When I was 17, I won an essay contest for writing about how the concept of the melting pot is over and how we are, instead, a “bubbling stew of recognizable, though diverse, ingredients whose flavors are deepened by the mix.” “For only by celebrating our differences,” I wrote, “will we enrich our culture, our economy, and most importantly, our individual lives.”
What a bunch of crap.
I’m not saying the concept of a stew is lacking. I’m hardly the first to try my hand at yet another food metaphor to describe the unique American experiment. Although I thought I was being clever, the stew idea has been around for a while (although “celebrating our differences” sounds more like a cheese plate). But for 17-year-old me to have been writing these words was more than a bit disingenuous. I wanted to win a contest and I knew how. But I certainly didn’t believe anything I wrote.
Growing up Bengali-American in the rural South, I aspired to be like every other small-town southern Virginian, actively rejecting any cultural marker that pegged me as different (including the hyphenated identity, which I only use above for clarity). In terms of derogatory labels, I was not even close to an “ABCD”—American-born confused Desi. I truly believed there was nothing confusing about it for me. I was a coconut (brown on the outside, white on the inside). At the time, for me, it was cut and dry.
That’s why Priya-Alika Elias’s recent Gawker article, “No Indian Friends,” resonated with me.
Like Priya, I rejected the premise that every brown person had to be the same. I valued individualism over a fate determined by my skin color. I’ve been accused of self-hatred, of—almost literally—whitewashing my history.
My Life Has Mostly Transcended Ethnicity
Here I should admit I’ve learned a bit since then, and that it is possible to still be a country-music-listening Republican while acknowledging the richness (“Rich,” like “black forest cake,” jokes Priya) of my heritage. That, too, would be disingenuous. At the most, now I can look back and acknowledge perhaps I was more confused than I thought, and that my choice of identity was not as cut-and-dry as it was to my teenage mind. But for the most part, I’m content with my choice. It is what it is, and it has served me well.
I’ve always said I benefited greatly from not growing up in a diverse area, and that I was majorly influenced by where I went to school and who my friends were. I was not ever one to notice or care that I was the only non-white person in the room. I would joke that I forgot I’m not white (I really do forget). In college, where I did have one or two South Asian friends, it threw me off when people felt weird at parties because they were the only brown ones there (Dude, no one cares).
The same thing applied to gender. When I approached my dean about joining the intelligence field, he noted I’d be one of very few females, a statement that didn’t faze me one bit. It turned out to be untrue, post-9/11, at least for the home offices, but in male-heavy deployment environments, I just adopted the language and attitude of the dudebros and aspired to be one of the guys.
But when I dig down and explore why I gained this quality of assimilating with the crowd, there are deeper cultural forces at work.
Conformity as an Antidote to Marginalization
First, I cannot pretend I spent most my time around other white southern Americans and that’s why I am the way I am. Bengali cultural traditions include a lot of time spent in the community. Exposure isn’t the issue here. Just as fitting in to the mainstream is important to any high-schooler, fitting in to the larger Bengali community is very important to them, too. Here, however, you get two very conflicting sets of values.
As stated by Devjani Banerjee-Stevens, “A chief task of adolescence is the search for and development of one’s identity, This is undoubtedly a tricky process for many, but individuals straddling two cultures may feel compelled to choose the values and beliefs of one culture over another; integrating their two cultures’ values may not be feasible or condoned by either the majority or ancestral cultures.”
For me, instead of walking the line, it was easier to pick one or the other. One might see the outlines of my life story and call me the ultimate conformist. Stability, two kids, marriage, joining all the right community organizations—all the signs of milquetoast conservatism are right there.
But when one accounts for my wholesale rejection of Bengali culture, I was a countercultural hurricane. I argued against arranged marriage with a friend’s father at the age of six. At 18, I took a sip of wine in front of every assembled auntie and elder while they stared in shock. As a preschooler, I hung out with my dad and all the other men at parties instead of gossiping with the women in the kitchen. I married a white guy.
There was a rumor that I spent my summer after freshman year of college being a cocktail waitress down in Norfolk (I had a paid internship with the Port Authority). In other words, I didn’t just blindly follow the herd. I very actively chose to follow a particular herd.
Not every second-generation South Asian went about things my way. However, the experience of anxiety and marginalization appears to be a common experience. In S. Mitra Kalita’s book “Suburban Sahibs,” she discusses how her non-South Asian friends made fun of “IFS,” or Indian Food Smell, and how she and her siblings made an effort to mask the smell of their home before friends came over. She also talks about her embarrassment when her parents would show up in full Indian sarongs at her school functions. These experiences are echoed throughout literature and scholarly work discussing the second-generation South Asian experience.
We’re the brown version of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Which is to say that second-generation confusion and anxiety isn’t exclusively a South Asian thing.
The Problem with Binary Conceptions of Race
That being said, one thing the main character didn’t have to deal with in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is her second-generation immigrant status wasn’t tied up in the color of her skin. There was no discussion or question of whether she was a minority.
That, of course, is a change from early American history. For example, Irish immigrants and those from Southern and eastern Europe were not considered white until well after their arrival in the United States. But whereas the Irish now are white, and Japanese, for example, now fit into a pan-Asian ethnic identity, South Asians are still negotiating their ethnic identity.
Asians don’t fit on the black/white binary so prevalent where I grew up. Even when dealing with more diverse populations, “many Indians feel the South Asian category does not usually fit into American categories of race: Asian, Black, White, or Hispanic,” says Cynthia Sinha. Goodness knows how many times I’ve looked at the “Asian/Pacific Islander” box on surveys and thought, “Well, I guess so.”
What happens next depends on the person and their environment. Some South Asians find themselves being treated either as black or as white. Others are treated as “ambiguous non-whites.” The result? When forced with the dichotomy, Indian psychologist Monika Sharma stated, “I had created my own version of a race war in my mind. I had divided the world into White and Other, and during my childhood I had made a choice about on which side I wished to belong.”
Rejecting Minority Status
The stereotypes of being a “model minority” further exacerbate the need to reject minority status and, in my case, take it a few steps further to not acknowledging racial differences. From a larger point of view, many South Asians don’t feel as though they could speak on minority issues due to their perceived class and educational advantages.
In my case, those advantages were real enough, but the “model minority” myth often does gloss over disadvantages and problems various segments of the Asian-American population face. In return, students internalize that myth and themselves reject help or discussion due to the belief they do not deserve minority status. Finally, when dealing with teenagers, the stereotype of a model minority spills over into a stereotype of a dowdy nerd, something a teen would do well to reject if he or she wants to fit into the dominant culture.
From a personal point of view, not fitting within the black/white binary meant I had to choose one with which to ally myself. I always defend the South—I love the South—but my formative memories of race in the South center on extremely racist attitudes expressed by children who just didn’t know better. What I heard, both explicitly and implicitly, from those children—in the middle of saying incredibly horrible things about black people—was that I was different. I wasn’t one of “those” minorities. I belonged with the white crowd and therefore was okay.
Sinha continues, “Racial ambiguity can marginalize groups of people because it seems that in the U.S., one needs a distinct category to be understood.” And one antidote to marginalization is to attach oneself to a whole different group.
Don’t Pretend You Know Me Because of My Skin
Not every second-generation individual reacts that way, and many (if not most) eventually choose a hybrid, hyphenated identity. One reason many South Asian Americans choose a hyphenated identity is brilliantly covered in “Negotiating Ethnicity” by Bandana Purkayashta, in which she discusses how non-white Americans cannot pick and choose a symbolic ethnicity as easily as a white American because their race is ever-present. In terms of many South Asians, in addition, some of their cultural values are negatively perceived by the dominant culture, and therefore, “being ethnic negatively affects their ability to be American.” The hyphen, she theorizes, symbolizes this tension.
For me, though, it still goes back to the visceral reaction when I meet someone and they start talking about the rich culture of India. First, India and Bangladesh are not the same. We’re the dowdy conservative religious stepcousins of the subcontinent. Second, you just met me. I resent that the color of my skin immediately hearkens back to something that has nothing to do with me. Hyphenating my identity, in my mind, only encourages that.
Not only is it frustrating for my ethnic heritage to be lumped into the dominant Indian culture that is as alien to me as Japanese culture would be, the glossed-over version of South Asian culture—with its monsoon weddings, henna, and chai—ignores a large part of reality. South Asia has beautiful parts, but especially coming from Bangladesh I see the darker underbelly: the absolute poverty, the attacks against women, the political dissent, the entitlement complex, the bribes and corruption, the lack of ability to form a freaking line. Without a real understanding of South Asia, any cooing discussion of my culture—again, having just met me and without my initiation of the conversation—reeks of cultural appropriation.
Try Interacting with Me as an Individual
Why do I love Elias’s article so much? Because she not only encapsulated my younger self’s desire to conform to the dominant white culture, she forced me to examine why. And she hit upon an uncomfortable truth: you can’t completely erase a part of yourself. As she writes,
“Being Indian didn’t mean that I was exactly the same as the other billion people who happened to share that characteristic. It didn’t mean I’d automatically love wearing saris. But in affirming that as loudly as I did, I made another grave mistake: the mistake of thinking that I could find the entirety of myself in the white experience. Like a child jamming a piece into the wrong puzzle, I wouldn’t accept that it wouldn’t fit.”
From something as innocuous as learning how to write thank-you notes (not exactly common in Bengali culture) to watching from the sidelines as my friends went out on their first dates, I struggled during my formative years to “pass” as white and never quite succeeded. How sad that sounds, written out that way. “I didn’t understand that I was erasing myself till I saw somebody else doing it as well as I had managed to,” writes Priya. “Because brown kids are nothing if not good at spelling bees and assimilation.”
So I will state this. If you are just meeting me and you note my color, please don’t tell me about the time you went to a yoga retreat and found your nirvana. Definitely don’t ask me if “Jen” is short for something “totally cooler and more ethnic.” But once we get to know each other, after we discuss my love of beaches, our high school bonfires, and the part of my soul that will always live in the South, I might also tell you a bit of the real story.
Immigration is squarely on the American political agenda. With the influx of migrants continuing at high levels, it is destined to remain there. Although its salience as an issue may rise and fall, immigration poses fundamental questions about what it means to be an American and whether the nation can deliver on its historic promise to provide upward mobility to newcomers and their children.
Scholars usually frame the debate in terms of the economic and demographic impacts of high levels of immigration. Yet the broad passions excited by the issue point to deeper concerns about the ways in which mass migration is reshaping American society and culture (Zolberg 2006). Many wonder what sort of Americans the latest immigrants will become and what sort of America will be their legacy—and ours. Even those who think that immigration has a generally benevolent economic impact often worry that the huge numbers of largely nonwhite immigrants who have come to the United States since the mid-1960s will not "assimilate" or will put native born minorities at a further disadvantage.
The answer to the question of what large scale migration will mean for American society, however, lies less with the immigrants themselves than with their ambivalently American children. The March 2005 Current Population Survey (CPS) reported that this new "second generation"— the children of at least one immigrant parent born in the United States or who arrived by the age of 12—accounted for one out of six 18- to 32-year-olds in the nation and one out of four of all Americans under 18. In many ways, they will define how today's immigrant groups become tomorrow's American ethnic groups. In the process, they will not only reshape American racial and ethnic relations but define the character of American social, cultural, and political life.
This book is about their lives. It is the culmination of a decade-long research project by a large team of researchers who interviewed members of the second and 1.5 generations in and around New York City. (We define the second generation as those born in the United States to at least one immigrant parent and the 1.5 generation as those born abroad but who arrived by age 12 and then grew up in the United States.) By looking at what life is like for them and those who will follow them, the project sought to understand the longer term consequences of immigration for American society. Over time, however, it also became a study of what it is like to be a young adult in New York today. We learned about the struggles and joys experienced by young adults coming of age in a tough town, a place of ever-present dangers, of backbreaking competition, but also of extraordinary possibilities.
As such, it is also a book about New York City. This city of "eight million stories" houses more adult immigrants and more children of immigrants than any other city in the United States and its metropolitan area more than anywhere else but Greater Los Angeles. Yet while large scale international migration to Los Angeles did not take place until well into the twentieth century, it has a much longer history in New York. Indeed, the children of immigrants, past and present, have often been seen as the quintessential New Yorkers. Today's second generation grows up among local institutions and attitudes that were shaped by the region's long, deep, and diverse immigrant traditions.
Writing this book has made us more aware of how difficult it can be to grow up in New York, yet how the city can still welcome newcomers. These qualities will no doubt lead some readers to think our research and conclusions apply only to New York. The city's enthusiasts and detractors alike tend to exaggerate its difference from the rest of the United States — an "island off the coast of America," in the words of Spalding Grey. Yet the problems faced by the second generation in New York are pretty much the same as those anywhere else. If New Yorkers have forged distinctive answers to those problems, they may offer positive or negative lessons to the rest of the nation.
Why is it important to assess how New York and the nation are incorporating this new second generation? One reason is sheer numbers. Immigrants and their children now form a majority of the population in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. According to the March 2005 CPS, 35 percent of all New Yorkers were foreign born, and their native born children constituted another 17 percent. Their presence is even greater among the city's 18- to 32-year-old residents, more than a fifth of whom were born here to immigrant parents; another fifth arrived by age 12 and grew up here, and a final fifth arrived as young adult immigrants. In short, most young adult New Yorkers are of immigrant origin. These trends are even more pronounced among those who are under 18. Thus, even if immigration were to end magically tomorrow, the question of how the children of immigrants will fit into U.S. society would be with us for decades.
Simply put, the children of immigrants are the future of New York and many other parts of the nation.
A second reason to study the children of immigrants involves the future of American ethnic and racial relations. Before 1965, immigrants to the United States were overwhelmingly European. Since then, most have come from other parts of the globe. Given how the United States has historically constructed racial categories, they are not generally regarded as "white." Yet they are not African Americans either. Since the cleavage between the "white" descendants of immigrants and the "black" descendants of American slaves has so strongly marked big cities, the emergence of a large and rapidly growing group that does not fit easily into either of these categories has enormous potential consequences. To a degree, the arrival of this group was presaged by New York's large Puerto Rican population, which is also neither unambiguously white nor unambiguously black. Glazer and Moynihan (1963) suggested that this large "intermediate" group would temper the city's race relations. Since that largely turned out not to be the case, we must be careful about any conclusions we draw from the experience of the new immigrants.
New York City is a rich site for studying how immigration is affecting race relations. Its immigrants are staggeringly diverse, and newcomers have altered the makeup of every racial category. No one group dominates the flow of immigrants to New York as Cubans have in Miami or Mexicans in Los Angeles. About 45 percent of the city's black population are immigrants or the children of immigrants, as are 40 percent of the white population. The same is true of 59 percent of the Hispanic population and 95 percent of the Asian population. Most native Hispanics with native parents are Puerto Ricans who were born on the mainland but whose parents or grandparents migrated from the island, so even they have a strong migrant heritage, though they are all American citizens.
Immigrants are having a huge impact on the city's labor market. Like other American cities, New York incorporated the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigrants in part because their arrival coincided with, and fed, the growth of its manufacturing sector, which provided jobs and a living to people with limited education or who did not speak English. Today, many wonder whether a service sector economy that places a premium on education and communication can accommodate new immigrant workers. As the top of the city's household income distribution pulls away from the bottom, others worry that while immigrants may find low wage jobs, their children will lack opportunities for upward mobility in an "hourglass"-shaped economy.
Unlike their predecessors, the children of the current immigrants are becoming American in the midst of continuing immigration. Our understanding of assimilation has been largely shaped by the experience of the descendants of the southern and eastern European immigrants who came to the United States between roughly 1882 and 1924 (Foner 2000, 2005). Their incorporation took place after legislative changes in the
1920s, the Depression, and World War II sharply reduced new immigration. Their children came of age in a context of low immigration with few new arrivals to reinvigorate ties to the old country or to reinforce old country ways. Americanization was further reinforced for many by the experience of serving in the American armed forces in World War II. Today, by contrast, members of the new second generation rub shoulders with recently arrived immigrants their own age in the streets, classrooms, and workplaces of New York. There is therefore a good deal less distinction between the first and second generations than in the past (Rumbaut 2004; Waters and Jiménez 2005; Foner and Kasinitz 2007).
Today's second generation also grows up in communities where the parents have more transnational connections than in the past. Modern communications and cheap transportation enable immigrants to remain socially connected to their home communities. Today's transnational immigrants (or "trans/migrants") and their children remain active in social networks that make it possible for them to live in more than one society at a time, perhaps never fully committing to either (Glick Schiller, Basch, and Blanc-Stanton 1992; Portes 1999; Levitt 2001, 2007; Levitt and Waters 2002). New York's immigrant neighborhoods are jammed with businesses selling low cost phone calls and instant money transfers to remote parts of the globe. In every group, some second generation people remain strongly tied to their parents' homelands. They visit often, send money back, and even contemplate settling there. A surprising number of first generation West Indian and Latin American parents "send back" children to live with relatives when the dangers of the New York streets terrify them or they suddenly lose their child-care arrangements. These transnational connections may be quite important to the American lives of the new second generation.
Finally, it is important to study the second generation because so many first generation parents worry about what will happen to their American children. While social scientists cannot automatically accept their view of their community's problems, we should nevertheless take their concerns seriously. Anyone spending time in America's growing immigrant communities will hear parental concern over the second generation. "We are afraid for our kids," we have been told. With a mixture of awe, fear, and disdain, immigrant parents say their children are "becoming American." This is the stuff of sermons in Korean churches, of discussion in Ecuadoran hometown associations, of debate in Chinese newspapers.
Sometimes this is only a vague but nagging fear about cultural loss among people who are otherwise quite happy in America. Jhumpa Lahiri's fictional couple, for example, find themselves inexplicably afraid for their U.S.-born son at Harvard: "So we drive to Cambridge to visit him or bring him home for the weekend so that he can eat rice with us with his hands and speak Bengali, things we sometimes worry he will no longer do after we die" (Lahiri 1999:197). Other times the fear is more pointed. West Indian Brooklynites told Mary Waters that "we are losing our kids to the streets," a shorthand both for the manifold dangers of the American ghetto and for the less well understood but nonetheless frightening impact that being considered a black person in racist America was having on their children (Waters 1999).
This fear is part of the paradox of the immigrant experience. Immigrants come to America to improve their lives and those of their children. Most manage to do just that. They overcome hardships and obstacles to give their children the chance to become Americans. At the same time, parents are often uncomfortable with and anxious about the future of the new Americans they have created. Whether the experience of the immigrant second and 1.5 generations in New York justifies these fears or not is the most important question that we hope this book can answer.
Excerpted from "Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age." Copyright © 2008. Published by Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.