I was allowed to stay. Her fury turned to verbal abuse. She knew — as women must know — that she didn’t have my father’s heart. And she knew — as mothers must know — that her real issue had nothing to do with me. There were times I could not return to my father’s apartment. He hated confrontation and told me to be the bigger person. “Jus’ ignore har.” He didn’t want to acknowledge what he already suspected to be true about my sexuality, and neither did he want to upset my stepmother any more with my presence. This broke my heart, the fact that my father failed in that moment to stand up for me. I depended on him. And yet as soon as I got my college acceptance, he whisked me off to campus and left me there like a sack of clothes at Goodwill.

My first Thanksgiving away was spent in the home of a literature professor, a regal middle-aged black American woman who wore elaborate shawls, had a shaved head, collected African art, spoke of her trips to West Africa — where she had adopted her beautiful daughter — and reminisced about James Baldwin like she had known him well. I was taken by her, her books, her art, and how she looked me steadily in the eyes with intensity and knowing — the first time anyone had looked at me that way in America — when she said, “You never truly left home. Home is here with you in your memories, which, like the imagination, only belongs to you.” Years later I would finally come to understand what she meant. That Thanksgiving break, in the depths of my homesickness and loneliness, she strode up out of the sea and saved me.

“You never truly left home. Home is here with you in your memories, which, like the imagination, only belongs to you.”

I made friends with the other pre-med students, most of whom were Caribbean and African immigrants with aspirations as big as mine. One day at lunch they said I “seemed not to be a part of things,” as if my mind was elsewhere. When I looked at them askance, they recounted times when we huddled in the library to study in groups, and how I would stare at them, as though setting myself apart. Little did they know that I stared because I envied them. I envied them because I wished I still wanted what they wanted; I wished I was not carrying this personal burden of making it in America all by myself; I wished I could desire something simply because I was told to desire it. I knew my friends would eventually find out that I was an impostor. “I’m thinking of changing my major,” I later blurted to the small group of three, thinking of the books I had seen on the professor’s bookshelf and the way I had felt after purging my homesickness with words.

“To what?” Yasmine, a girl from Guyana, asked.

“English,” I replied. “With a creative writing minor.”

They fell silent. They looked at me as if I was to be pitied. It was obvious from their eyes that they expected me to burst out laughing and say I was joking. Their expressions reminded me of the time not long before when I came out as a lesbian to my friend in high school back home. It was a gutsy move, I knew, but I felt if I kept it inside it would combust and I would be blown to pieces.

My new friends looked at each other, then down at the biology cheat sheets as though the sheets were food that had gone to waste. Chi-Chi, the Nigerian in the group, made a clucking noise and said, “You can’t be serious. If you want English, then what you doing here?” She emphasized “here” to remind me that I was taking my opportunity for granted, that we were students at one of the most competitive schools for pre-med in the country, that any first-generation immigrant with the weight of her family on her back would kill to take my spot. This was no joke. This was life or death. After a pause, my friends chuckled softly and shook their heads. The fact that I had revealed this to them was significant. It meant I was beginning to value their friendship and thought they’d understand. It did not take me long to discover that we were all absolutely and mercilessly united by our ambitions to stay afloat on our parents’ dreams — the American Dream. We were, after all, the good immigrants. I lowered my head and continued to study, the memory of the ocean rising in my gut. I threw up in the restroom after lunch.

I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for graduate school — the bravest thing a Jamaican immigrant could do, being that it was in the middle of nowhere. Jamaicans tend to like coasts — places where they can slip in and out of the country if need be and be around other Jamaican immigrants. But for me, Ann Arbor was an escape. At the time, I was dating a woman. I thought she was good for me because she was Jamaican. I had never dated a Jamaican woman before then. I thought she was a miracle, the fact that she existed as a Jamaican woman who loved women. We were a miracle together. Never mind that she found it necessary each time we loved to tell me she was straight, never mind that our relationship was a secret, never mind that she spoke extensively about marrying a man someday, never mind that she was the reason I was forced to come out to my mother, who heard me sobbing over one of our many breakups when I visited home. “Two women don’t g’waan like dat wid each other. Is she really jus’ yuh friend?” she asked. Tired of denying, I told the truth, and sure enough, I was no longer welcomed home.

But that was near the end. In the beginning, I was full of want. I threw myself deeper into the relationship because she was the only thing I had left of home. There weren’t many women I could share histories with — a culture, a whole country. She probably chose me for the same reason. “We can’t afford to be dis way,” she would tell me. I wanted to tell her that we were free to be whatever we wanted in America. But her mind was already made up. She was also studying to be a doctor, so it was understandable. I had considered this fate too — the expectation to pass as straight in order to be successful. At the time, there were no visible examples of black lesbians, much less Jamaican lesbians, doing well professionally back home or abroad. She wanted to move back home to make a difference in our country. “It’s our responsibility!” she would argue. And I wouldn’t argue back. I just listened to her talk. It was as though she was convincing herself. She was already deemed a darling back home anyway — one of those overachieving young Jamaicans sent abroad, having been groomed from a young age to be leaders, the ones who diligently rehearsed their roles as replicas of the older generation that still clung to a colonial mindset. For we were supposed to be little ambassadors in training. We were supposed to make our country proud. Be good immigrants. Be great. I knew I couldn’t stop her — that I wasn’t enough to make her live a lie in her beloved country, which would condemn her truth.

I thought she was a miracle, the fact that she existed as a Jamaican woman who loved women.

Yet I stayed, because every time she wrapped her arms around me, I disappeared. Pressed against her softness, I rode the undulating waves and opened my mouth, swallowing everything she gave: love, anger, resentment, hate. I wanted her to carry me home, bury me there, inside her. I didn’t have the strength to leave. I felt as though I was being physically dragged by one leg in a rip current. In a desperate attempt to save myself from plunging to the bottom of the ocean floor, I latched on to the one thing I had: my ability to write good lies. I had been accepted into graduate school for something I didn’t care much for. By the time I managed to crawl out from under the weight of that relationship, I was emotionally bruised, living in the middle of America, alone, where ice sheathed the Great Lakes, where trees seemed barren save for the blackbirds on their branches, and I bit my tongue and nearly swallowed my own truths, where I remained frozen.

A year later, I moved to New York City. There was something about the chaos that calmed me. I was working and living in the basement of a Brooklyn brownstone with two other women. We were all hustling to make it in our respective careers: Karen as a deejay, Bridgette in modeling, and me in — well — the closest I could get to medicine, which was public health. My first job was teaching new mothers in Brooklyn how to breastfeed. I was horrible at it for obvious reasons — I didn’t have children and have never breastfed. I watched mothers watching me, wondering how I got the job and what had happened to the busty no-nonsense middle-aged woman one might imagine as more qualified for it. They kept looking around for her to walk through the door, trailing behind me — a shy, skinny twentysomething with baby dreadlocks and a nose ring. My refusal to meet their gaze confirmed their suspicion. Yet in great weariness (or maybe pity), they allowed me to demonstrate with the fake breast I carried around in a book bag what they ought to be doing and how they ought to be doing it. I pretended to ignore the quiet sniffles of mothers who could not do it. I wish I had known it then, but now I realize that the closed faces and down-turned mouths were responses to judgment. I was not the one judging these women — mostly low-income blacks and Latinas, many of them immigrants — but a society that deemed them inept mothers. My rent was being paid by the state based on this fact — at the inexpressible expense of other women’s dignity.

Cornered in my dilemma, I turned to writing. I wrote often, mostly at night while I could hear the voices of my roommates and their friends and lovers muffled through my door. All I had were my words. I was desperate for release. Once, I used my lunch hour to write and never returned to my cubicle that day. I knew then what I wanted to do, but I had no idea how to pursue it. Whenever I met anyone, I’d tell them I was a writer and then wish I hadn’t when they asked what I’d published. One day I said this to someone who stared at me with the same intensity and knowing as the literature professor years before. No one had stared at me like that in a long time. Or perhaps if they had, I had been too distracted to notice. To be examined that way — not as a foreigner, a piece of ass, or a trophy, but as a whole person — was exactly what I needed. “If you’re a writer, then write.” Abruptly, my head was lifted out of water, and the sky above me came into focus. Four years later, I married her — this woman who encouraged me to go after my dream as a writer. We married in a courthouse in Brooklyn and then had a private wedding celebration in Jamaica, where I was finally able to return. Though Jamaica is highly homophobic, it meant a lot to me to be able to exchange vows with the woman I love in the country of my birth — as I was able to do in hers.

“You’re living the American Dream now,” a friend said to me exactly fifteen years after my father left me on the steps of my dorm. I had just published my first book to much acclaim. Suddenly, I was on everyone’s radar, including my college friends, now all doctors. One evening they invited me out for drinks. “Let’s celebrate you in your success!” They seemed the same at first, barely aged since I last saw them, except for the glistening diamond-encrusted wedding bands. They shyly scooted over to give me a seat at the table, smiling down at their half-empty glasses. I remembered how they had welcomed me and accepted me during our college days. I had changed, but they were the same girls who huddled in the campus library, chasing mapped-out dreams. They still spoke of old classmates, what they were doing, who they’d married. They still believed in being good immigrants, avoiding any mention of me being married to a woman, focusing only on how I’d made a name for myself in America. They asked me about my travels, and as I told them, I could see in that moment their guarded respect and admiration. “You’ve made it! We’re so proud of you!”

I began to claim this American Dream, which my friends insisted I had achieved. Until one day it struck me — I was nowhere near it. A few months after the 2016 election I was at a restaurant with my wife and a few writer friends. Everyone at the table had been born American except me; all were white, except me and my wife. We were talking about writing and living in America in the time of Trump. I had been reluctant to share my thoughts. My writer friends, speaking in low tones by candlelight over wine, began to discuss the possibility of moving to another country. “Black Americans have always struggled here and we stayed,” my wife countered. It was as though they were all speaking a different language as Americans. I began to painfully discern that their America was different from the America I looked to for my freedom. I had never been a part of the history they were individually reacting to. And though they all came from different backgrounds as Americans, they were responding to the potential loss of an empire — their empire. I felt like that newly arrived seventeen-year-old foreigner again. It was strange to find myself in this country of my sojourn, listening to the natives — white Americans — speak of leaving in the same way working-class Jamaicans felt the need to leave the island. I pushed away my wine, which had suddenly gone bitter, and looked on in mild bewilderment at the strangers at the table, strangers who had significance in my life in this foreign land, strangers who had embraced me.

“What do you think, Nicole?” They all turned to me.

Perhaps they had noticed me drifting, the way my college friends had noticed over the biology cheat sheets. Would I ever want to leave? They wanted to know. Although I opened my mouth to speak, nothing came out. I had been treading in the deep end of the ocean all along. I had learned to accept the terror and the loneliness of surviving on my own in a new country, the dangerous depths stretching below me. And though I’m weary from all the proverbial strikes against me, I learned long ago, under the warmth of another sun, never to swim against a rip current, but to float, to conserve energy, to remain as calm as possible, drifting on the high seas of uncertainty. Yes, I had struggled in America, but I had also learned the most valuable lessons about myself, and I had fallen in love. I realized right then, sitting at the table, that the measure of my success is not the American Dream but my ability to swim out of the current, parallel to shore, and trust that the waves would carry me. “Jus’ hol’ yuh breath an’ kick,” came an echo from far, far away. ●

From the book The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman. Introduction and Selection copyright 2019 by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman. Contribution copyright 2019 by Nicole Dennis-Benn.

Nicole Dennis-Benn is the author of the novels Patsy (June 4, 2019) and Here Comes the Sun (Liveright, 2016). Her writing has been awarded a Richard and Julie Logsdon Fiction Prize, and two of her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in Fiction.

Dennis-Benn is a lecturer in the creative writing program at Princeton University. She has been awarded fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Hedgebrook, Lambda, Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Hurston/Wright Foundation, and the Sewanee Writers' Conference. She is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts grant and a 2018 Caribbean Life Impact Award.

Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Dennis-Benn is a graduate of Cornell University and holds a Master of Public Health from the University of Michigan and an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She lives with her wife in Brooklyn, New York.

Topics in this article

Skip to footer