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The Not-Quite-American Feeling of Being a 1.5 Generation Immigrant

When you move to a new country as a kid, you never fully fit in with your home culture or your adopted culture.

Chin Lu

Victor is an engineer who fits many of the American stereotypes of Asians: He's financially successful, well-educated, shy at first, and mild-mannered. In college, his peers didn't like how he exemplified the model minority. A few Asian American acquaintances even told him this to his face, "You immigrants are not helping. You're maintaining the stereotypes, and people expect me to be just like you." Victor felt betrayed by his own people.

I know this because Victor is my brother. We immigrated to the United States from Taiwan in 2000, when I was 12 and he was 14. We learned English and managed to assimilate quicker than our parents, but we've never quite fit in with the Americans at school. The thing is, when we went back to visit Taiwan, we didn't quite fit in there either. We'd picked up too much of the American culture to be fully Taiwanese, but at our core, we weren't American born and bred.

The first time I heard the term "1.5 generation immigrants," I was already a junior at UC Berkeley. I was interviewing for an internship at DAE Agency, an advertising firm targeting Asian Americans, and they explained that my cultural dissonance was because I'd moved to a new country before I became a teenager. I wasn't first generation, or second generation—I was the 1.5 generation.

"I was too Americanized for the Taiwanese Student Association, yet too fobby for the Taiwanese American Student Association." — Wendy

The concept is still relatively new. In 1999, UCLA anthropologist Kyeyoung Park first used the term to describe misfits in the Korean community, who were "distinct from those of the first- or second-generation ethnic American." In 2004, sociologist Ruben G. Rumbaut further explored the term. His research compared the arrival ages of foreign-born Americans with measurements of their language skills, educational level, and occupational attainment, and he found the definitions of first-gen and second-gen immigrants didn't cover the complexities of those in between. A new name was needed.

A study of immigrant children completed last month similarly concluded that "1.5-generation immigrant children's connection to their heritage culture is stronger than or similar to the second-generation immigrants," but not quite to the level of first-generation immigrants either.

Wendy, who moved to Southern California from Taipei when she was nine, remembers facing the cultural gap in college: "I was too Americanized for the Taiwanese Student Association, yet too fobby for the Taiwanese American Student Association."

Now as an adult, Wendy says she still feels that way sometimes, "like I don't really belong with either side. Even at work, I worry about missing out on office socializing if I choose to watch a Taiwanese TV show over an American one the night before. Meanwhile, when I go home to Taipei, my friends keep telling me that I act 'so ABC' [American-born Chinese] when I'm not."

The author and her brother, posing for a photo in Taipei studio in 2015. Photo courtesy of Chin Lu

I've experienced it too: When meeting me for the first time, people have said things like, "Wow, your English is so good for someone who immigrated here" or "How come you don't have a fobby accent?" On the other hand, when I bleached my hair blond a few years ago, many of my older first-gen relatives openly clucked in disapproval, "Someone's trying to look like a white woman." The uncomfortable subtext is that one culture is supposedly better than the other, but the answer depends on who's asking.

And so for us 1.5ers, there's an art in straddling the line between two cultures. Lucy, a San Francisco tech worker who relocated from Hangzhou, China, to Illinois at the age of five, describes herself as a chameleon of sorts: "I have developed the ability to adapt quickly everywhere because I've had to toe the lines all my life—I go with whatever will allow me to fit in more with the people I'm surrounded by," she said. "For example, I watch how I dress and drive in America carefully, so I don't get accused of being an Asian stereotype, but to please my parents, I got good grades and went to a great university. I think subconsciously I was raised to be more attracted to Chinese men, too."

Every day is like a complex identity puzzle, and because neither our immigrant parents nor our American friends can fully understand, many 1.5 generation immigrants gravitate toward friends with similar singular backgrounds. Out of the eight 1.5ers I spoke to (in a mixture of English and Mandarin Chinese, naturally), all of them told me most of their friends are other 1.5ers—not first generation immigrants, nor American-born.

"The differences between me and those of second generation are very subtle, but we talk about our shared experiences and struggles with our immigrant parents often," said Ian, who emigrated from China to California when he was four. "I remember when I was getting picked on in grade school, I couldn't explain the cultural differences to my mom and dad because my Chinese vocabulary is limited, and I couldn't use English to communicate these kinds of abstract concepts either because of [the English] language barrier."

Many of the 1.5ers I interviewed said they suffered low self-esteem from grappling with their confusing cultural identity when they were younger. But now, as adults, they concentrate less on how being a 1.5er creates problems and more on its benefits. A few years ago, my brother was looking into purchasing an apartment overseas, and he realized that "most people don't have the luxury of an option to choose between living and working in Asia or America as easily."

And Jing, a 29-year-old entrepreneur who moved from Harbin, China, to Massachusetts in middle school, also sees the in-between space as privilege. "I feel like stereotypes from both sides let me get away with things," she said. "My Chinese family views me as more Americanized, so they don't pester me about getting married and having kids. And in America, I feel like I can do certain obnoxious things as long as I do it in a cute way."

It's a glass half-full or half-empty situation. Being a 1.5 generation immigrant means that you can either choose to be an outsider everywhere, or you can decide to fit in with multiple groups and learn to rotate in and out. Of course, the emphasis is on personal choice—no one can tell us to be more or less Asian, or to be more or less American, because we're both.

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