Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Gen 1.5: Where an immigrant generation fits in

Photo by K W Reinsch/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The experience of 1.5 generation immigrants, a term used to describe people who arrived in the U.S. as children and adolescents, is a unique one. Unlike their first-generation parents or U.S.-born siblings, their identity is split. They are American in many ways, sometimes in most, but not entirely.

Depending on how old 1.5s are upon arrival, where they grow up, which ethnic group they belong to and a host of other factors, their American/immigrant identities vary wildly, as do the roles they play within immigrant diasporas. They can play bridge-builder and cultural interpreter, helping parents and grandparents navigate their new home. Or they can feel like outcasts, neither here nor there. Then there are complicating factors like legal status, with some undocumented 1.5s growing up side by side with U.S. citizen siblings and peers.

Next Tuesday, March 27, I'll be leading a discussion about the 1.5 experience at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum, joined by Cal Poly Pomona sociologist Mary Yu Danico and UCLA Chicana/o Studies professor Leisy Abrego, both 1.5s themselves, along with yours truly. The audience will form part of the discussion as well, and people will be encouraged to share their stories. Among other things, we'll be talking about how the 1.5 experience has shaped those of us who live it in terms of how we identify, how we speak, how we marry, even how we vote.

We'll also talk about the evolution of the 1.5 term and what it means to different people. It's been used in academia for many years - back in the late 1960s, sociologist Rubén Rumbaut described Cuban American child immigrants as being part of a “one-and-a-half generation," later switching to the decimal "1.5 generation" to describe Southeast Asian youths. But the term really took off in the Korean American press, and still has special resonance for Asian Americans.

There's an interesting reason why this is so, especially for Korean Americans. Just as the Japanese have terms to describe first, second and third-generation immigrants, Koreans have a unique term for those in between the first and second, which they refer to as ilchom ose.

UCLA anthropologist Kyeyoung Park wrote about this in 1999 for the Amerasia Journal:

More than three-quarters of Korean immigrants are post-1965, many immigrating on family reunification provisions. The Korean immigrant community includes many child immigrants who are often called 1.5ers, or what is called ilchom ose within the Korean American community, the term first used in the 1970s (of both Los Angeles and New York Korean American communities) and popularized by community leaders such as Professor Eui-young Yu and Bong Hwan Kim, former director of the Korean Youth and Community Center. In the early 1980s, It was K.W. Lee, the editor of the Korea Times English Edition, who first wrote about the 1.5 generation Korean Americans.

The 1.5 term isn't as widely used among non-Asians, though it's gained popularity among Latinos lately. And interestingly, though not all scholars agree with it, there's a 1.5-generation scale: Rumbaut, who studies immigration as a professor at UC Irvine, came up with sub-categories to describe who arrived at what age. According to the scale, those who arrived between ages six and 12 are the truest 1.5s; those who came at age five or younger are "1.75s," closer to the second, with little or no memory of their native country. Older youths who arrived between ages 13 and 17 would be "1.25s," more likely to have an outlook similar to the first generation.

But it all varies, as we'll discuss next week. I'll share a bit of my 1.5 story here: My family arrived in Los Angeles from Havana when I was just shy of four. By the scale I would qualify as a 1.75, closest to the second generation, and this does shape my identity. But because I lived through the process of my family's assimilation - rather than it occurring before I was born, or while too young to remember - this left a distinct imprint on me as well. I'll share more during the panel.

Admission is free, but an RSVP is required so sign up here. In the meantime, might any fellow 1.5s care to share their thoughts or an anecdote from their own experience? Post away.