Generation 1.5

Growing up the daughter of Chinese immigrants to the U.S., a core part of my identity was as a “second generation” Chinese American. I was therefore more than surprised one day, while conversing with a fellow daughter of Chinese immigrants, to learn that she saw herself as “first generation” Chinese American. Wha? “No,” I said, our parents are “first generation,” therefore we are “second.” “No,” she countered,” we are the first generation born here, therefore we are “first.” “Then what are our parents,” I asked, “P0?” (We were in high school genetics class at the time, hence the genetics terminology.) Since then I’ve learned that there is a lot of confusion/disagreement around the labels, so nowadays when people ask, I just say “I am the daughter of Chinese immigrants.”

The reason why I’m now thinking about such labels again is because of “generation 1.5.” I had described to a friend the challenges in my quest to find my spiritual roots. The Buddhist and Taoist temples that cater to Chinese immigrants are baffling in that I don’t speak Chinese fluently in the first place and often times they don’t speak my family’s dialect anyway. In contrast, the Western Buddhist groups are unsatisfying, often stripped of any of the cultural practices that I’m seeking to rediscover.  I’m hoping that there are other Asian Americans who are similarly seeking, but afraid that maybe they don’t exist. Immigrants like my parents do not need their cultural practices explained like I do, whereas often times American-born Chinese aren’t interested in what Grandma used to do, looking more to assimilate into Euro-dominated U.S. culture. (That used to be me.) My friend, known for her ability to cut to the heart of the matter, said, “You’re looking for a very specific group of people; you’re looking for generation 1.5.”

Generation 1.5. I’d never heard the term before but immediately it sounded right - the generation that is “too American” to be fully Asian and “too Asian” to be fully American. So I googled “generation 1.5” and found that 1) I was right about being “second generation;” but 2) wrong about what “generation 1.5” meant. It actually refers specifically to immigrants who come over at a young age. But in spirit, generation 1.5 is exactly what I’m looking for:

“Many 1.5 generation individuals are bi-cultural, combining both cultures - culture from the country of origin with the culture of the new country.”

To varying extents, this applies to generations 1.0 and 2.0 as well. My dad, having lived now many more years in the U.S. than in China, is more “American” than even he realizes. And I, despite having tried to reject the culture of my ancestors as a kid, nonetheless picked up Chinese ways whether I wanted to or not. We are all, to varying extents, combining both cultures to make something that encompasses all of our experiences, without having to choose/reject one of the two. Generation 1.5.

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