Dear Kiki: I want to learn more about my parents’ immigration experience. How can I start a dialogue?

In this month’s Dear Kiki, learn tips on how to start a gentle dialogue with your parents about their immigration experience.
Elderly women sitting by the ocean pondering their immigration experience
Photo credit: Pixabay

Dear Kiki:

My parents moved to America when they were in their 20’s. They don’t share much about their lives before, so I only know little about the tough circumstances they grew up in. It’s a touchy subject, but they are getting older, and I don’t want their stories to disappear. How do I navigate this sensitive conversation and get them to open up about their past?

Preserving My Family History

Dear Preserving My Family History,

It is really thoughtful of you to want to learn more about your parents’ immigration experience.

As we get older, we notice our parents quickly aging year after year. But more importantly, we realize our time with them may be limited. We may wonder how we can honour their legacy and capture our family history when they are no longer with us in person. In particular, their stories about  their journey to North America are a huge part of their legacy.

In any case, immigrating to a new country with a different culture and language comes with hardships and emotional tolls. One can only imagine the many obstacles they faced in assimilating into a new society while shouldering the burden of building a better life not only for themselves–but for their family as well.

Often, the immigration experience is associated with a sense of loss of one’s previous home, familiar surroundings, and cultural identity. Therefore, talking about old memories can unlock feelings of grief and trauma. However, there are ways to bring up their past that can be healing; these candid conversations may create a closer connection between you and your parents.

See also: Honouring our elders: memories, stories and journeys

Show genuine interest and curiosity in their stories

While you cannot force your parents to share their immigration experience, you can show them that you are genuinely interested, curious, and care deeply about their stories. It starts with a simple question about their big move to North America or acknowledging the challenges of immigrating to a new country. For instance, you can ask your parents “where did you live when you arrived” or “what did you like to eat when you first moved here?”

Unfortunately, a common response from immigrant parents is to minimize the courage and hurdles they had to overcome. Nothing about their journey should be diminished. Thus, approaching these talks with empathy is a gentle way to start a dialogue. The older generation may assume that we are not interested in their stories. However, by recognizing their accomplishments and being inquisitive, they are more likely to let you into their treasure trove of memories.

Photo credit: RODNAE Productions

Personally, my parents rarely shared the difficulties they faced after moving to Canada. Especially about the challenges of rebuilding their careers, navigating mental health, and dealing with marital issues. It was not until I got older that they felt comfortable enough to have these intimate conversations with me.

Ultimately, it is up to us to demonstrate that we are ready to listen. It is important that we possess the maturity and emotional capacity required to receive and honour their stories.

See also: Grandpa’s Wontons 阿公馄饨

Conversation starters to try

Due to generational and individual differences, communication styles may vary. So it might be difficult or feel awkward to start barraging our parents about their immigration experience. Luckily, there are many ways to spark these candid conversations.

I suggest using a piece of memento or activity to ease into the topic. For example, you can look through old photos, put photos into a photo album, or get crafty by making a scrapbook together. You can also create a DIY project that traces your family tree from their hometown with their journey to North America.

Asian parents looking back at their immigrant experience
Photo credit: RODNAE Productions

In addition to learning about your family’s history, you can also learn about the history of Asian Americans, particularly around their time of migration. Doing your homework may ignite some meaningful discussions and develop a stronger sense of identity.

Earlier this year, actress Gemma Chan wrote an article about her father’s experience in the merchant navy and the discrimination towards Chinese seamen. But more importantly, how he stood up for his rights so he could reunite with his family. Chan’s father only revealed these details to her after she sent him an article about the forced deportation of hundreds of 2,000 Chinese seamen from British society after World War II.

Providing historical facts adds an additional layer of context to personal details. Your parents’s stories and those of their generation are important pieces that fit into the collective history of the Asian American and diaspora community.

Honouring your family history

In the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, it is not always easy for individuals – let alone our parents – to talk openly about vulnerable topics like hardships and loss. However, it does not mean that they do not exist. Regardless of the details you know, you can still express appreciation and gratitude for your parents and their perseverance.

Elderly woman at a temple.
Photo credit: Volker Meyer

The best way to honour their stories is to be ready to listen when they decide to divulge details of their past. But of course, do this with patience, intention, and compassion. It may take some time or a few tries. Even when our parents or someone tells a story repeatedly, there may be new details to excavate.

Your parents may be reluctant to share their immigration experience, but everyone deserves an opportunity to tell their story. Just because it is difficult for someone to share their journey, it does not mean they are not equally impressive or worthy. Every immigrant’s story and individual experience are just as significant, no matter how small  it may seem.

Ultimately, the real reward in this process is the opportunity to spend quality time with your parents and further cement your relationship. Hopefully, one day, you will have the privilege to share their stories with the next generation.

See also: Behind the counter: Restaurants and the immigrant narrative


Dear Kiki is Cold Tea Collective’s advice column and it is published in the last week of every month. To get advice from Kiki, submit your questions and comments here. Or, subscribe to our newsletter to get Kiki’s advice straight to your inbox on the last Sunday of every month.

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