The casual use of dark humor and internet speech as a vehicle for diasporic angst reasserts the meme’s thesis: Eldest immigrant daughters have seen some shit—but haha no worries, we’re used to it.
These memes suggest that being socialized as the eldest daughter of immigrants entails self-sacrifice and trauma. They fall under the “[common experience] is actually traumatic” meme umbrella, which tends to fetishize suffering without getting into specifics. Memes in this category take a one-size-fits-all approach that allows a wide swath of people to relate. The eldest-immigrant-daughter-meme subgenre has very particular tropes: eldest immigrant daughter as invisible laborer, as second mother to her siblings, as the glue holding her family together, as competent to the point of pathology. For some eldest immigrant daughters, the trauma invoked by these memes could be harrowing abuse, while for others, it could be the time they missed their crush’s birthday party because they had to babysit their younger brother.
Eldest daughter of an immigrant household. For a phrase I’d never heard before, it immediately summoned an avalanche of memories. I thought of all the times I’d been instructed to shuttle relatives and family friends on last-minute, time-consuming, emotionally fraught errands. I don’t mean taking my grandma to CVS to buy hair dye (though this too is standard fare). I mean the time I took a woman I barely knew to an obstetrics appointment and had to explain in my second-grade-level Russian that the doctor was diagnosing her with a yeast infection.
She was the daughter of a family friend and had just immigrated to America. She was five months pregnant, didn’t speak English, and didn’t yet have any English-speaking family or friends with cars to accompany her. At twenty years old, I was barely comfortable enough with my own body to mutter the words vaginal discharge in English, let alone to say them in Russian to a near stranger. Also, I didn’t know the Russian words for vaginal or discharge. I thought back to the Russian for Native Speakers course I’d taken the previous semester and cursed myself for not remembering the vocab from the baking chapter. If I said “bread infection,” would she understand? No? Fuck. She started to look worried. Oh god, what if she thinks I’m trying to tell her she’s having a miscarriage? I wondered. “It’s okay,” I said, gesturing vaguely at her genitals. I embarked upon a game of charades that extinguished the last dregs of both our dignities.
Eldest-immigrant-daughter work involves driving people around and serving as a linguistic bridge in esoteric situations. It necessitates teaching yourself at a young age to correctly fill out high-stakes medical and financial paperwork whose gravitas you are too young to comprehend. It entails waiting in lines and sitting on hold with government agencies while your nonimmigrant peers “kiss their dogs on the lips” and “watch TV until their eyes fall out.”
Growing up in Los Angeles’s Russian Jewish community, I was hardly the only eldest daughter researching arcane Section 8 Housing provisions on a Saturday morning, or leaving a friend’s house early to entertain an out-of-town cousin of a cousin of a cousin forty years older than me whom I’d never met and would probably never see again. I accepted these responsibilities without question, presuming them to be specific to our culture. As an adult, it’s been cathartic to learn that these experiences are relatable to eldest daughters from many different backgrounds, so much so that they’re a minor trope on the internet. I like knowing I’m part of a much larger community than I realized and having a name for what we’ve experienced.
I like knowing I’m part of a much larger community than I realized and having a name for what we’ve experienced.
So deep was my newfound investment in the concept of the eldest immigrant daughter, I began this essay believing there was probably a body of research I could reference. As it turns out, the trope seems to exist only on social media and low–production value blogs. If there is any research whatsoever on eldest daughters in immigrant households, it’s hard to find. And that’s coming from someone who has successfully sent mail through USPS to villages where the houses have no numbers and the streets have no names.
With no research to turn to, I decided to conduct my own. I tweeted out a call for interviews about the eldest-immigrant-daughter experience and was instantly bombarded with over thirty offers (this alone felt like proof of concept). I spoke with seven women, none of whom I knew previously, about what the phrase eldest immigrant daughter means to them.
“Being the eldest immigrant daughter is navigating unfamiliar territory all the time while feeling like there’s no room for error,” says Salima Etoka, a Congolese American deputy chief of staff at a nonprofit. I really related to this. Helping someone in my community apply for citizenship or government support wasn’t a scenario where I could make the kind of mistakes you’d expect from a young person who had no idea what she was doing. Failure didn’t just mean imperiling the person I was helping—it meant disgracing my family. This was a unifying theme among the eldest immigrant daughters I spoke with: the expectation that we carry the family honor on our backs. The eldest immigrant daughter is the living manifestation of her parents’ successes and failures. Her behavior, both public and private, is a verdict on her family as a whole.
Even now, as a thirty-year-old, disappointing my parents is excruciating. The sacrifices they made to give me the best life they could feel like a debt I can repay only by living on their terms. When I jeopardize the family honor (for instance, by attending a protest that runs counter to my community’s politics, or by publishing afrank essay about being sexually abused as a child), guilt gnaws at me in ways my nonimmigrant friends can’t relate to. My brain understands that saving face at all costs is incompatible with art making (and sanity), but my body has yet to catch up. So many therapy sessions in the two-year lead-up to that essay’s publication were spent reckoning with the ethics of publishing the piece and how to bring it up to my family. Thankfully, my parents were supportive when the piece was published, despite previously objecting (to be fair, many years earlier) to the level of disclosure in my writing. Still, I avoided sharing it on Facebook and Instagram—places where extended family and my parents’ friends were more likely to see it. Not because my parents asked me to refrain, but because the thought of embarrassing, subjecting to judgment, or otherwise hurting these two people I love very much was too painful. There is still so much I won’t write about solely because I don’t want to upset my family.
Unsurprisingly, upholding the family honor often goes hand in hand with gendered expectations around “appropriate” conduct, sexuality policing, and overprotectiveness. “I couldn’t receive phone calls from boys (until sixth grade, my best friend was a boy—and they [my parents] made me cut off that friendship),” Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, a Korean American writer, tells me. “They didn’t even let me go out with girls who were ‘boy crazy.’” Several women shared stories of not being allowed to have sleepovers, of being expected to attend college close to home, of being punished for a myriad of offenses that their younger siblings—especially younger brothers—were barely reprimanded for. My experiences weren’t as extreme. My parents discouraged sleepovers because they found the idea of sleeping in someone else’s bed distasteful, but they were never forbidden. My parents didn’t have many hang-ups around premarital sex; my mom filled my first prescription for birth control pills at her pharmacy.
The family-honor stuff became higher stakes once I was older and partnered. When I was twenty-one, my parents got angry with me for hanging out late into the evening with a guy who was not my boyfriend. “Imagine the shame if someone saw you together,” they scolded. My mom told me about how, when she was living in Moldova and engaged to my dad, she had coffee with a platonic male friend. A neighbor saw them together, and by the time my mom got home, half of Kishinev was aflame in gossip. “Your reputation is precious,” she told me. “It follows you around forever.” I wish I had responded with something like, “I’m so sorry that happened to you. But limiting my freedom to fit the oppressive social norms of the country we left feels like the exact opposite lesson we should take from your experience.” I’m sure what I actually said was crueler. Probably I told her that we lived in two different worlds. Probably I said something that made her feel like an alien.
One of the paradoxes of eldest immigrant daughterhood is being saddled with adult responsibilities from a young age but being infantilized as an adult. For me, this mostly entails being simultaneously lauded for my intellectual achievements and being spoken to as if I’ll perish without frequent reminders to feed myself, wear a jacket, and look both ways before crossing the street. Sometimes, when I end a call with my mom or grandpa with “I’m going to bed,” their response is, “Be careful.” These are low-stakes examples, but this dynamic can play out in more painful ways. When Ade Ilesanmi, a Nigerian American physician, confided in her parents that she was depressed and wanted to see if medication could help, her father responded, “What does a highly favored child of God have to be depressed about?”
“I wrote them a long letter laying out why it had taken me so long to tell them, as well as my symptoms and how long I’d been having them, like I was requesting a fucking prior authorization from an insurance company,” Ilesanmi, a literal psychiatry resident who has probably treated many patients for depression, tells me.
Mental illness and family honor don’t pair well together. And, in my experience, tending to a mental illness can feel frivolous when I consider how much more privileged my life has been compared to older generations in my family. My parents came of age under state-sanctioned antisemitism and immigrated to America with little money, no jobs, and a young child. My grandmother lost her father at twelve, when he was murdered by the KGB as an enemy of the state. My great-grandparents fled their homes and lived in hiding for years to evade Nazi massacre. Compared to all that, what do I have to be anxious about?
I can’t relate to their particular traumas and they can’t relate to mine. Theirs are of a world that’s inaccessible to me, though part of me will always live there (and intergenerational trauma, that crusty bitch, makes sure it lives in me too). This is what it means to be diasporic: to live between worlds, to never have a discrete place to call home. There’s beauty in liminality, and also loneliness. For eldest daughters of immigrants, that loneliness can manifest as a call to action. “As the eldest, I spent the most time immersed in our mother tongue and in our culture, and I think that’s also resulted in self-imposed pressure to keep it alive in me, the logic being that if my brothers won’t, I have no choice, I must,” Sarah Ali, a Pakistani American writer, editor, and educator, tells me. Not going to lie: One of the reasons I pitched this column was to manipulate myself into engaging more deeply with my family history and culture.
There’s beauty in liminality, and also loneliness.
With so many identities to balance—cultural custodian, translator, administrative assistant, and family ambassador, to name a few—it’s no surprise that eldest immigrant daughters may find themselves individuating at a slower pace than their nonimmigrant peers and younger siblings. Michelle Lee, a Korean American editor of books for young readers, says that “being the eldest immigrant daughter meant . . . disregarding whatever I might have been feeling or going through to make sure the greater family structure was still standing.” Like other women I spoke with, I too derive large swaths of my identity from my willingness to subjugate my own desires to keep the peace. For people-pleasing eldest immigrant daughters like myself, making someone unhappy—especially someone close to you—is a national emergency. My body’s reflexive response to conflict with someone I love is to immediately burst into tears. A fight with my parents leaves me emotionally hungover for days, barely able to concentrate on anything else. I couldn’t even admit to finding a movie my partner showed me a little boring until three years into our relationship.
I relate to so many of the stories my fellow eldest immigrant daughters shared with me—stories of teaching ourselves the college-admissions process and mentoring younger siblings through it, of pushing our families to abandon the socially conservative teachings of their countries of origin, of parents who were laughably more permissive with younger siblings. Stories of extreme competence at a young age, of acts of service as a way to express love and gratitude for our families’ sacrifices.
Writing this essay also gave me a chance to reflect on the many acts of service my family has done and continues to do for me. For every menial errand I run for my grandparents, I’m compensated with food, gratitude, and good conversation. My parents have hand-sold a shocking number of copies of my poetry collection. They hawk that shit like it’s the elixir of immortality. My younger brother pulls his weight in family/community labor and has for many years. Seriously, a few months ago he manually transferred every single one of our grandma’s contacts from one flip phone to another.
We can learn a lot about ourselves by exploring immigrant/diasporic experiences through the lens of internet culture. It strikes me as incredibly strange that eldest immigrant daughter feels like a legible term with shared connotations among those it describes, yet its online footprint is pretty limited. The term speaks to a cultural conversation that’s happening in real time, years ahead of any formal analysis. Instead of scholarship, we have memes. Memes that draw attention to the intersectional mishigas of being a woman in a patriarchal society and an immigrant in a society that stigmatizes otherness. Memes that forge community and common language out of experiences we might not have known we shared. Memes that can’t explain in a pithy one-liner why the phenomenon they describe is distinct to eldest daughters and can’t capture the particularities of our experiences. Writing this essay, I continually wondered whether obsessing over what we share may obfuscate the ways eldest immigrant daughters of color clearly have more shit to contend with.
I believe that, as first-generation immigrants and their families become increasingly unrelatable to each other, the internet can provide an unexpected bridge. Doing a deep dive on eldest-immigrant-daughter memes and speaking to others about their experiences helped me better understand my family and myself. I realized how grateful I am for many of my stereotypical eldest-immigrant-daughter experiences. Serving as a makeshift translator, chauffeur, and resource on navigating American life challenged my young-adult solipsism and shaped me into a community-minded person. I doubt I’d be a better-adjusted adult if I’d spent my childhood watching five episodes of Dawson’s Creek a day instead of two. Plus, any stress and irritation I experienced was surely magnified in those I was helping. Who would want an anxious twenty-year-old near stranger who spoke in broken Russian and was glued to her phone as their sole companion the first time they saw an ultrasound of their child?
While I wish to be released from the agonizing fear of disappointing my community, I wouldn’t undo the part of my upbringing that made helping others—even and especially when it was inconvenient—mandatory. At the same time, it’s clear from self-reflection and from talking to other eldest immigrant daughters that following this community-first mindset to the extreme can be maladaptive and traumatizing. The meme can hold all of us, but the specifics it invokes are far from universal. My experiences as a daughter of parents who always made her feel safe and as a white woman living with greater structural safety than many eldest immigrant daughters of color are ultimately mine alone. I’m captivated by what we all share in common, but I don’t want to erase or minimize anyone’s experiences under the guise of solidarity. That said, I’m glad eldest immigrant daughterhood brought us together.
Ruth Madievsky's debut novel, All-Night Pharmacy, is forthcoming from Catapult in 2023. She is also the author of a poetry collection, Emergency Brake (Tavern Books, 2016). Her writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Harper's Bazaar, Guernica, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She is a founding member of the Cheburashka Collective, a community of women and nonbinary writers whose identity has been shaped by immigration from the Soviet Union to the U.S. Originally from Moldova, she lives in L.A., where she works as an HIV and primary care pharmacist. @ruthmadievsky. www.ruthmadievsky.com