Pet peeve time: Are you first- or second-generation American?

February 28, 2012 · 30 comments

in Journalism how-to's

Post image for Pet peeve time: Are you first- or second-generation American?

I am SO ANNOYED. When will people get this straight??! If you’re an immigrant to this country, then you’re first generation. If your kids are born here, then they are second generation.

The logic is very clear…

If you call yourself first-generation American, then what happens if your immigrant parents become American citizens? If you are first generation, are they the zero generation?

Aha! Now you get it.

Of course, our society does have a way of treating immigrants like zeros. This leads to the subliminal context of my pet peeve. We have to stop acting like immigrants are strangers. By thinking of their American-born children as first generation, we are implying that immigrant families have shallow roots in this country — a shaky standing.

But if we properly define our generational relationships, then we instantly become more American. We count more. We need to be counted. Being counted is a source of strength and power. 

My parents came here from Asia. Me, I’m born in New Jersey. Even if Mom and Dad never became naturalized citizens, I am still second generation. For two generations, we have sweated blood and paid taxes to help build this country. My country. Our country. Do not view us as foreigners or recently-arrived guests.



For further amplification, check out “Foreign-Born Population Frequently Asked Questions,” from the website of the U.S. Census Bureau. This unit of the federal government has two centuries’ worth of experience in counting heads and categorizing the American people. Here’s what the bureau says:

What is generational status? Who is included in the first, second, and third-or-higher generations?

The U.S. Census Bureau uses the term generational status to refer to the place of birth of an individual or an individual’s parents. Questions on place of birth and parental place of birth are used to define the first, second, and third-or-higher generations. The first generation refers to those who are foreign born. The second generation refers to those with at least one foreign-born parent. The third-or-higher generation includes those with two U.S. native parents.

Sadly, too many of us are misinformed and oppressing ourselves. Just last weekend, my daughter and I were on a college tour at a major university. During the fancy presentation, a student speaker told the packed audience that she is the daughter of immigrants and “first generation.” After the event, I pulled this young woman aside to explain and she graciously thanked me. Nice.

One-on-one convos like this are easy to manage because there’s a human face to the issue. Changing the media is harder because the cultural bias is so pervasive. Even the New York Times is inconsistent; the news sections show proper usage but I find boo-boos in the paper’s Sunday wedding pages. If anyone has a contact there, please forward this post!

For a typical example of the problem, consider, which just ran a piece on Linsanity.



Here’s what it said:

Jeremy Lin is also an Asian-American. This is notable because very few Asians play professional basketball in the United States! Lin’s parents, Gie-Ming and Shirley, are Taiwanese immigrants; Lin and his brothers are first-generation Americans. The Lins came to the U.S. in the 1970s to study at Purdue…

Wrong, wrong, wrong! Jeremy Lin and his brothers are SECOND-GENERATION AMERICANS.

This topic has been bothering me for a long time. Unloading here makes me feel better. My hope is that you’ll share this post with everyone you know. After all, immigrants and their children are EVERYWHERE.


Like this link? Please share!
Pin It

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Leave a Comment

Current ye@r *

Previous post:

Next post: