Stepping into a new country and culture that are entirely unfamiliar and trying to make this new place home — that is what it is to be an immigrant.
In 2015, an estimated 652,090 Michigan residents were immigrants, representing 7 percent of the state’s population, according to the American Immigration Council.
Two immigrants that currently reside in Kalamazoo and a son of immigrants were interviewed, and although their stories are different, they also share themes of resiliency, cross-cultural understanding and pride.
Wanting her voice heard
Chien-Juh Gu, 50, is a professor in the sociology department at Western Michigan University. She was born in Taiwan, where she grew up in a 10-person household. The men in her family were dominant, leaving her and her mother not having a say in their lifestyle and choices, she says.
“I felt like I didn’t have a role or a voice in my own home,” Gu says. “Due to three generations and the society I lived in, men had a say and more power, and it was difficult to go along with that belief.”
After years of living in her country, and after marrying a Chinese man, she and her husband decided to move to the United States for a better life.
“I have more freedom and choices I can make that not only best suits me but for my family,” Gu says.
Although she obtained her Ph.D. in sociology, started a family and settled in Kalamazoo, Gu still faced more challenges while living in the U.S.
“The most challenging thing in my professional life is how to get my message across and to be taken seriously,” Gu says. “Maybe I am too soft-spoken or I’m a woman. There are multiple factors that I try finding the answer to, which can be frustrating.”
Gu wants herself as well as fellow immigrants and minorities to be treated fairly and, most importantly, to have a voice.
For second-generation American Jonathon Chitaya, his experience in the United States is very different from his parents’.
Chitaya, 21, a student at WMU, was born and grew up in Michigan, raised by Malawian parents who immigrated to the U.S. in 1998. His parents came from Africa to the United States seeking a better life, especially for their family.
“On behalf of my parents, their adjustment since moving here while raising a family, not seeing people that they are used to seeing back at home, was difficult on them,” Chitaya says.
It took them some time to find employment, but it all eventually worked out. Chitaya’s dad has worked as a computer analyst for more than 20 years, and his mother is a nurse at Lakeland Hospital, in Watervliet.
After experiencing how much freedom and opportunity are available here, they do sometimes forget their culture, but not in a purposeful way, Chitaya says.
“Back at home in Malawi, if you have just these two things, lights and a TV, you were considered successful,” Chitaya says. “Malawi is a very poor country, and having that constant reminder, even through phone calls from family at home, my parents humble themselves and remember their roots.”
Chitaya himself has found it is hard to be reminded of and to maintain his Malawian culture while living in the U.S.
“I identify myself as 100 percent Malawian in my blood but am identified by some of my family members in Malawi and my peers in Kalamazoo as an African-American man, which is fine, but why not include Malawian?” Chitaya says.
“I try to keep my Malawian roots, such as the language and culture, alive by speaking and practicing it with my parents when we have free time,” Chitaya says.
It has been seven years since he last visited Malawi. In the meantime, he proudly shares with his friends and peers stories from the few visits he has made there, and stories from his parents about their homeland.
Facing the journey alone
Ritu Manandhar, 21, came to the U.S. by herself. Originally from Kathmandu, Nepal, Manandhar came to Kalamazoo after seeing her oldest sister move to the United States on her own. Manandhar believed she too could follow her dreams.
“Moving here to the United States, or even in general moving, is always tough,” says Manandhar, a pre-nursing student at WMU. “When I first came to Kalamazoo, I didn’t have any friends. I moved everything and settled into this campus all by myself.”
While there are 45 other Nepalese students at WMU, Manandhar says her advisor told her she is the only one living on campus.
“I eventually had to come out of my comfort zone and fight my anxiety and meet new people and make friends,” she says. “After two years of staying in Kalamazoo, I have made the most supportive friends that I could ever ask for.”
Manandhar’s friends encourage her and give her motivation to keep going and to make her family proud, she says.