Becoming an Adult Through Immigrating

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

From reader Sumayya Tobah:

I was 15 when I moved schools, moved countries, moved continents, to a place where I was deemed a stranger, an outsider, unwanted. Specifically, I went from Cairo, Egypt, to a little Canadian town in Ontario called London. And in that move, I found my voice and my strength. I was unable to hide in the crowd and just be a face in the hallways. I became a spokesperson for my faith, my people and myself. It was terrifying but most liberating.

I like to think an “adult” cannot be defined in superficial terms, but rather the characteristics a person embodies. I believe a person becomes an adult when they are capable of holding opinions that may be deemed unpopular or controversial, but they have enough conviction and self determination to stand by those opinions.

If you have your own immigrant experience to share, drop us an email. From another reader, Mohammad:

My dad’s story appears to me as something unique and profound, but the truth is, it’s a very common American story.

Born and raised poor overseas, he worked his way through medical school in his homeland before telling his wife and newborn son to wait while he came to the United States in search of a better world for both his old and new families. There is a litany of aspects of my father’s life I find great poetry in, but one of my favorite is the fact that when he first moved to the U.S., when he couldn’t find a residency, he found a job in and moved to a city named Man, West Virginia.

I was born four years later in the Midwest. I was your average kid, with the exception that all popular culture and social integration I learned was self-taught. My parents were learning about it the same time I was, so I had to provide my own context. I learned about things like music, sports, girls, social interaction, even language to a degree, on my own.

One thing that was inherited from my dad, however, was a deep love of knowledge, specifically of news and world events. My very earliest memories of my father involve him coming home from work and sitting down on the couch to watch the national news broadcast, followed immediately by the Newshour on PBS. This didn’t change for many years, and along with some of my other social impediments, it helped me turn into the oldest 14 year old you’ve ever met. I was far more comfortable in a room full of adults discussing politics and news (and occasionally trying to chime in) than I was playing with kids in my own peer group. Even as I got a littler older, I held a deeply held view that education, getting a job, and getting married were paramount to a happy life.

So to answer the question honestly, I first felt like an adult around the age of 16.

Somewhere in the decade that followed, however, I had a pretty big reversion to the mean. My child-like wonder and idealism grew as the “responsible” decision making discarded risk aversion and embraced ideas like regular Kerouac-esque road tripping around the country just for the kicks and not worrying about words like “career path.” I gave the adult in me away and felt very much like a child, with all its benefits and denotations.

Three years ago, my father, my hero and role model in life, was diagnosed with very late stage pancreatic cancer. I was seated next to him in the hospital room when the oncologist came in and delivered the news and presented possible treatment options. Knowing the risk/reward proposition very well, my father stoically nodded and said he’d prefer to just go home and be with his family.

In the five or so weeks between that and when he passed away, I witnessed both beautiful and horrible things. I saw a man knowing his life was ending, and taking it with a grace I don’t think I’ll ever have the strength for. I moved in with my parents and, despite not being a doctor, served as his health provider, carrying out his medical orders. When he died, it was with all of his family by his side.

Reading “watching my father die” sounds horrific, but it wasn’t. Like everything else in his life, he approached it with an optimist and gravitas that brought comfort to everyone around him. It was certainly painful, but it was also poetic and reassuring to think of how beautiful a life he lived.

Being a child or an adult is not a binary function. Rather, it’s an ebb and flow, a scale that is re-calibrated on a regular basis. Losing my father was the most difficult thing I have ever experienced and certainly made me an adult in so many ways. However, it also reminded me of the brevity in humanity, and to maintain childish behaviors. The fact that time passes and I should both enjoy it and make it count is perhaps the most adult lesson there is.