I never viewed it that way. At least not until I met my fiance.
We’ve been together for more than six years, but we’ve known each other for nearly 11. We have one of those “When Harry Met Sally” love stories: We were best friends until we ended up falling for each other, and everyone wondered what took us so long because it had been obvious that we were “meant to be” for quite some time.
It wasn’t until we went from just friends to full-on couple that I realized he possessed so many of the qualities I desired in a life partner. He’s ambitious, funny, generous, intelligent, outgoing, patient and, naturally, handsome. He loves to travel, can cook up a storm and knows exactly how to make me crack a smile after a long day. I could go on. In a way, instead of him matching up to a list of criteria I had generated myself, falling for him revealed to me just what my criteria were. By being himself, he showed me what I wanted — and deserved — in a partner. And that included some unexpected things.
Growing up as a first-generation American — that is, being the American-born child of immigrants — can be challenging. It’s an identity that is constantly in flux because you’re straddling multiple cultures simultaneously. In my case, it’s figuring out how to be a Filipina-Mexican-American all at once. My life is a giant balancing act of competing cultures, languages and traditions.
Jasminne Mendez, an artist and teacher in Houston whose parents are from the Dominican Republic, said she knows about that balancing act all too well.
“I speak both English and Spanish, but my English has always been more advanced than my Spanish,” Mendez said. “My mom didn’t speak English at home when I was kid, so I couldn’t tell her what I was feeling since I didn’t know the words for it in Spanish.”
Those scenarios are an everyday occurrence in first-gen households, and living with them is an experience that few truly understand. Fortunately, my fiance is one of those few. He’s a first-gen, as well, the son of two Jamaican immigrants. What’s more, we were both born and raised in Lincoln, Neb., a part of the country not known for cultural and ethnic diversity.
Throughout our relationship, I’ve discovered the unexpected value of having a partner who shares in this particular experience. Bridging cultural differences within families (especially with parents) is a task that many first-gens struggle with, so knowing that he “gets it” has made us closer and more connected.
“What I love most about dating a first-gen is the mutual understanding of racial tensions in America and the discussions which follow,” said Brenda Alvarenga, a student teacher in San Bernardino, Calif. “I love having a partner who has my back and does not dismiss microaggressions I encounter in the world. Instead, he comforts me and helps me proceed with a solution.”
Alvarenga, who’s Salvadoran, said she also values how her Mexican fiance is combating common misconceptions. “I love having a partner who is there for his children and counters the absentee father trope in people-of-color communities.”
First-gens understand one another in a unique, nuanced way. And that sense of understanding influences every aspect of your life, from family drama to career moves to parenting decisions.
“Keeping our culture alive in our kids is of equal importance,” explained Betsy Aimee, a business owner in Los Angeles. “We understand what it’s like to feel alone and feel pressure to assimilate. There’s an anxiety associated with feeling like an outcast, so we talk to each other about this and how it informs how we parent.”
Although Mendez had some expectations for her future spouse, ending up with a fellow first-gen wasn’t a requirement.
“I always knew that I wanted to marry someone that spoke Spanish, since that was important to me to pass that down to my own children,” Mendez said. “But since ‘first-gen’ is really a newish identity, it’s not something I ever thought about necessarily.”
And, to be honest, neither did I. The concept of being first-gen wasn’t something I was exposed to until I got to college, where I embedded myself within a community of young adults who, like me, had been going through some sort of identity crisis practically since birth. My fiance was a standout member of this community — ask anyone on a campus of more than 20,000 students who this guy was and they could probably tell you all about him: Track team. Honors program. New student orientation leader. A cappella group singer. He was, and still is, a very magnetic individual.
Yet while all those attributes pulled me into his orbit, our shared connection as first-gens has emerged as the bedrock of our relationship. When someone asks me, “What are you?,” I can turn to him and with a single look communicate all that needs to be said. When I’m in a situation where I’m required to speak Spanish and become visibly flushed, he understands that’s years of insecurity and cultural suppression bubbling to the surface. When I fantasize about finally visiting the Philippines and meeting my family there, he knows it will be much more than a vacation — it will be the discovery of an entire world. It’s a world that my mother calls home but that, to me, might as well exist in another universe.
He recognizes the heaviness of being a first-gen in America because he lives with it, too. And it’s a lot easier to carry that weight together.