by Kristen Meiser — March 03, 2021
Sikhi has influenced every aspect of my life. When I was met with cultural misconceptions...I looked at the scripture for the true meaning of how to live a humble, genuine, and fair life that celebrates equality for all. - Sabreet Kang Rajeev
Sabreet Kang Rajeev is the author of Generation Zero: Reclaiming My Parent's American Dream. The book shows the often-overlooked story of blue-collar immigrants and their families. Sabreet uses her first-hand experiences as a first-generation Indian American of Sikh descent, and the experiences of her blue-collar immigrant parents, to raise awareness and empathy for this often-overlooked demographic.
Sabreet answered a few questions for us about Generation Zero, her inspirations, and the role Sikhi has played in her life. It was a fantastic interview and we hope you enjoy learning more about this book and Sabreet's incredible story.
Tell us about your parent's immigration story.
My mother and father both immigrated to the United States separately. My father’s journey to America is both odd and heroic. He traveled on a cargo ship. He worked as the ship’s oil boy. He traveled the world working and thinking about if he was brave enough to pursue the American dream. When my father boarded the ship for his third voyage, he knew it was going to be the last journey he would ever take. He had made up his mind that he was going to jump ship and relocate to America, illegally.
After several years of working undocumented jobs, my father was able to work on a farm in California that sponsored him to get his green card. As soon as he received his papers, he went back to India to marry the love of his life, my mother. My mother came to visit my father in America on a visitor visa. When it was time for her to return to India, she discovered she was pregnant with me. She took the biggest risk of her life and stayed in America to deliver me, illegally.
Where did you get the idea for the book?
When I noticed that there was a lack of representation in mass media about the blue-collar immigrant narrative. The dominant South Asian immigrant narrative is emigrating to America for professional careers or to pursue higher education. Dominant narratives silence families and communities who have different immigration stories. The lack of representation made me feel invisible. I decided to write this book to show the beauty and strength of belonging to a blue-collar immigrant family.
What was it like growing up as a first-generation South Asian American?
Growing up as a first-generation South Asian American was tough. I never fully felt American or Punjabi because I didn’t outward look like the kids in school and I internally didn’t feel like the other Indian Americans in America. I felt different in both of my identities and I started to develop an identity crisis.
My identity was confusing, and nobody at school or home could tell me what I was. I grew up thinking that I was everything and everyone. So, I became a chameleon. I changed my behavior and what I believed in, according to the people I was around. At home, I was Indian. I spoke Punjabi, I believed in Waheguru, I ate North Indian food, and I didn’t talk to boys—only my brother. At school, I spoke English. I ate cafeteria pizza. I talked to boys and girls because they were in my classes. I pretended I was American, even if I didn’t feel like one. I became a master of blending in. I was a skilled chameleon. From the outside, I was a good Indian girl at home and a proud, normal American kid at school. But inside, I felt like a misfit, an outsider looking into both the Indian and American cultures. I felt like I was hiding.
When many people think about the struggle of a hyphenated identity, they typically imagine it as a battle between the two sides of the hyphen: in my case, Indian vs. American. What I discovered as I tried to figure out my identity, was that the larger battle was between my self-image and others’ perception of me.
Tell us about the writing process and how you went through yours.
The writing process is an emotional journey. Before I sat down and began detailing out my book, I had a lot of unprocessed generational trauma that I needed to heal from. I started meditating and connecting with my core being so I could learn and heal from the traumas that guarded my heart. Once I was able to fully understand who I am and my mission on earth, the stories, and the messages poured out.
If you could only give one piece of advice to your readers from the book, what would it be?
Learn your culture and accept your parents as human beings going through an immigrant experience.
When you immigrate, you must leave behind everything you know—your hometown and your family—in order to come to a strange new place, with a different language and different customs. That requires sacrifice and courage, and it is an experience you cannot undergo without changing.
I’ve seen my parents change in many small ways throughout my life. I’ve seen my father adopt an attitude of “My daughter is completely as capable as my son.” And after I graduated with my first degree and people began asking my mother when she would get me married off, I’d overhear her defending me on the phone: “Who cares about marriage? She’s going to do what she wants to do.”
These changes are subtle, and they’re often internal, hidden from view. Often, the only way you will know your parents have changed is if you are willing to talk to them and have those potentially uncomfortable conversations—about romantic partners, career goals, or whatever else you’ve been avoiding speaking to your parents about.
I can’t guarantee how your parents will react, and they may not have changed as much as you’d like. But there’s a chance they will surprise you. Their identity and values may have been established in India, but they’re continually being shaped by America as well.
Are there any specific people who inspired the book? If so, who?
My mother and my faith. My mother is the driving force in our family. She has supported me the minute I was born. My faith inspired me to be truthful and honest about my human conditioning and to be a light for people who need help understanding their suffering.
What was your favorite chapter to write?
My favorite chapter to write was The American Dream. This chapter highlights the triumphs of blue-collar working families and how they struggle to achieve the American dream. For my family, the American dream meant obtaining a college degree. On my graduation day, my father almost missed my ceremony because of the nature of his job (he’s a truck driver). My father chose not to sleep and drove straight to see me.
It didn’t matter to me that he hadn’t showered in six days because he was driving nonstop. It didn’t matter to me that he was in jeans and an oil-stained T-shirt. It didn’t matter to me that he wasn’t the most well-groomed, well-rested- father of a graduate. What mattered to me was that he was there, despite all the obstacles that were thrown at him. To persevere with determination is the aspect of the American dream that I learned from my father.
Who are you trying to reach with your story?
I am trying to reach other blue-collar working families, in particular Punjabi families in America, Canada, and the UK. The lack of representation in mainstream media can be insolating. My family’s story is not unique. There are so many unheard immigration stories that need to be told in our community. I want to advocate and help other blue-collar working families be the voice that our community desperately needs.
What are you hoping to achieve with the book?
I am hoping to raise awareness about the different minority voices in the South Asian community. The South Asian community is not monolithic, regardless of the dominant narrative. Our community is as diverse as a field of flowers. We have differences in ideologies, religion, culture, languages and so much more. America is the only place where different South Asian cultures and communities can co-exist and learn from each other in the most authentic and humble way possible. Let’s celebrate each other and give the minority voices in the South Asian community a chance to speak.
What's next for you?
I am just scratching the surface. I am driven to help our community heal from the generational traumas Sikh Americans have collectively experienced in society. I am currently in the process of opening a non-profit coaching company and writing another book aimed at helping immigrant parents heal their suffering.
How has your Sikh faith influenced you and your family?
My family is religious and we have turned to WaheGuru for every moment in our lives. Our faith has anchored and guided us as immigrants in America. Sikhi has influenced every aspect of my life. When I was met with cultural misconceptions of why certain ideologies are the way that they are, I looked at the scripture for the true meaning of how to live a humble, genuine, and fair life that celebrates equality for all.