Asian Girl Problem #68: Second-Generation Guilt

I always wondered if I should label myself first or second-generation Chinese-American, because I was born in Beijing but moved here when I was 20 months. Because apparently the two are hugely different, and people can’t help but make huge assumptions based on either. Sometimes I’ll be in a situation where I’ll clearly gain more respect from the person if I say I’m first-generation. Others, I’d rather skip the discussion altogether and say I’m from Ohio. In this essay I enjoyed today, the author talks about meeting first-generation immigrants who are fully immersed in their communities without finding the need to learn any English or adopt much American culture.

Of course knowing English would make life easier for them and their families, but I have a soft spot for these resilient people that can thrive perfectly well without associating with the outside world. It might be in South San Diego, Chinatown (where I don’t understand  Cantonese) or even an Indian supermarket near my house, but suddenly I’ll feel totally displaced without language to guide me. Once inside, the power dynamic is different and wonderful. I become the minority for not understanding their language, whereas they’re free to be individuals unbound by cultural limitations.

I used to get depressed seeing Asian women cleaning the bathrooms in my dorm, or picking up sidewalk trash outside of the fraternity houses after a crazy weekend. I kept seeing my mom in them. Did she feel upset when she cleaned houses or earned $2/hour in restaurants? No, I think the anger is all mine, distinctly second-generation. My parents are surprised when I lash out at people who treat them like second-class citizens partly because half the time, they aren’t aware it’s happening. But something I can’t control requires me to speak on behalf of her whether she cares or not. 

…his life isn’t important. He’s doing it for his children. I found that immigrants are acutely conscious that they’re changing the trajectories of generations to come when they decide to emigrate from their often-impoverished homelands.

I rarely think about how the first generation must have a whole different set of priorities. They work with their families in mind. They aren’t bogged down by options and what-ifs. They are often too busy for neuroses. The second generation has to bear the fruits of their parents’ labor. We have resources to care about “image” and “identity,” which come in conjunction with “guilt.” We seek and expect acceptance from all sides. I expect people to accept my parents, my Asianness, and my Americanness, which is a ridiculous thing to ask.

But it’s interesting that the affects of immigration last way past the first generation. So much of the experience exists in the gaps between .


2 thoughts on “Asian Girl Problem #68: Second-Generation Guilt

  1. I got into a huge discussion in a writing class about the difference between first and second generation. I was surprised that most people in the class and some online leaned toward the first generation of kids born in America (or whatever country) as first-generation… 1.5 kind of makes more sense. (I initially identified as second, but now maybe first.) Anyway, good post! I feel so thankful and lucky not to grow up in my parent’s generation. Life was so hard then.. I feel lucky, but also like a degenerate. It’s interesting to meet someone who is third or fourth generation Asian-American.. some people I’ve met do seem different than us, but still acknowledge some traditions.

    • what an interesting topic to talk about in class. never even thought about it before i read that article. i think first generation people have a less rich/troubled identity, which kind of makes it less interesting to talk/write about. i feel like second generations need to carry the torch, and i don’t really see how they can be fully assimilated into america. third and fourth, maybe.

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