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Intergenerational Family Conflicts: Trying to Talk About Race in an Immigrant Family

By Grace Xu

There’s a spectrum of being assimilated into American culture, the starkest contrast being between first-generation and second-generation immigrants. From my point of view, first-generation immigrants still hold onto ideas that they grew up with in their native country, while second-generation immigrants become assimilated into the new country and lose ties with their parents’ country. There’s a divide between the first-generation immigrants and the second-generation immigrants – things that neither side can really understand about each other, and some things just remain unspoken.

I’m a second-generation Chinese immigrant who was born in New York – my parents were both born in China. When I was younger, my mom told me stories that had the subliminal messaging “you’re different.” She would tell me that when I was just born, she knew exactly which baby I was because I was the only Chinese baby. She would tell me that when I first entered day care I could barely speak English. She would tell me that, when I applied to my second school, the administrators immediately snatched me up because I was Asian. Far from making me feel discriminated against, however, I felt special and unique.

As time progressed, it became clearer and clearer to me that I was Asian, and I was different – not in a good or unique way, but in a semi-problematic way. I became acutely aware of this starting in 9th grade – Beforehand, being Chinese just meant that I went to China every few years, that when I went to museums I automatically had authority over everyone else in the analysis of Chinese artwork, that I was semi-able to speak English. Starting in 9th grade, however, I started to realize that the world wasn’t just about to celebrate my differences. In movies, an Asian identity was a thing to wash away and replace with whiteness. In the college application process, being Asian meant that it would be harder for me to apply to certain schools. Asians were the butts of jokes, the ones that no one was afraid of stepping on. Being Asian made me simultaneously stick out as a sore thumb and, at the same time, blend into the general grouping of “Asian-ness.” Suddenly, sitting in a room and being the only Asian person made me uncomfortable.

When I tried to talk to my parents about this issue, however, they were less than understanding.

One day, I tried to talk with my mother about whitewashing in the media. Instead of responding angrily or in shock (as I had expected), she instead asked, “Why are minorities always complaining?” Her comment shocked me – but soon, I realized that being a minority hadn’t become a problem for her until she came to the United States at the age of 25. People testing out their Chinese on the street on our family didn’t bother her as much as it bothered me. Microaggressions against Asians didn’t sting her the way they stung me.

Every way that I felt discriminated against was deemed me being “too sensitive.” I slowly began to realize that, no matter how hard I tried, I could never get my parents to understand the positions minorities of America, as they themselves were never the racial minority. It was as if we were on two different sides of a barrier – one made of different experiences and ideologies. Incessant pounding at the barrier with each of our different points of views only served to make that barrier larger and more impermeable.

My family’s situation is quite common – in fact, it has a name: intergenerational family conflict. Second-generation Asian Americans tend to notice their minority status and are more likely to fight back against discrimination, as compared to first-generation Asian American immigrants.

So, to anyone with the same problem, here’s my advice (passed down from one of my teachers): talk to your parents, but in the right way. Trying to convince your parents (or in that matter, anyone) with facts and figures doesn’t work – appeal to them in a different way. Ask them if they’ve ever been the minority in any situation, or if they’ve seen anyone being discriminated against because they were a minority. Open up the conversation to be more personal, and allow these stories to break down the barrier between first-generation and second-generation immigrants.