Academic journal article The Oral History Review

"Go to College, Get a Job, and Don't Leave the House without Your Brother:" Oral Histories with Immigrant Women and Their Daughters

Academic journal article The Oral History Review

"Go to College, Get a Job, and Don't Leave the House without Your Brother:" Oral Histories with Immigrant Women and Their Daughters

Article excerpt

The growing body of literature on women's experiences has provided some excellent histories of memorable women in the United States. Recent research on the experiences of immigrant women, however, reveals that the implications of immigration and ethnicity from the woman's perspective have not been adequately explored.(1) For many immigrant women, migration challenges traditional female stereotypes, opening up opportunities for expanding the feminine role beyond the home and marketplace. Contemporary immigrant women have "embraced these opportunities selectively and adopted them within a largely [ethnic] orbit".(2) Their hold on the birth culture, religious and ethnic heritage usually remains quite strong.

Writings and the recorded histories of the daughters of immigrants from the late 19th and early 20th centuries reveal that the ties between immigrant mothers and their daughters were strained but not severed. Loyalty to their mothers and the cultures they represented remained strong, even into the daughters' adulthood.(3) Daughters of early immigrants did not deny their ethnic connections, but many seemed to require a hiatus from their families to work out the dichotomies posed by dual identities.

Social scientists apply the term "marginality" to the sense of dual identity experienced by immigrants' children. The daughters in this study, like their counterparts a century ago, share the tenuous position of "the person who stands on the borders or margins of two cultural worlds but is fully a member of neither".(4) Indeed, as Pima Anna Shaw has observed, these young women may spend "a lifetime of treading the bridge between two cultures".(5)

How are the lives of immigrant women affected by cultural changes inherent in the migration process? How are the daughters of immigrant mothers affected by their parents' often tenacious hold on ethnic and cultural tradition? The oral history interviews presented here provide fresh perspectives on these issues. Immigrant mothers perceive adjustments involving nuclear family structure, differing gender role and work expectations, childrearing practices, and care of the elderly to be the most difficult tasks. The daughters of immigrants perceive ethnic belief systems involving family and childrearing practices as cultural dichotomies that cause their lives to differ markedly from their peers. Daughters consider their immigrant mothers to be powerful role models, and believe that opportunities available to young women in America represent positive influences in their lives.

For this study, six Asian-American women who arrived in this country following the Immigration Act of 1965 were interviewed about their immigration experiences and their settlement in a new country. Four of the women had emigrated from Pakistan, two from India. Historically speaking, half of the Pakistani immigrants who arrived in the U.S. after 1965 came from the same region as those who emigrated to the States in the early 20th century. Unlike their predecessors, many contemporary Pakistani immigrants are highly-educated professionals. Contemporary Asian Indian immigrants also differ from those at the turn of the century: the contemporary population of Asian Indian immigrants is equally divided between men and women, who came to America not as temporary workers but with a deliberate intent to settle here. Professionally trained persons in both Pakistan and India who discovered their job opportunities were severely limited during the 1970s and 1980s often came to the U.S. seeking positions in law, teaching, or medicine. Those who were unable to find professional positions stayed to establish family restaurants, travel agencies, and even to drive taxis. It is interesting to note, however, that in the 1980s, fewer Asian Indians worked in U.S. service jobs than any other Asian American group.(6)

The three mothers in this study portrayed themselves as having come from lower to lower-middle class backgrounds. …

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