Multigenerational Living Isn’t Immigrant Culture, It’s Human Culture

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When I was learning Russian, I had a professor who once asked us to relate a time (in Russian, of course) when we took a vacation with just our dads. A weird prompt, right? I certainly thought so. At least, until my other classmates started telling stories about going on fishing trips and whatnot with their fathers, and I was left wondering if I was the crazy one.

When it was my turn, I ended up blurting out (with a measure of panic, as this professor was, frankly, a real hardass sometimes), “I don’t know. I’ve never taken a trip with just my dad; my family’s always together.”

Without missing a beat, the prof looked me in the eye and, instead of reading me the riot act like I was expecting, he said softly, “Because you are immigrants.” And he left it at that. He didn’t press me further.

Those four words struck at something in me; to this day, I have trouble recalling them without getting choked up. I’ve had a lot of time since then to think about that moment and about what it means to live in an immigrant family. Were we defined by our loss, by the trauma of being uprooted? Had that made us magically closer than the average American family?

No, of course not. My family has as many interpersonal problems as the next one, and I’ve got relatives whom I don’t even like very much. We don’t enjoy some special, stronger bond just because we’re immigrants. It is true, though, that we’ve tended to stick together—and in fact, I spent the majority of my upbringing living with extended relatives, along with my nuclear family.

Usually this was my paternal grandmother (who’d left Iran with nothing to her name), but there were times when my adult half-brother also lived with us, as well as the occasional cousin. On top of that, I moved back in with my parents at one point in adulthood myself, while doing my MA and struggling financially. At that time, my younger brother, older half-sister, brother-in-law, two nephews, and grandmother all also lived with us.

In other words, it was five generations of nine people, all in one household.

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