Growing up, I was used to my mom packing me traditional Filipino meals for lunch in preschool and kindergarten. She would pack me adobo and rice, sinigang with rice, tapas and rice — well, basically anything plus rice. I became used to the odd faces and questions my classmates would make after seeing my meals, and I thought I was the only kindergartner that had to face this. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that other first-generation American kids have faced these types of situations as well.
For those wondering who exactly first-generation kids are, they are some of the kids who are all too familiar with being asked the reoccurring question “But, where are you from, from?” They know that simply replying with “Florida” or “Texas” isn’t a sufficient answer. First-generation kids may experience having to translate for their immigrant parents, or perhaps not even being viewed as a “true minority” when they can’t speak their own language. Despite the list of common struggles first-generation kids can relate to, there’s an invaluable sense of pride that comes with being ethnically and culturally unique.
However, I found myself perplexed when defining my own cultural identity. I thought that I had to choose between my Americanized interests and beliefs and my Filipino cultural values. This led me to be more conscious of the weight of the seemingly involuntary decisions I make, whether it be choosing Mac n’ Cheese over rice, enjoying Disney Channel over Filipino teleseries (TV series) or replying to my parents in English when they speak in Tagalog (Filipino language). I began to believe that only one side of myself, the Americanized teen or Filipino kid, could define who I was. Ironically, there was also a lingering feeling of not belonging. When I’d be with my friends, I’d feel more Asian, but with my family, I don’t feel Asian enough.
Yet, according to the Journal of Adolescence as of 1989, Jean Phinney proposed a model that outlines this shared internalized journey of ethnic identity for first-generation kids and minorities. Phinney describes three main stages, with the first stage being “Unexamined Ethnic Identity.” This stage describes how people don’t generally express interest or explore their own ethnic background. However, an event or epiphany that triggers their curiosity leads them to stage two, “Moratorium.” This stage is characterized by the exploration of ethnic identity, such as learning their cultural language or history. Nevertheless, I realized how strikingly applicable this was for myself, as I grew from not caring about ethnic identity, to feeling a state of unbelonging and confusion toward my own ethnic identity. Lastly, after the cultural exploration comes “Ethnic Identity Achievement,” where the individual feels satisfaction and security within their own identity.
Thus, reaching stage three is an inquiry of how this exploration of “ethnic” self should be conducted, as well as defining what “Ethnic Identity Achievement” should look like. Moreover, I questioned how stage three’s satisfaction would apply to myself, as an Asian minority in the U.S., and those with similar upbringings. An excerpt from the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Second Edition) found from sciencedirect.com summarizes that there are several methods to how immigrant minorities establish their identity. These methods include: separation, assimilation, marginalization and integration.
On the extreme ends of the spectrum are separation and assimilation. Separation occurs when the individual eschews the present dominant culture and only engages in their own culture. On the contrary, when an individual relinquishes their ethnic culture and submits to the larger group, assimilation occurs. Yet, both these methods are an insensible way of assuming an identity. They both entail shutting out different perspectives and discourage having open-minded ideals. Additionally, there is also marginalization, which is deciding to shut out both cultures. Still, this is an ineffective way to define ethnic identity. Personally, denying the fact that a single culture raised me is fruitless; the values I withhold today are a product of what I learned from both my Filipino and American ideals.
Henceforth, the most applicable and positive solution was evident: I can be both. I am both. I am Asian American. It’s not my Filipino side or American side that is identity. This method of acculturation is called integration; it’s acknowledging that both these qualities are what make one’s identity whole. Thus, for the first-generation kids who have experienced similar internal struggles, there’s no need to switch or choose which ethnic persona to be at different moments, and there’s no need to feel obligated to choose traditional foods over pizza (but Filipino food is still the bomb). We have the privilege of being able to connect with people through different cultures and to help cultivate diversity with our peers. Oddly, it was the cultural differences that drew me to want to learn more about my friends’ traditions and connect more with my relatives. As a first-gen, I am grateful for the opportunity to be raised with both the taste of American culture and the sweetness of my own ethnic heritage.
Photo provided by thenewyorker.com