First generation students embrace cultural body art
Michael Cava grew up sleeping under the Philippine flag. His parents, immigrants from the Philippines, took him to visit the country when he was eight years old. Cava didn’t feel out of place.
âI felt like an underdog,â Cava said. Anyone can tell you are an American a mile away.
Growing up, Cava had to learn to accept his cultural heritage. For him, that meant getting a tattoo that would represent his roots. Many first-generation Americans are struggling to fit in, according to the Saint Barnabas Health System in the Bronx. The healthcare system says first-generation American teens often face issues like culture shock and language barriers.
To deal with these stresses and feel more connected to their culture, some first generation students turned to body art to express their cultural heritage.
Agnes Kovesdy, a sophomore major in physics and computer science, knew she wanted a tattoo and was inspired by her parents’ culture. Kovesdy, whose family is Hungarian, has a tulip tattoo on the side of his ribs. She said Hungary’s beautiful natural landscapes inspired her.
âThe tulip is the national flower of Hungary, we have a lot of tulip fields and they are very colorful,â Kovesdy said. “If you walk past you see a lot of them, it is a very distinctive image of Hungary.”
Kovesdy, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Hungary before he was born, grew up moving to Virginia and Tennessee, before ending up in Memphis. Regardless of her location, Kovesdy has always kept in touch with her culture. Her mother tongue was Hungarian, and the summers in Hungary with her family left her with a sense of belonging to her parents’ home country.
âWhen I visit my family there is really a feeling of ‘this is my culture, this is my heritage, my family is here,'” said Kovesdy.
When Kovesdy first came up with the idea for her tattoo, she fell in love with it.
âI took a pen and drew a rough drawing where I wanted it to be. I looked at my pen version in the mirror and thought, ‘I love this. I love it, âKovesdy said. I had the same moment when I got the real tattoo. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought “this is perfect”.
Kovesdy’s tattoo, which is usually hidden under her clothes, means a lot to her.
âI don’t mind if people don’t see it. Getting a tattoo was something I wanted on my own body and I didn’t really care if people saw it or not, âKovesdy said. “It was something I wanted them to know I have.”
For Cava, a second year student specializing in international relations, the path to accepting his culture was not so easy. Cava, who wants to get the tribal Pilipinx sun tattoo on his shoulder, didn’t like to talk about his Pilipinx heritage growing up.
âI went to college in North Carolina, in the south of the country and we were the only Asian family there, so I grew up there and in other places where there was no representation. minority, âCava said. “I just identified myself as Asian, I didn’t really talk about it, because it was all just a series of brawls or bullying.”
Growing up, Cava’s family moved a lot, from San Diego in North Carolina to Chicago in Japan, because of his father who was in the Marines for 22 years. As a result, her family became very tight-knit. When he moved to California before his freshman year of high school, Cava became more in touch with its culture. He became closer to his extended family, most of whom live in California.
âWe’ll have family parties where we’re probably 50, and we’ll chat, we hang out, we get boba, we cook Filipino food,â Cava said.
After spending much of his youth hiding his culture, Cava matured in accepting his heritage as part of his identity.
âNow that I’m in California and older and more mature, I definitely identify as Filipino,â Cava said. I’m proud to say it, and it’s a big part of who I am.
Cava’s tattoo will definitely reflect his Filipino pride. He wants the tattoo done by his uncle, a Filipino tattoo artist, who Cava says will best achieve his vision. Unlike Kovesdy, Cava wants his tattoo to be visible.
“To finally be able to accept [my heritage] and being proud of it is definitely a coming-of-age moment, âCava said.
Reshma Ramesh, a second year major in health and humanities, had a similar struggle to come to terms with her culture.
“When you are ashamed of your culture [growing up], you have to go one of two ways, âRamesh said. Either you learn to love your culture or you learn to hide it. And I learned to love mine.
Growing up in Bangalore, India, Ramesh has always felt connected to its culture. As a tribute to his Indian education, Ramesh wants to have the silhouette of India tattooed on the back of his neck. She thinks that with this tattoo she gets the best of both worlds.
“I feel like at the back of my neck I can hide it if I want with my hair down, but if I put it on I know it’s there and I’m not afraid to show it off, âRamesh said.
The experiences of Ramesh, Cava, and Kovesdy all mean the hardships many people face when trying to keep the mother culture, as a first generation American can be difficult. The struggle between assimilation into American culture and preservation of heritage is often compounded by intimidation or a sense of isolation within their heritage. But as Cava shared, many first-generation Americans learn to love and take pride in their culture as they age, often celebrating it with tattoos. And when deciding what to wear on your body forever, isn’t your legacy a good start?