The stories my parents tell, and the ones that I tell about them, are not so far off from the stories that I read by other immigrants in books.By Ashley HefnawyJun 30, 2016 1:00 PM
As a second-generation Egyptian-American, I often find myself thinking about and sharing stories of pilgrimage. When I say “sharing stories of pilgrimage,” I really mean talking about how difficult it was to get from work to the supermarket because of the amount of traffic, or all the people on the subway, and the one guy who kept sneezing on me while I had nowhere to go because the train was that crowded. I can’t help it — it’s the way my family tells stories: almost always tinged with some bit of humor, or somehow working their way up to some petty complaint.
It might have something to do with the fact that my parents’ lives are stories that I will never be able to visualize — tales of coming to North America at a young age with no parents of their own, renting rooms throughout New York City, hustling to make ends meet and get an education. My parents, like most immigrants, came to the U.S. with dreams of opportunities and success on a much larger scale. They had visions for their future children that were only possible with the freedom and abundance of opportunities available here. But what’s interesting to me is that, because the hard work was already done by immigrating here and starting a family, everything that happened after, no matter how difficult, could be looked at through a humorous, light-hearted lens. That doesn’t mean that life became easier; it means that previous challenges had helped my parents (and my siblings and I, as a result) develop a thick skin, making the daily encounters and difficulties of life far less dire.
And this is why we complain. Because we can.
Our parents exist as stories, to a certain degree. We’ve known them for less time than they’ve been alive, so what we know of their lives before us is based on the stories they tell. Friends and colleagues don’t get to see how my parents react in situations, to make judgments for themselves. They won’t hear my mother’s subtle Arabic accent, or see my father’s beautiful smile that comes out every so often when he feels like it. I often wonder if stories by immigrants, or children of immigrants, are compelled by a need to bear witness to their families, and by extension, their cultures and the places they came from.
Books that tell the stories of immigrants have always interested me. When I was in the fifth grade, I had a teacher tell me that my English wasn’t great because I spoke two languages at home. For a kid, that’s a pretty rough thing to hear, especially since I was an avid reader and writer from a young age. It’s part of the reason I actually decided to work hard at my English speaking and writing skills. I’m a native English speaker, and yet I feel that stories I’ve read by immigrant and foreign writers are the most compelling and beautifully crafted examples of English language. I think there’s something to be said for a certain level of hardship, a certain journey that brings a person or a family from one place of challenge to another.
Here are some of my favorite books that tell a story of some sort of pilgrimage, whether it’s physical or emotional: