Mom was once young and beautiful.

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

betty ming liu Relationships, Writing how-to's 44 Comments

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. 

Are you first or second generation American?

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.I AM SECOND GENERATION. I AM SECOND GENERATION!!!

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.

Think of what our parents went through to get us here. Let’s respect them. And, ourselves. Acknowledging who we are grounds our experiences. And here are some of mine, as a second generation American:

Mom was once young and beautiful.

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Comments 44

  1. Post
    betty ming liu

    and i have another pet peeve for this week….my facebook “like” button on the blog has disappeared! uggggh. my tech consultant won’t have time to fix it until this weekend. but i hope you’ll take the extra minute to share this post on fb. we really need to get this information straight. it would be great for our sense of community and self-esteem. xo

  2. Vivien O-S

    Betty darlin’, I definitely get the logic here, and I admit I was never aware (until you told me, a while back) of the Census Bureau’s definition. And yet. Don’t be peeved at me, but I’m afraid that I’m part of the “cultural bias” that’s kept perpetuating the incorrect usage. But not for the reasons you’ve presented.
    As a fellow daughter of immigrants, I too am passionately committed to honoring their experiences and contributions; this is at the heart of much of my writing and public speaking, even my teaching. Yet I never questioned – or bristled at- the standard designation of being a “First Generation American.” I always thought of it this way: I am the FIRST generation of my family to have had the privilege/advantage to be BORN in America. My parents – and to be scrupulous about terminology, they were “refugees,” not immigrants – built the foundation for my future here, as the first generation to come to America, yes. And they did so without possessing the full complement of advantages (even language) that became my birthright. This made their hard work, their successes, their patriotism, everything they bequeathed to me (materially and philosophically) all the more extraordinary, in my view. It renders them anything but invisible. Rightly or wrongly, thinking of or portraying myself as “Second Generation” makes me feel MORE distant from the struggles and triumphs that forged the deep roots of my parents’ immigrant experience, and more disconnected from the daily challenges to acculturate (but not assimilate) that were central to my family of origin. And I don’t like that one bit. All those “firsts” made me who I am.
    Because of my German-Jewish parents’ escape from the Holocaust (one fleeing before the camps, one liberated after), I’m the FIRST to be born into a society built upon “liberty and justice for all.” (Or so we purport – clearly we’ve still got a ways to go.) I’m the first to be free to study at whatever school I wanted to, the first to have a high-school yearbook instead of memories of classmates who were victims of genocide. I never forget this.
    The fact that MOST people/media apparently get it wrong, makes it that much harder for me to start gettin’ it right. I want my students who are the children of immigrants to know that I feel a deep, deep commonality with them, regardless of their familes’ ethnicities or countries of origin. This commonality becomes especially important – even transformative – when they hail from cultures in which they’ve had zero opportunity to get to know a Jew – cultures in which Jews, for a variety of reasons, are mythologized, even demonized. If I simply point out that I’m “Second Generation American,” I’m pretty certain that most listeners assume I possess some vague knowledge of my families’ roots, via an immigrant granny’s tales in a language I barely understand – surely not that I grew up in a household that spoke more German than English, or that I relied upon television to teach me how American families were supposed to act (ha) – the Nelsons, the Cleavers, etc., and my favorite, “Donna Reed.”
    But because accuracy/specificity of language is my stock in trade, as it is yours, I guess I’ll have to get my act together and start making my newfound identity as a “Second-Generation American” a teachable moment for those as misguided as I was. Sigh.
    SORRY for once again writing a long-ass post on your blog. But you raise provocative stuff! I am provoked! xoxo

  3. Post
    betty ming liu

    viv, i love all the long comments because it shows people care. thank you for this. i totally vibe with the passion you bring to the discussion.

    but i go back to the original point…did your parents become american citizens? would you call them the zero-generation american? especially given all that they suffered, don’t they deserve the right to have their citizenship acknowledged?

    i know this is emotional stuff. but it’s a great discussion that we need to keep having. xoxoxox

  4. Vivien O-S

    Yes, they became citizens, and never missed voting in an election. Like I said: I can’t fault the logic of your argument. I guess I never felt compelled to attach the word (or concept of) “generation” to how I viewed my parents’ status as Americans. Does the fact that you’re said to turn “one” on your first birthday, indicate that you were “zero” during the year after your birth? Well, “zero YEARS old” – sure. But this doesn’t imply that you didn’t exist. Instead, your age/developmental status is referred to in terms of months, or weeks. I identified my parents as German-Jewish refugees, Holocaust survivors who proudly attained American citizenship, with my brother and I being the first generation to be born Americans. Their designation – to me – bespeaks serious accomplishment worthy of admiration, while ours was sheer happenstance.
    That said: I can definitely see how the more commonly used identifier of people like us, Betty, as “first-generation Americans,” could be rooted (consciously for some, unconsciously for others) in an anti-immigrant bias. Heaven knows, that’s something I’d never want to perpetuate.

  5. Shakti

    My parents are first generation immigrants (born in India) who later naturalized and became 1st generation American citizens. My brother is second generation American (born in America). I was born in India and when my parents naturalized, they naturalized me because I was a minor. What generation American am I?

  6. Toby

    Betty: Glad you like long comments because here comes another one! Your post calls attention to issues I have come to realize have serious implications for both individuals and our society at large. First comes the inherent racism – often unconscious – of American culture. One of my wonderful adopted sons is of Philippine descent. So many times he has been asked – by “nice” people with big smiles – “so – where…were…you…born?” (speaking slowly, clearly and a shade louder than usual) His usual response – “uhh…Jersey City,” leaves them a bit non-plussed, having automatically assumed that his Asian features meant “not an American.” That response has been delivered, over the years, with increasingly less patience and I don’t blame him. Beyond the non-American assumption, the further assumptiion that one must have difficulty with the language (even though he has an Ivy League MA) is infuriating. At least It has happened less often as he has gotten older and moves in professional rather than club-kid circles.
    The whole present immigration “crisis” so ballyhooed by the right wing is a huge exercise in pure racism. I run the Learning Center at Mercer College’s inner city campus, here in Trenton, on weekday evenings and most of our students are from South America or West Africa. I have developed more respect for them than I know how to express. Most of them get up at dawn to work at some menial, minimum wage job, then come to the college to work on an education until 9 or 10 every night. Throughout this exhausting schedule, their courtesy and appreciation never faiils. How anyone can think they wiill not be valuable assets to our nation is simply a mystery to me.

  7. Yvonne


    I am like you…but always confused! I call my myself first generation sometimes and other times second generation…it is further confused by the fact that my dad was born here, but raised in Jamaica and identified as Jamaican! My mom was born in the Dominican Republic…I have spent most of my life in a state of confusion…I didn’t even feel truly American until I was in my 20’s and traveled/lived in Europe. I was often mistaken for Arab and sometimes discriminated against based on that perception. I really missed America. Between getting stopped by the police and Arab men who were upset with me for the way I dressed and not being veiled, it got scary at times. My only weapon was my American accent and my passport! I felt even more American after I wrote my first book on black vets…most of my life I have felt a disconnect to all my cultures because I am just not “enough” of anything. But you are right…I am American and the media and perception has hurt my ability to identify with that. Thanks for advocating for us kids of immigrants. Our identity is often a throw away and never even explained by our parents…another one of my issues…my parents did not have the vocabulary to help me understand who I was as a mixed minority so I was clueless against the white latino bullies who challenged me about my identity when I was in grade school. They were so mean…so mean…

  8. Jeannie

    I saw the same item, Betty, and it bothered me too. But not as much, because I’m pretty sure that different immigrant cultures count it differently, despite whatever the Census Bureau says—so the general usage is all over the place. Asians seems to be the most assiduous in following Betty’s system (issei, nisei, sansei, etc. for Japanese-Americans). By Korean-American definitions, Shakti, you would be called a member of the 1.5 generation.

  9. Bria @ West of Persia

    Hmmmm, good point, Betty. Now in my case, Mom is from the U.S., but my pops is an immigrant. So does that make me a 2.5 generation immigrant? Not being snarky here, I’ve always been curious about this. (Hey, 2.5 beats “half-breed,” which, yes, I have been called. Ha!)

  10. patty

    Wow Betty you really hit a nerve. What a great topic — like back in your old Daily News days! I hear you too, but my story is different from yours. All of my life, people assume that my family has been here for many, many generations — and with that go all the assumptions that I was born to affluence, privilege etc. First, there are millions and millions of Americans who have been here for a very long time who are neither affluent nor privileged. There is a strong bias against them; that if they have been in America so long, they should have figured it all out and become successful investment bankers, and not just plain, ordinary, honest people struggling to make a living. I know some people refer to those people as trailer trash. We live in a cruel world. BTW, my family has been here many generations — half of them anyway. But they did what Americans do — they married “other” people not exactly like themselves. That half — my grandparents – were immigrants. I too thought my Mom was first generation — meaning the first generation born in America. I guess it was hard to think of my Grandma as American since she never became a citizen, never spoke English, and frankly never really liked it here. She had an awfully hard life here.

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