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Journaling | The Immigrant Experience

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Of all human stories one of the most compelling and universal is the immigrant experience. Document yours or interview relatives and write it all down for the benefit of new American generations to come. Between the demands of economic pressures and the desire to lose rather than emphasize our ‘otherness’ many family histories are quickly overshadowed by cultural differences and the traditions, triumphs and tragedies of previous generations are easily lost.

Benefits: The Immigrant Experience
We’re made up of genes, memories, and family mythologies that form our identities on a very personal level. It’s a misfortune when a parent dies and we suddenly realize that we know little to nothing about where our grandparents or any other ancestor came from, what they believed in, who they loved or their success and failures, even their medical history. Very few of us feel we are whole unto ourselves. If family and cultural history is important to you, make the time to capture as much of this utterly unique material as you can. Undoubtedly, there is at least one future family member that will treasure your effort.

Format:  The Elder Interview

Typically interviews of family members involve older or elderly people. Make sure they’re comfortable with a beverage to ‘wet their whistle’. You may decide to capture the interview on film although often older people are resistant to this method.

If you stick to a verbal interview it’s important to make an audio record of it at the same time for the sake of accuracy and the pleasure of later hearing the person’s voice. Remember, whatever method you employe, it’s important to stay connected to the person telling the story, if you’re distracted with equipment or papers, they may lose the thread of their own storytelling.

Transcribing the interview may involve language translation and editing. A journal or book of elder stories may include:

  • Strictly the interview(s) itself.
  • An autobiographical accounting of your own story imbedded with elder stories.
  • Sibling stories that highlight different perceptions or versions of the same events within the family.
  • A novel or fictionalized account based on real family stories. 

Format:  Family Genealogy

Many people are passionate about tracing their family genealogy and use well tested methods online, printed genealogy forms and graphic representations of family trees, etc. If you have neither the time nor the passion to pursue your entire lineage, consider simply starting a journal that records basic information:

  • What you know or can learn of family members that are deceased. 
  • A record of all living family members and how they’re connected with a few stories to provide color and character to the part of your family.
  • The country and regions they come from and the dates of their arrival in their new home country. 
  • Include anecdotal information and stories. 

Even the humblest document of this type will be useful to future family genealogists, a curious or interested schoolchild writing a paper on family history or memorabilia treasured by a future tenderhearted niece or nephew yearning for family connection.

Format:  Family Traditions

Of all the journals one could keep this might be the most appealing documentation of all. If interviewing family members or lengthy writing projects don’t appeal, consider keeping a book of family traditions that reflect the cultural richness immigrant families embody.  

However many generations deep you were born in the new home country, there will still be hold-over traditions or unique blending of traditions that are worthy of note. Here’s a list of some of the things that could be included in a journal of this kind, hopeful accompanied by short, anecdotal notes that explain them and what family member or branch they originated with:

  • Holidays or festivals unique to the country of origin and the subtle or exaggerated ways in which there celebration has been modified.
  • Important elements of religious holidays including worship attendance, special foods, decorations, gift giving, use of dish ware, etc.
  • Favorite family recipes in general, holiday treats, birthday cakes, wedding and funeral food traditions.
  • A scrapbook format with actual copies of family records, citizenship papers, marriage certificates, obituaries, land grants, birth certificates, graduations and degrees.    

All three of these journal suggestions will require individualistic formats depending on the construction and layout of the information. Whether you choose a simple book or something of heirloom quality or an album format, jot down your basic ideas regarding what you want to accomplish and include. We advice purchasing something of lasting quality that can stand up to the hard ware handling of eager hands over many years.