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I Learned About Value and Privilege From My Immigrant Parents

Despite all their blessings over the last 30 years in Canada, my parents still live a frugal lifestyle etched in the shadows of the carnage of their war-torn past. I know the value of what I have, because of the price THEY had to pay. What happens to children of successful first and second generation Tamil professionals, who no longer need to say "We just don't have money for that"?

New clothes? We just don't have money for that.

Take-out? Dinners at a restaurant? We just don't have money for that.

Family trips? Travel? We're saving for university -- who is going to pay for that?

As children of the Canadian Tamil Diaspora, sometimes we're just not in tune to how much our parents sacrificed to raise us in this country as we focus on the personal challenge of trying to assimilate with North American culture. My father came here with just the clothes on his back, yet instead of recognizing the value of this, as a child I was consistently frustrated by his obsession with the word "No."

Even now, despite all their blessings over the last 30 years in Canada, my parents still live a frugal lifestyle etched in the shadows of the carnage of their war-torn past. I know the value of what I have, because of the price THEY had to pay. Does generational wealth and privilege erase these lessons? Will our children ever truly understand the humility of learning how to live without? What happens to the next generation -- the diaspora children of successful first and second generation Tamil professionals, who no longer need to say "We just don't have money for that"?

There are many layers to these loaded questions, and they circulate around the concept of privilege. Thirty years ago, a resounding 'no' would have echoed through my house if anyone had asked my parents if they felt privileged after their traumatic experiences. Like many Tamil immigrants in the early '80s, they were forced to leave behind their home, all of their belongings, and watch their daughter fall ill due to the squalid conditions of a refugee camp. How could anyone who went through losing everything that is important to them feel privileged? Except for the obvious, feeling privileged to still be alive.

Some may disregard the subject of this article as dealing with 'first world problems', but it is the reality every immigrant commits to when their family establishes a new life in foreign territory. Learning to live 'without' all the things that I thought I needed, ignited the focus and motivation to earn success without depending on anything being handed to me.

The reason why the concept of privilege and generational wealth is so hard to debate in our society, is because many individuals have no sense of their own privilege. The most comprehensive explanation that I have come across is the concept of Identity Privilege. This is defined as "any unearned benefit or advantage one receives in society by nature of their identity -- gender identity, race, religion, sexual orientation, class/wealth ability or citizenship status." It's difficult for people to acknowledge the privilege that they do have, when there are so many ways in which they don't feel privileged.

For example, a middle class individual who is a Canadian citizen may still not feel the weight of this privilege if they encounter discrimination in their daily lives. Especially if this discrimination contributes to an inferiority complex procured due to their race or gender. On the other hand, a newly landed immigrant may view secure citizenship status as their ultimate marker of having security. Privilege is all relative.

Raised as a second generation immigrant, my parents consistently reminded me of the price that was paid for the world of opportunity that now lay at my feet. Many of my friends in the same situation had parents who gave up their professional designations and successful careers to settle for low paying jobs, just to support their families in Canada. This was the price of raising their children in a safe country without having the time or disposable income to go back to school for themselves.

Life as an immigrant often means starting from scratch. You are required to build your own connections, form your own networks, and establish your OWN reputation. You cannot rely on nepotism or being hired by a generation of contacts that were lost when your family left their homeland behind. It's commons sense that in may ways children of immigrants have to work harder than those that were born into the luxury of generational wealth. From the day I opened my first bank account, I knew I had to build my own savings, without the benefit of inheritance.

First and second generation Tamil immigrants are motivated to succeed because they have nothing to fall back on. As you establish your career, on top of worrying about building your own personal success and retirement plans, it is also essential to factor in the cost of taking care of aging parents. This is a sharp contrast to those born with generational wealth. My colleague's retirement plan was to sell her grandfather's house as his retirement savings, and the revenue from other family properties helped pay for the cost of taking care of his parents' medical bills. This is a luxury many first generation immigrant families will not experience in this lifetime.

But growing up privileged is a double-edged sword. When you spend your life building something from nothing, motivation becomes the keep ingredient to success and nothing in your life is taken for granted. However, when you have the benefit of growing up with your family's wealth as a safety net, ALL the rules change.

Establishing generational wealth and accumulating real estate, inheritance and family assets that can be passed down, naturally means that each generation is born into a situation where their future is secure. Inheritance alleviates the burden of financial responsibility. Simply put, individuals that grow up with fiscal privilege have less to worry about. On one hand, this can be negative if an individual uses their family's wealth as a crutch that they depend on to support themselves. In this case, they have no motivation to blaze their own path because they know they will always be taken care of.

On the other hand, generational wealth can also ignite success. For example, an entrepreneur that grows up privileged may have the financial means and ability to take more risks when starting their own business because they have wealth and inheritance to rely on if their endeavours are unsuccessful. Others may use their family's success as inspiration because they want to match or surpass the history of success. Growing up with big shoes to fill can act as either a stimulus or impediment.

The problem is that you cannot control another person's motivation. The double-edged sword of privilege is this: when you are able to provide your children with everything, you never know what path they will choose. The danger is when privilege becomes tied with a feeling of entitlement. Children of immigrants feel the weight of the responsibility of their parents' sacrifice, which makes them aware of the privilege they are able to acquire. In the same way, children who come from money should be taught that the path to privilege is a difficult road so that they learn the value of what they have.

However, privilege does not have to be associated with guilt as long as we understand that it is important to give back. It all comes down to the responsibility that must accompany privilege and generational wealth. There is no reason to feel guilty for the circumstances that you have been born into or inherited because it is a natural process when a family starts to grow roots of success in their community. It is important to acknowledge and understand one's own fortune and take it as a responsibility to reach out to those who were not granted the same opportunities in life. And by this, I do not just mean monetary aid. I never realized until my late 20s, how well connected my family is in the Tamil community because of the various businesses and charitable organizations they chose to take part in since they arrived in Canada. I personally try to use the privilege of their network whenever possible to make connections between their successful contacts and driven young professionals.

The fear of growing up without can be just as strong as the ramifications of growing up with everything handed to you. It all comes down to the responsibility that every family in the diaspora has of raising young women and men who are acutely aware of their own privilege and will always strive to use their resources to strengthen and support others in our community. Audrey Hepburn is famous for saying that we have two hands in life: one for supporting ourselves, and one for reaching back and helping others, without expectation. Because at the end of the day, privilege means nothing in this world if you can't do something useful with it.


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