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Current challenges in US society could see a political awakening for young Chinese immigrants

By Men Rui Updated Oct.1

Demonstrators march along Brooklyn Bridge in New York to protest against a spate of racist discrimination and persecutions against Asian Americans, April 2021

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the US has seen more discrimination and hate incidents against the Asian community, especially the Chinese community. Immigrant children and juveniles of Chinese origin, also known as “1.5 generation Chinese immigrants” particularly face conflicts of identity both in American society and their own families.  

Yet these difficulties could bring an opportunity for political awakening, says Min Zhou, Professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies, and Director of the Asia Pacific Center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In an exclusive interview with China News Service (CNS), Zhou said the 1.5 generation of Chinese immigrants could work toward bridging the cultural gap between China and the US, thus promoting mutual understanding.  

CNS: How do you define 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants? Why pay attention to this group? 

Min Zhou: The “1.5 generation immigrants” is a general term that refers to a group of people who are born in their home country and immigrate before the age of 18. In academic research, it is often subdivided into three age groups. The first is the 1.75 generation, who are born in their home country and immigrate before the age of 6. The second group is the 1.5 generation, who are born in the home country and immigrate before the age of 13. The third group is the 1.25 generation, who are born in their home country and immigrate between the ages of 13 and 17, also known as immigrant juveniles. These three types of 1.5 generation immigrants account for around 25 percent of the Chinese community in the US.  

As they grow up, 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants experience unique changes in environment, which might affect their physical and mental health. The vast majority are students, who can’t protect themselves. At a time of frequent Asian hate incidents, it is necessary to pay attention to and protect their healthy growth.  

CNS: What are the differences among the three groups of younger Chinese immigrants?  

MZ: Apart from the fact that preschool-age 1.75 generation immigrants are not born US citizens, their behavior and values are basically the same as those of second-generation immigrants (born in the US with at least one immigrant parent). They also rarely use the language of their home country.  

The 1.5 generation immigrants who immigrate before the age of 13 have received basic education in their home countries. They are aware of their immigrant status, with basic usage of their native language. But they have a rather vague picture of their home country, with low levels of identification.  

Having lived in their home country for a long time, immigrant juveniles [1.25 generation] are fluent in their native language, with a clear picture, deep impressions and a strong sense of identity with their home country.  

The three groups of [young] Chinese immigrants have distinctly different friend circles. Most of the immigrant juveniles’ friendship circles are dominated by their fellow Chinese immigrants. Those who come to the US before the age of 13 have a more diverse friendship circle, and have more interactions with second-generation immigrants of other ethnic groups.  

It is noteworthy that some 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants who come to the US before the age of 13 and second-generation Chinese immigrants may reject Chinese immigrant juveniles as “foreigners” for their behavior and habits tied to their home country. In an environment of widespread Asianophobia, some 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants who come to the US before the age of 13 tend to be emotionally cut off toward Chinese immigrant juveniles with traits of “foreigners” to reconcile themselves with their self-perception of their own identity.  

CNS: How is intergenerational conflict reflected among Chinese immigrant families? And why?  

MZ: Intergenerational conflict is quite common among American families. In immigrant families, there also exists intercultural conflict between parents and their second or 1.5 generation immigrant children. Inter-generational conflict is significant in families with two generations that differ in how long they have lived in the home country, habits, social experiences and values, as well as how much they have integrated into American culture.  

The 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants who come to the US before the age of 13 grow up in the US, where they receive basic education, with a rather high level of assimilation. They emphasize individual independence, freedom and equality, whereas their parents, still influenced by traditional Chinese culture, stress filial piety, hard work and the authority of elders in educating their children. These ideological differences bring conflicts and disconnection, especially in families where parents are not proficient in English, and the language barrier results in difficult communication within families. In this situation, inter-generational conflict and cultural conflict become even more intense.  

In immigrant juveniles’ families, intergen-erational cultural conflict is milder. Sharing the same language, similar ideas and life experiences as their parents, communication is relatively smooth. In families where the parents are not good at English, immigrant juveniles also play the role of interpreter and life guide, building up frequent communications and closer relationships among family members.  

CNS: Why do the 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants face difficulties?  

MZ: Judging from their pre-immigration socio-economic background, the 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants with a rather impoverished background normally have a smaller psychological gap, and greater psychological tolerance in the face of sudden changes in their living environment after immigration. Meanwhile, 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants from the middle-class with a comfortable life, when faced with difficulties after immigration, are more likely to suffer a huge psychological gap and burden. They might even doubt whether their decision to immigrate was right.  

Family expectations could also bring pressure. Chinese immigrant parents have high expectations for their 1.5 or second-generation immigrant children, and many parents have clear plans for their future, with strict upbringing and educational approaches, which could become a heavy psychological burden for their children. If the parents’ plans are at odds with the children’s personal interests, the children may feel more contradictory and anxious.  

An unfriendly social sentiment is also one reason for such feelings. The US is seeing many anti-Asian incidents, with an obvious propensity of social exclusion toward the Asian community. Because of their Chinese identity, the 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants may suffer unfriendly treatment by students in school, which may lead to anxiety, fear or self-segregation. When this exclusion comes from some second-generation or 1.75 generation Chinese immigrants, their identity crisis will become even more severe.  

CNS: How can the 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants deal with these difficulties?  
MZ: Chinese immigrant juveniles have lived a long time in their home countries, with a rather mature social circle. The exclusion and cultural conflicts they encounter after immigration will deepen their identification with, and dependence on, the culture of their home countries, pushing them closer with peers from within the group. This leads to the gradual formation of a homogeneous social networking circle among them.  

Faced with social disapproval, immigrant juveniles normally develop two paths of growth. Some will follow family expectations and study hard, hoping to make achievements in their studies and careers. But very few have no intention of pursuing their studies, which, coupled with family conflicts, would show intense rebellion, and even run away from home, looking for self-identity and sense of belonging in the community’s juvenile in-groups.  

As the 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants who come to the US before the age of 13 lack an understanding and recognition of their home country’s culture as their psychological support, they might, by comparison, show a more intense rebellion in the face of social exclusion. They would join with second-generation Chinese immigrants and other ethnic groups to strengthen their citizenship identity as “US minority groups” and fight for their legal rights.  

CNS: Since the outbreak of Covid-19, there have been frequent anti-Asian hate incidents in the US targeting the Chinese community. What should the 1.5 generation of Chinese immigrants do in this situation?  

MZ: Faced with unfriendly remarks against China, Chinese immigrant juveniles would stand up in its defense. The 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants who come to the US before the age of 13 have a blurred self-identity, and they would feel more nervous and anxious in the face of unfriendly remarks. Some will remain silent and even try to reduce their own racial traits in appearance. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, there has been rampant discrimination against the Chinese community, with other Asian groups, such as Koreans and Vietnamese, also falling victim. Many Chinese immigrants have organized and protested through rallies, marches and petitions, and many of them are 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants.  

Therefore, this difficult situation also comes as an opportunity for the political awakening of the 1.5 generation of Chinese immigrants, which helps raise the Chinese community’s awareness and enthusiasm for political participation.  

CNS: What is the role of the 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants in family and society? 

MZ: The 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants play the role of breaking cultural barriers in their families, especially in ones where parents are not proficient in English. After entering university and college, some 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants take advantage of their vacations to volunteer for their immigrant community. As they integrate into mainstream society after starting to work, they give back to the community through donations and participation in community activities, and some take part in politics to fight for the rights of Asian groups and the Chinese community. 
CNS: How should the 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants promote mutual understanding between the East and the West, and bridge cultural conflicts?  

MZ: In American society where individualism is widely valued, it is necessary to raise the awareness for public good among the 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants, boost their enthusiasm for political participation, and push for the social acceptance and tolerance of minority groups through political participation, thus promoting mutual understanding between East and West.  

Specifically, it is necessary to go beyond a short-term response in the face of the current difficulties, and organize group activities, give full play to the bi-cultural and bilingual advantages of the 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants, and push for eradication of the US’s social prejudice against China and the Chinese community, as well as eradicating Chinese society’s prejudice and misunderstanding of the US. The 1.5 generation Chinese immigrants who participate in politics should actively play a role in the administration system and contribute to improving US-China relations by making efforts in their fields of service.

Min Zhou, professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies, and Director of the Asia Pacific Center at the University of California, Los Angeles