This past summer, a photographer and I drove out to the suburbs surrounding New York City to spend the afternoon with immigrants and their kids. The families we met hailed from India, Italy, and Hong Kong, and didn't have much in common, except they'd moved here from somewhere else, lived near New York — and all insisted on cooking us lunch.
At the Guptas, we ate pakora and fresh figs, and heard about their journey from India to Long Island — with stopovers in England and Cincinnati. At the Ciancios, we ate pasta with red sauce made in giant batches once a year in a relative’s backyard and washed it down with red wine they make in the garage. At the Wongs, we got a big spread of Jewish appetizing — including "world-famous" tuna salad from a local deli. At each, we talked about what it's like to come to the United States.
By definition, immigration is permanent: moving to a new place and staying there. But being an immigrant, in lots of ways, is quite temporary. People come to the U.S. seeking jobs or reuniting with family but bring with them their own food, culture, and accents. Then they move to New Jersey, have kids, and swap Chinese food for the smoked fish preferred by their mostly Jewish neighbors. Somewhere along the way, they turn into Americans.
In 2013, around 41 million people living in America were born somewhere else, the highest percentage in recent history. If you include their kids, immigrants and first-generation Americans make up a full quarter of the U.S. population. As we head into an election season dominated by talk of immigration, primarily of the most recent arrivals to the U.S., we wanted to get a fuller picture.
Rachel Wong, 26, with her parents, Susie and Will, both 58, in Livingston, N.J.
Rachel Wong: "I don’t really feel any connection to Hong Kong or China. I used to go to Chinese school, but then I didn’t really want to do it — my parents let me quit to play travel soccer instead. I barely know any Chinese. Most of friends I've grown up with are from playing sports; there weren't that many other Asian people."
Susie Wong: "She’s pretty Americanized. I remember when she was maybe 6 years old she would come home and say, 'Mom, how come I'm not Jewish?'"
RW: "Yeah, I used to want to be Jewish."
SW: "Because lots of her friends were Jewish, and the Jewish people had so many holidays off. So then they decided to petition the school district to get Chinese New Year off. We moved here from Hong Kong when I was 7.
"We were very, very poor. I lived in a walk-up tenement building. There was mice and cockroaches. And there were eight of us and we had one bedroom. The bathtub was right in the middle of the apartment.
"But my parents didn't have to learn how to speak English to talk to my teachers — it wasn’t like that, because they lived in much more of a sheltered Chinese community. The teachers spoke Chinese, the doctors they went to were in Chinatown. Everything was in the Chinese language, so they didn’t have to step out of the box and learn."
Will Wong: "My father came here in his 20s. He escaped when the Japanese invaded China. He worked for over 10 years, saved his money, and went to marry my mother in Hong Kong. The law didn’t allow Asian immigrants to bring spouses until the '50s. So that’s when my father went back to marry my mother.
"I was born here, so Rachel is technically between first and second generation. One-and-a-half generation. Growing up, we lived on the edge of Chinatown. Then my parents sent me and my older brother to Hong Kong for two years. We were told not to tell people where we're from because we're the only kids walking around with leather shoes. Back in the '60s, there was a lot of kidnapping.
"Susie and I met on the Lower East Side; she was going to a junior high school. I actually took her to my eighth grade prom when we were 14 years old. We're 58, so I've known her for 45 years, believe it or not."
SW: "He didn’t know how to dance. All we kept doing was walking in circles. But we dated and then we broke up for like probably a year and a half, and then we got back together. And then we got married very young, 22 years old."
WW: "I've done so many things in my life. I was a chef, I was a New York City taxicab driver, I was a bagel roller. I worked as a auto mechanic. I worked in UPS loading tractor trailers. I even worked for the ASPCA. When it was my time to put the dogs to sleep, that’s when I quit.
"Finally, I came to a point in my life. I was an auto mechanic and I told her, I said, 'Look you gotta help me out. I don’t want to do this anymore.' So I went back to community college for two years. I worked for two years, right, and then I started going back to night school. So I went to night school for nine-and-a-half years to finish my bachelor's and master's degrees, right? And I'm still with the same company after 30 years."
SW: "The biggest thing that I feel — and this really is the American dream, you know — is that it is what you make of it. We want the next generation to do better than us. That’s why as parents we work so hard is to be able to provide for them. I mean when we got married, we only had $200 in our savings account."
WW: "In other countries, if you're bringing money into the country or if you're a Ph.D., they welcome you. The United States, we welcome anybody. Right? So there's a difference. Maybe if the U.S. was like those other countries, we wouldn’t be here. My family didn’t have Ph.D.'s. Now, both my daughters have their master's."
Michael, 30, and his parents, Phyllis DiRico Ciancio, 61, and Bruno Ciancio, 64, in the garage of their home in Nesconset, on Long Island, where Bruno makes wine.
Phyllis DiRico Ciancio: "My family decided to move when I was 15 — I had no choice. It was very hard to switch. Nothing like Italy. And my English? Nothing. I took maybe three months just before I came here.
"It was bad. I remember me and my cousin, we used to cry between periods at school. It was totally different than Italy. I was lucky because I had a lot of family, a lot of cousins that were my age here. But other than that, no. I still feel that I don’t belong here. I still feel more like an Italian than an American — and we've been here 45 years. I don’t know, maybe because I'm married to an Italian."
Bruno Ciancio: "I was okay over there in Italy. I finished my degree but then because my girlfriend left me — I followed her [Phyllis]. I crossed the ocean for her. That’s the only reason. If she would have stayed there, I would never have came to the States."
PDC: "It was a big wedding — a very big Italian wedding."
BC: "I remember the number — 220 people."
PDC: "Two hundred sixty! Two hundred sixty people. His father came from Italy. Lots of food. Beautiful music. Dancing
"Years later, we moved [from Astoria, Queens, to Long Island]. At first, I didn’t like it here. Every weekend, I would go back to Astoria. To cut my hair. Shopping. At the time, Long Island wasn’t like it is — now we have beautiful Italian stores, but when we moved here 32 years ago, it was nothing. Nothing. So if I wanted like an Italian piece of Parmesan or, whatever, bread, I had to go back to Astoria. It started to feel like home after Michael was born. Settled."
Michael Ciancio: "I did feel 'different' growing up. This may be news to you, but I did. I felt really, really different. At times I hated it; there are not as many families who are first generation here. And, I want to preface this by saying, when I look back now, I couldn’t be prouder to be part of this family and where I'm from. But it was hard sometimes.
"I used to get made fun of for Nutella sandwiches — the kids said I was eating poop sandwiches. Second grade [laughs]. And I was always more hesitant to invite friends over because like their English wasn’t great. I always just had a very immature embarrassment about it.
"But in college, I started to love coming home and bringing my new friends. Because I think it's really special, this — being from this background. And there’s an old Italian stereotype, or assumption, that the hospitality is gonna be through the roof. I had my best friend over last weekend, and they always made sure he had a beer in his hand. There was, like, beautiful food. If you come over, you’re going to eat the whole time. "
Ashraya Gupta, 28, with her parents, Ashutosh Gupta and Iti Sinha, at their home in Sayville, on Long Island.
Iti Sinha: "I don’t even know how it actually happened. We were going to live in India, presumably forever, and then my husband went abroad to work and save some money. We moved to England, and I thought we’d stay there for a few years and then go back to India. While we were there, my husband realized that he could come to the U.S. if he wanted to.
"Looking back, I didn’t even think that we were coming here forever. It dawned on me after a while, after many years actually, that I am never going to go back and I’m here."
Ashutosh Gupta: "We ended up in Cincinnati, Ohio. When you immigrate, you start at the bottom. So your wages are low, and when you have a family and very little money to go around, you want to live in some kind of apartment complex, which offers decent schooling. So, you know, all the young immigrants are always found in the same pocket.
Ashraya Gupta: "I didn’t encounter average American white people until we moved to Long Island. I was one of three other people who weren’t white in my graduating class. That feeling of being 'foreign' didn’t hit me until I moved here, but also that coincided with middle school starting, so it was like double-dose.
"My brother’s social-studies teacher, in middle school, looked at his name on the attendance roster the first day and was like, 'Man, you really need to buy yourself a vowel.' Now, he talks about this, he can’t figure out if this is just naturally his personality or the personality he’s developed because of being an immigrant, always make them laugh, be a little diffident."
Ashutosh: "We had sent the records from Cincinnati to the school here. So when I got here, he had been put in English as a Second Language. I got into such a rage. Such a rage. I tried to find this person, to say 'Do you even read the files which land on your desk, just because you are unable to pronounce a name, you make assumptions? He is the smartest kid in your school!' I don’t know if that actually took place. But those were the thoughts in my head."
Ashraya: "Things that I should’ve called people out on and chose not to: One of my teachers said something like, 'In the sea of people in the classroom, I was an exotic treat.' It was awful. It was an awful thing to say!"
Ashutosh: "We have no conflict about our identity. We are Indians and we will always be Indians, wherever we go. That will be a problem for the next generation who have a claim to something, but it’s an indirect claim. They don’t really know what it is to be an Indian, though they have had peeks at it. The profound problem — when you ask me what I miss about India — I say what is there is centuries of history. Layer upon layer, it's incorporated into everyday song, language, it’s all around you.
"That is why, now, I’m against globalization! Because everything gets lost. It’s like blending Chinese and Mexican food, perfectly good dinners, ruined by blending them together. The best wines in the world are not produced by mixing them into one jar. You have to let them have their own personality."
Ashraya: "I was thinking about where I would want to raise my kids, if I had kids in this country, I couldn’t really do it anywhere other than New York City, because, would I want to put my kids through the same nonsense of being the one nonwhite kid in a suburban school in Long Island? No — not that I didn’t turn out okay. But it wouldn’t make any sense for me to move back to India; what do I know about that? Where do I belong there? I don’t.
"A friend once said to me, 'If you had to pick between calling yourself white or black, you would definitely say white.' I was like, 'Dude! Those are not the options! No, I would not call myself white, are you insane?'"