The terms “first-generation” and “second-generation” are all too well-known in the immigrant household vocabulary. However, what many overlook is the awkward gray area in between that classifies an obscured, yet omnipresent, class of people.
“Generation 1.5” is the term coined for this awkward gray area. Curt Asher defines these subset of immigrants as “children of immigrants who are not fluent in the language of their parents or in the language of their peers.” A narrower definition specifies that these youths must have immigrated to the country sometime between early childhood to late teenage years.
What makes generation 1.5 interesting to study is that these youths seem to be stranded in a cultural limbo. As Asher succinctly puts it, “[they are] a product of [two cultures], yet completely fluent in neither.” According to Asher, these youths bring with them a flavor of their native culture, while trying to conform to the social expectations of their new culture.
In a poignant summation of generation 1.5’s cultural conundrum, failure to adapt to a foreign culture is not an option. In fact, successful integration is a means by which these immigrants attempt to regain the kind of social security that they’ve left behind in their native country.
In What’s it Like to Be Generation 1.5, author Kristy Drutman describes these youths as “assimilat[ing] for survival,” and she recounts the price that such youths pay when they prioritize conforming to the dominant culture’s norms (in her cases, American norms) at the expense of retaining their native roots. One of Drutman’s interviewees, Bianca Larissa, exemplifies the resulting feelings of cultural exclusion stemming from an inability to wholly identify with either culture.
“I felt so out of place in Filipino clubs growing up as a 1.5 child, because in my experience, the first generation Filipinos were so exclusive; they really made it a point to define what it means to be ‘Filipino’ in a very singular way that does not apply to everyone and growing up,” Larissa says.
What strikes me about Larissa’s statement is the implication that such individuals are forced to choose between two cultures. In other words, you’re either X or you’re Y, and both are mutually exclusive. Whether or not this implication holds is personally relevant for me.
Like Larissa, I immigrated to a new country (in my case, Canada), around the age of six. In terms of early language proficiency, I was neither proficient enough in Tagalog that I could translate for my parents, nor was I proficient enough in English to keep up in school. For the most part of my grade school years, I stayed in ESL, a government-implemented accelerated English-learning program, to help bring me up to speed with the educational language standards. From these experiences, I remain convinced that my early deficiencies in language impeded my ability to navigate between the two cultures shaping my identity.
Perhaps the ease in which some individuals integrate into a new culture is a result of their prior exposure to the culture beforehand. Exposure to the dominant culture’s language, such as English for Canada, may help ease the process of acculturation. Additionally, Mark Roberge has argued that the appellation generation 1.5 should apply even to “English-speaking immigrants learning [Canadian] English.” But whether prior exposure to the foreign culture’s language was present in the individual’s life or not, the experience of generation 1.5 is not devoid of linguistic challenges.
“Even if I speak English at home, it’s different when you start living around predominantly English-speaking people,” Jene Estigoy, a third-year political science student, explains. “When talking to someone formally, it took a while to figure out the way to do so, because in the Philippines, we use formalities like ‘po,’ but we don’t have those in English.”
Regardless of cultural starting points, generation 1.5 echoes a universal sentiment of never feeling like full social acceptance—from either sphere—is attainable. In a TEDxTalk on generation 1.5, Ji Su Kang powerfully captures such a sentiment: “I was neither a first-generation immigrant nor a second-generation immigrant. I was too Korean to be second, and too American to be first. I was neither fully an adult nor fully a child.”
Kang ends her talk in a hopeful revelation. She acknowledges that though others like her may never identify as fully X or Y, there is some consolation in knowing that the label generation 1.5 brings with it a better description of a previously unidentified generation.