For a long time after my parents and I, at the age of six, immigrated to the United States, I tried to hide the fact that I was poor and foreign. Then, for a long time after that, I tried to hide the fact that I had been poor and foreign.
First, I learned English.
I read the dead white guys. Then, the dead white females. Then, the living white folks. Finally – when they started appearing in the curricula – I knew it was okay to read some people of color.
Second, I learned to cultivate an appreciation of slow, beautiful Criterion Collection films. I couldn’t always make heads or tails of them, but I learned enough to start awake at the end of a Tarkovsky feature and admire its “dream-like quality.”
Third, I studied French in school. I studied French because I had heard that Spanish was practical. I studied French because – it, unlike the language of my parents which I had also pointedly neglected to study – was, by implication, impractical.
And “practical” was the last thing I wanted; I’d had quite enough of being “practical.”
“Practical” was owning one pair of overalls and learning to wear it several different ways (legs cuffed, legs uncuffed, torso visible, torso covered) to fool my primary school classmates into thinking I owned several pairs of jeans.
“Practical” was walking down the highway, bags of groceries in tow.
“Practical” was knowing that the first stuffed animal my parents bought me in the US cost $9.99 – not $19.99, the price they thought they’d heard before I clarified and translated for them – and naming that stuffed animal “poor little piggy” because it wasn’t worth more and we weren’t worth more.
“Practical” was subsequently directing my gaze away from any and all toy stores, so my parents wouldn’t realize that I liked toys.
What I didn’t realize as I watched and read and studied was that I was instinctively accumulating what philosopher Bourdieu termed “cultural capital.” Writing in 1986, Bourdieu explained that cultural capital was distinct from economic and social capital, but could nonetheless be converted into $$$ under the right conditions.
Those conditions essentially shaped my family’s immigration experience, though I wouldn’t realize that until much later. Instead, I would grow up with a hard faith in meritocracy, bolstered by the idea that my family ascended into the middle class after “starting with nothing.”
My grandparents, too, had “had nothing.”
For as long as I could remember, my grandparents lived in a bare-bones apartment provided by the Chinese college at which my grandfather taught. In it, worn and mismatched furniture rested directly on top of an unfinished, concrete floor. A cockroach or two was always running underfoot or along a wall. And, much to my chagrin during visits, the bathroom was not equipped with a Western-style flush toilet.
These observations – together with my grandmother’s unembarrassed boasts that their most prized possessions were a couple of Soviet Era spoons – led me to believe they were poor as well. My grandfather was supposedly a respected art history professor, but his position had not visibly elevated their or my parents’ lifestyles.
Thus, I would not think to credit him with my parents’ and my eventual success as immigrants to the US. At least, not for a very long while.
By 2008, I was a sophomore at an Ivy League university. My parents were not only financially comfortable but determined that I graduate with minimal loans. I was unbelievably fortunate, incredibly privileged, but still, I felt out of place. Whether it was the knowledge that I was receiving significant financial aid or the fact that I was encountering new Western foods for the first time in the dining halls — I somehow felt distanced from my even more privileged peers.
I could count on one hand (without using all five fingers) the number of friends I had made. My grades were mediocre, no professors knew my name, and I was not particularly active in any clubs. In short, I was convinced I did not belong. Sure, admissions had squeezed me in from the bottom of the wait-list, but I was clearly out of my depth.
Then, one day, my father came to visit me.
As I showed him around campus and we neared the main library, my father was suddenly struck with an idea. “Hey, why don’t we see if the library carries your grandfather’s books?”
My brow shot up as I immediately rejected his proposal. How could the work of my grandfather be housed so far way, in such a select institution? Still, my father persisted. (“Let’s just take a look, okay?”)
So I went to a computer, translated my grandfather’s name into the Roman alphabet, and hit “search by author.”
There it was.
The revelation upended how I saw myself in relation to my university and my peers, as well as how I saw my family’s socioeconomic status in the US. Somehow, we had not coming “from nothing.” Somehow, my grandfather had made it to the Ivy League before I did.
Later, I would also learn that my grandfather had had a hand in my parents obtaining visas for the US. In order to be approved, they’d had to show that they possessed a requisite amount of money to support themselves. When they came up short, my grandfather borrowed from an American colleague in the art history department at Rutgers. Thus, he took the only thing he had of value – cultural capital – and converted it into economic capital for my parents.
My grandfather passed away in 2014.
Here is a list of what he left me.
First, a love of art and scholarship, beautiful and difficult things.
Second, an understanding of my significant class privilege and a resolve to be kinder, more generous, more human.
Third, a book in a library, penned in a language that I can’t read. Nonetheless, I immediately saw within it the words “You belong.”