The Cultural Identities of Second-Generation Immigrants

Last week, I stopped by a corner store to grab a snack on my way home from school. After much deliberation, I decided to purchase hot fries and made my way over to the check-out counter. The cashier on duty was a desi man in his fifties. Instead of asking me if I wanted to keep the receipt, however, he posed a different question:

“Where are you from?”

I smiled and said, “I’m from America.”

“No,” he insisted, “Where are you really from?”

I replied, “I am Chinese-American. My parents came here from Hong Kong.”

Truthfully, I knew exactly what the cashier was implying from the time he asked his initial question because I’ve been asked it countless times. Despite residing in the United States my entire life, I am not a real American due to my race. Still, I made the same naïve mistake that I’ve always made in believing that people will accept the nationalities of second-generation American immigrants. However, children of immigrants often struggle to relate to their parents’ cultural identity because they lack the environmental elements that constitute their culture, such as nationality, language, clothing, and diet. Whenever I visit Hong Kong, my broken Cantonese, preference for American utensils, and thicker body (according to East Asian standards) are all subjects of both criticism and fascination for my relatives. Although I look remotely like them, they certainly do not perceive me as one of them. This same concept applies to my experience in America, albeit for different reasons. Growing up, my white friends would constantly beg me to “Speak Chinese!” because it sounded so “cool” to them. I would cringe whenever I noticed people using chopsticks incorrectly at inauthentic Chinese restaurants. People would abruptly comment that my eyes are “big for an Asian.”

I feel too American to be Chinese and too Chinese to be American.

This dichotomy not only affects me, but second-generation immigrants of other ethnicities as well, such as Latinxs who are considered “not Latinx enough” just because they don’t speak Spanish. According to the Pew Research Center, 60% of second-generation adults consider themselves to be a “typical American” yet still maintain a “strong sense of identity with their ancestral roots.” These ancestral roots are likely to fade as generations go on and children of immigrants begin assimilating to a dominant white culture.

Before we go around labeling assimilated people as “whitewashed,” we have to examine why this phenomenon occurs. America’s history is deeply rooted in cultural imperialism. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) developed when African slaves were forbidden to speak their native tongue. Recent projections indicate that third-generation Mexican immigrants will be significantly less likely to speak Spanish, even though Spanish is an increasingly popular language among non-Latinxs. This is because Hispanics face outright punishment at public schools for speaking Spanish, and many parents try to avoid this discrimination by only speaking English with their children at home. I’ve been asked by white people not to speak Chinese with my mother in public because they think we’re gossiping about them. How can America pride itself on being a melting pot if we are stifling the very elements that constitute diversity? Also, how can my own people ostracize me for not being fluent in Cantonese when the televisions, radios, and phones around me constantly spew English?

Every time someone asks me where I’m from, I ponder this question afterward. I wonder why we assign labels like “African-American” and “Asian-American,” yet whenever my mom says “Americans” in Chinese, she’s exclusively referring to white people. I wonder if I will always feel like an outsider in my own country and heritage. Although the cultural identities of second-generation immigrants remain complicated, one thing is for sure: We are from America.



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