An immigrant father’s letter to his daughter.
OUR dear daughter,
You were just born a new American. You have more privileges and will have many more advantages than your foreign-born mom and me. Santi, we’ll call you. Shanti without an “H,” meaning peace in our culture and our country of Bhutan in South Asia.
Your first-generation immigrant parents have to balance Old and New World values. Lucky for you that your daddy didn’t come to retire young in Portland. We are not part of “Portlandia.” We’re much more like earlier European immigrants and refugees who dreamed, worked and saved their way into America’s robust mainstream.
There’s no reason to tell you that for almost two decades, your daddy and mommy had no running water to bathe, or electricity to cook or read, in our isolated Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal. We were victims of Bhutan’s “One Nation, One People” policy, which forced our Hindu family into a refugee camp.
The U.S. government in 2008 started resettling Bhutanese refugees under its federal refugee resettlement program, and our family signed up. The government sent your daddy to Portland, while your mom’s family went to Georgia and eventually to Portland. Unlike us, you’ll never worry about wonderful food or clean clothes, books to read or bikes to ride. We have a nice new house to welcome you. Daddy’s fire engine-red Mustang will take you to see your family, your friends and our new country, end to end.
Please understand, dear daughter, that Americans either love or hate your daddy’s accent and even his presence. I came out of a refugee camp without a life, without a future. Your parents came to America, without a country. I struggle a lot, without the benefits of a Western education or American work skills. But my tax contributions in six years to federal, state, and local governments have already exceeded $50,000. And I will continue working and contributing until my last breath.
While you sleep, your daddy builds bridges between the city’s downtown policy leaders and Portland’s most underserved neighborhoods through his work on programs, policies and advocacy. My stories in The Los Angeles Times and over National Public Radio broadcasts, and my essays in The Oregonian, are evidence of how much our immigrant and refugee families participate in expanding local economic growth and society.
But I am moving away from your story. You are still a baby, and in our eyes you will always be our baby. As your grandma tells me, and I will tell you, no matter how old you are: “Whoever you become or whatever position you hold, you are a part of me and the expectations are always yes.” We will be very strict parents for good reasons. We will guide you away from wanting unearned privileges. We will tell you when you’re taking your wealth for granted.
Your parents (naturalized U.S. citizens) and grandparents know how hard it is to constantly balance community-minded Bhutanese and individualistic American values, but you will know that we surround you with good practices and strong principles representing both countries and cultures. It’s up to you to choose the best way down the road of your life.
As you are a part of a heavily accented and spicy-food-eating family, we will feed you what has made us happy and healthy, and you’ll love it. How you speak and what you eat do not define how American you are. We still struggle as new Americans to define what American is. Amid diversity and dreamers, you will help us in answering this question. You won’t get a blank stare for your big accent or your small vocabulary the way your parents do.
You won’t have to lose sleep for trying to better invest in earlier integration. You won’t have to ask for “brown” equity in a culture focused on black and white problems. We will not speak English at home so you will know your elders’ culture and your community’s history. This will expand your mind and open your future.
So my child, we won’t press you on our dreams or goals, but we will hope you run for public office or hold a high-profile position, as your dad has always dreamed of. Our boxes of saved photos will not haunt you, if you don’t neglect your roots and neglect new immigrants as they settle into their new homeland.
We wish we could block all our struggles and successes from Google’s Web search engine until you finish high school, then as a graduation gift we would hand you this story, your newspaper story about when we first introduced you and our hopes for you to both your Old World and our new country.