How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

A generation 'in the interstices...of two societies and cultures'

Photo by K W Reinsch/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Of all the descriptions I've been reading lately of the 1.5 generation, immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children or adolescents, there's one that especially resonates as I prepare for a related panel tonight, applying to a far broader group than those it originally described.

In a 1988 study of young Southeast Asian refugees in San Diego, conducted then for the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, sociologists Rubén Rumbaut and Kenji Ima described what they alternately termed the "one-and-a-half generation" and the 1.5 generation. Substitute the word "immigrants" for "refugees" and what they wrote can apply to anyone who has grown up as a young immigrant, adapting to a new life chosen not by them, but their parents. The description:

These respondents are members of what we'll call the "1.5" generation: that is, they are neither part of the "first" generation of their parents, the responsible adults who were formed in the homeland, who made the fateful decision to leave it and to flee as refugees to an uncertain exile in the United States, and who are this defined by the consequences of that decision and by the need to justify it; nor are these youths part of the "second" generation of children who are born in the U.S., and for whom the "homeland" mainly exists as a representation consisting of parental memories and memorabilia, even though their ethnicity may remain well defined.

Rather, the refugee youths in our study constitute a distinctive cohort; they are those young people who were born in their countries of origin but formed in the U.S. (that is, they are completing their education in the U.S. during the key formative periods of adolescence and early adulthood); they were not the main protagonists of the decision to leave and hence are less beholden to their parents' attitudes (e.g., they may be "freer" and more "objective" to forge a new modus vivendi in the U.S. with less of the pressure for self-justification required of the "first" generation); and they are in many ways marginal to both the new and old worlds, for while they straddle both worlds they are in some profound sense fully part of neither of them.

Though they differ greatly from each other in cultural and social class origins, and in many other respects as well, they generally share a common psychohistorical location in terms of their age and their migration status/role, and in terms of developing bicultural strategies of response and adjustment to that unique position which they occupy as "1.5ers" - in the interstices, as it were, of two societies and cultures, between the first and second generation, and between being "refugees" and being "ethnics" (or hyphenated "Americans").


What goes into cultural identity? Two generation 1.5ers, two experiences

Photo by K W Reinsch/Flickr (Creative Commons)

All manner of factors influence how 1.5 generation immigrants, who arrived in the U.S. as children or adolescents, develop their cultural identity. How old they were upon arrival, where they grew up, their immigration status, the attitudes of their parents, all play a part.

In a panel this Tuesday night at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum, I'll be discussing the 1.5 experience with Cal Poly Pomona sociologist Mary Yu Danico and UCLA Chicana/o Studies professor Leisy Abrego, all of us 1.5ers ourselves. One aspect we'll be talking about is something Danico wrote about in her book, "The 1.5 Generation: Becoming Korean American in Hawaii." Among other things, she wrote about the vast cultural and identity differences among young people who assimilate as kids and teens.

Danico compares two women, one raised in Oregon and another in Hawaii, whose large Asian American population provides a familiar place to land for many immigrants. From the book:


Gen 1.5: Where an immigrant generation fits in

Photo by K W Reinsch/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The experience of 1.5 generation immigrants, a term used to describe people who arrived in the U.S. as children and adolescents, is a unique one. Unlike their first-generation parents or U.S.-born siblings, their identity is split. They are American in many ways, sometimes in most, but not entirely.

Depending on how old 1.5s are upon arrival, where they grow up, which ethnic group they belong to and a host of other factors, their American/immigrant identities vary wildly, as do the roles they play within immigrant diasporas. They can play bridge-builder and cultural interpreter, helping parents and grandparents navigate their new home. Or they can feel like outcasts, neither here nor there. Then there are complicating factors like legal status, with some undocumented 1.5s growing up side by side with U.S. citizen siblings and peers.