Navigating Two Cultures: Experiences of Second-Generation Americans

Updated August 10, 2021
Student in hijab standing with friends at university campus

Being a second-generation American presents an opportunity to have an enriching life, filled with knowledge and experience with more than one culture. This can lead to being more multiculturally aware, participating in an assortment of cultural events, and maybe even speaking more than one language. At the same time, some things that second-generation Americans experience can be frustrating and alienating. Second-generation Americans across varied ethnic backgrounds share many common struggles. Learn about these challenges and ways to navigate them.

Experiences of Second-Generation Americans

A second-generation American may face various hurdles on what seems like a crisscrossing path. Factors such as race, ethnicity, religion, and expectations of parents are intertwined, causing various inner conflicts.

Feeling Marginalized in Both Cultures

Your family is your first experience with interpersonal relationships. The way that your family members communicate with each other is likely influenced by the culture of your parents' home country. Therefore, it is understandable that there are certain American norms you might be a bit late in learning compared to your American friends. Or, if you come from a strict cultural or religious background, you might not have permission to participate in common American practices, such as going to your high school prom, because you are not allowed to date. This can lead you to feel like you are not completely American, even though the U.S. has always been your home.

On the other side of the coin, due to being raised in the United States, you might not feel like you have much in common with your parents or others of your culture either. If you visit your parents' home country, you might experience teasing and microaggressions from extended family for your American accent. For instance, some second-generation Bosnian American college students expressed feeling like they didn't fit in with other Bosnians.

Handling Friction With Your Parents

It can be particularly challenging to find commonality with your parents when they tend to have less assimilation into the American culture than you do. One example of this is, they may use terms in public that are literally correct, but have negative connotations such as, "Do you people have a scheme going on?" When they actually mean, "Does your store have any sales today?" Even though you realize that this is due to their lack of knowledge of the American vernacular and culture, you just want to feel like you fit in, rather than always standing out in a crowd.

Another challenge is if your parents don't speak English, or they speak very little English, they may be dependent on you to translate for them. What you may want is to spend more time just being a young adult with your other American friends. Moreover, parents can sometimes interpret your desire to be with your friends as rejecting them, or they may feel that you do not appreciate what they have gone through to give you opportunities they did not have.

Being Pressured Into a Particular Career Path

Having high academic expectations of their children is common for many immigrants. For example, second-generation Korean Americans feel pressured to get straight A's in school and go to top-tier colleges.

Another example is that parents who emigrated from India might want their kids to pursue high-paying and prestigious careers such as medicine or law, which causes turmoil for those who really want to pursue the arts, for instance. It can be hurtful if people assume your interests rather than asking you about them.

Feeling Some Shame and Guilt

You might be familiar with feeling guilty or ashamed if you make a cultural faux pas. Though it may very well be an understandable error, you might feel as though you are representing your ethnicity, which can lead to feeling guilty. Or, if you make a mistake in school that your parents find out about, they might feel ashamed and cause you further distress.

Second-Generation Americans of Non-European Descent

Second-generation Americans of color can have some unique challenges related to their race and ethnicity. You have probably had someone assume something about you simply based on your outward appearance.

Portrait of smiling teenage girl at family dinner party

Chinese and Korean second-generation Americans have expressed that people will often assume they know about Asian cultures other than theirs, simply because they look Asian. Or, people might also assume that anyone who looks Asian is automatically Chinese, when there are multiple ethnicities in Asia such as Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Indonesian. This is similar to the experience of Americans of South American descent. People may assume that they are, for example, Mexican, when South America is very diverse with ethnicities such as Ecuadorian, Columbian, and Venezuelan.

It is particularly frustrating to be asked, "Where are you from?" just because you are a racial minority. If you answer "Springfield, Ohio" you probably get asked, "No, where are you actually from?" Along with 60 percent of second-generation Americans, you might identify as "typical American." Only you can label your ethnicity, and only you know which culture you identify with the most. However, you might also feel pressured by those of your own ancestral background to identify less as American and more as Vietnamese, for example.

Ways to Navigate Both Cultures

When coping with any type of stressor or frustration, you will more easily overcome the struggle if you use active coping strategies such as being thoughtful and taking initiative, rather than passive coping strategies such as avoidance or keeping negative emotions bottled up. Some things you can do to handle issues of assimilation are:

  • Remember that there are advantages to being a second-generation American, whether it's being bilingual or having the ability to adjust in various cultural contexts.
  • Understand that assumptions made about you are probably not malicious but rather, are coming from a lack of knowledge and awareness.
  • Expect that certain assumptions will be made about you due to the lack of awareness. This can help you prepare for them mentally and decrease your frustration.
  • Be judicious in how you spend your energy. A comment such as "Oh, you're American? I thought you were Mexican," coming from a cashier at the store is probably one you just want to let go. However, if such a comment is made by your college lab partner, it can be an opportunity to provide a bit of background about yourself. This way, your lab partner can get to know you better, and sharing your experience and perspective is a way to spread awareness on such topics.
  • Turn to friends with similar experiences for emotional support, ideas for coping, and resources.
  • Learn from your parents about their home country. Having this knowledge may make you feel less lonely and more inclined to participate in your ancestral culture. You can also learn more about your parents' experience with immigrating to the U.S., which can bring you closer to them, and help you appreciate the opportunities they gave you that they did not have.
  • Seek counseling if you feel you need help with things such as exploring your identity or communicating with others.
  • Revel in your broadened horizons and how you can have the best of both worlds.

Citizens of the World

Having a background different from most of your friends can feel alienating and confusing. At the same time, know that only you can identify your ethnicity, whether it be American, Indian American, or German American. You also do not have to choose just one of your two identities. You can instead think of yourself as a citizen of the world and integrate both cultures into your life.

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Navigating Two Cultures: Experiences of Second-Generation Americans