Keeping (and Losing) Faith, the Asian American Way (Repost)

Originally posted on AAPI Voices May 22, 2014

Keeping (and Losing) Faith, the Asian American Way

Texans and Second-Generation Code Switching

In a recent post I shared some reflections on the importance of second-generation Asian American research. While attending this conference I had the privilege of spending time getting to know my new colleagues who shared similar research interests. As much as scholarship has an autobiographical influence, it’s not surprising that members of the immigrant and second-generation share an interest in second-generation outcomes. In conversation over coffee or massive Korean meals, I was reminded of the challenges that many professors face who did not grow up in the US. While gifted in their particular profession, a common dilemma that many face is language accessibility. We all know that we make distinctions between people who “speak like me” or who “speak good English.” It’s a subtle acknowledgment that there is a dominant culture embodied not only in the words and syntax but in the manner of speech itself. It’s also a way of acknowledging embeddedness in a linguistic community. In most situations, if you’re part of a community that speaks the language and tone of the dominant culture, you will likely have little problem experiencing otherness from most people you encounter on a day-to-day basis. For many immigrants and their children, the second-generation, this is unlikely. Most immigrants today do not come from English-speaking nations and their access to this language varies by education and personal skill. So when I think about many of my foreign-born research-university colleagues I am struck by the hurdles they must overcome to do their job well. It’s not enough that they can analyze statistical data or interpret the activity of a local community, they have to articulate this in their secondary language both on paper and in person. Will they be discriminated against if someone reading or listening identifies non-native language capacity? The process of getting tenure and promotion is anxiety-ridden already; imagine adding on language access and you might have a slight understanding of what life is like for faculty who are immigrants. 

Language access is less likely a problem for the second-generation since most of their experience has been in the US. They have been exposed to media, teachers, and their multigenerational peers to make sense of “proper English.” They are also aware that their parents continually struggle with grammar and syntax in ways that native speakers take for granted. For some second-geners, they resort to limiting their own language ability to more effectively communicate with their immigrant elders and peers. This mix of foreign and native words along with a restructured grammar and syntax is known variously as “Spanglish” “Konglish” “Chinglish” and the like. For the second-generation, they have the challenge of code switching, the practice of adapting one’s language and behavior to one’s specific context. With their immigrant community they speak in another language or in some hybrid form as I just mentioned. National Public Radio for example has a post on several different popular examples of how code-switching works, and another on how it sounds in our popular culture.

What code-switching also reveals is the tacit awareness that the dominant culture enforces its expectations on our language ability and it places a kind of cognitive bind on those who navigate multiple linguistic environments. I suspect that for many in the second-generation, the pull is to conform, which can (but not always) weaken language ties to their ethnic culture. In order to fit in with the dominant group, their capacity to articulate the language most familiar to their immigrant community drifts from high fluency to near incoherence. Think about your second-generation friends and how many of them are very fluent in the language preferred by their immigrant parents, and how many of them code-switch using a hybrid of English and another language. Here’s an example of Indonesian, French and English code-switching:

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And here’s an example of English and Japanese (apparently a class project that’s garnered over 13,000 views!):

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It’s not only second-generation Americans that deal with linguistic marginalization from the mainstream. Scholars and activists have been well aware that even native-speakers have varying acceptability to the dominant group based on an audible accent. Some people “sound black” or “sound hick,” and in these cases, discrimination also rears its ugly head. Not surprisingly, in some multigenerational American families that experience potential upward mobility, successive generations sound less and less like the community from which they originate, and more and more like the intonations that dominate our media. This has been documented in a study of the central Texas accent, as narrated in this NPR story.

As Texans gain more influence in American society, the desire for respectability entails a weakening of the central Texas accent. Here again we see this inescapable pull toward conforming to the dominant group that clearly sounds different from them. In this way, it’s interesting to observe how marginal multigenerational groups function similarly to second-generation groups that grapple with language in their journey toward upward mobility.

Update 7/11/2013: the sociology website The Society Pages included this post abut the archiving of the German Texas accent which is slowly fading out.

A new look at the second-generation Korean American and Canadian experience


Last weekend I had the opportunity to participate in another small conference similar to the JSPS back in January. While the JSPS showcased the latest scientific discoveries by alums of the program, this was a more focused conference on a very particular population: second-generation Korean Americans (SGKAs).

For the Korean American community, now numbering 1.3 million, the experience in the US remains a largely new one to some extent. Census reports suggest that nearly 80% of Korean Americans are foreign-born. This figure is somewhat misleading however since it bundles together anyone who was born outside the US into a single category. Scholars of immigration however point out that there’s a big difference between arriving in the US prior to age 12 and arriving when one is a good bit older. The latter group is described as the “1.5 generation” and some scholars, including me, argue that the 1.5 are somewhat similar to the 2nd generation in that both groups were socialized in the US from their most formative years.

What’s particularly important about the second-generation is that they are the first in their families to experience America as their native home; while their parents’ memories of their youth originate in other countries, the second generation will recall growing up in a neighborhood in Los Angeles, Queens, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Second, since most of today’s immigrants appear racially non-white (given their countries of origin), the experiences of the second-generation also entails a minority identity in the conventional sense. How then will these new native-born (or US-raised) minority populations adapt to their surroundings and how will their context respond to their growing presence? Since the story of today’s second-generation begins roughly around 1965, some of the oldest in this cohort are now in their 40s and 50s. With access to survey and interview data, we can learn whether older SGKAs are adapting as well as their other native-born peers.

Conferences about SGKAs then are one example of how some scholars are providing glimpses into this new class of American. Particularly illuminating for me was the inclusion of Korean-Canadian research; it was an important reminder that while the US is still the most preferred destination for immigrants, it is not the only destination for the millions of people who leave their place of origin for better opportunities. Indeed owing to the relatively small size of SGKAs, it makes sense to collaborate and share knowledge across borders. It bears noting too that such conferences are the result of excellent collaboration (Drs. Pyong Gap Min and Samuel Noh were pivotal in this instance), generous support from concerned community members, and judicious use of limited resources.

The conference covered numerous topics which I summarized into four groups (based largely on my notes and memory – apologies to anyone I may have missed or misrepresented).

Social mobility: perhaps one of the central questions about SGKAs is whether the America pathway to upward mobility is realized for the children of Korean immigrants who risked their opportunities in their homeland for a potentially better opportunity here. To that end, Drs. ChangHwan Kim (University of Kansas), Chigon Kim (Wright State U.), Ann Kim (York University), Sou Hyun Jang (CUNY Graduate Center), and Pyong Gap Min (Queens College, CUNY Graduate Center) have investigated SGKAs:

-socioeconomic attainment

-bilingualism as a socioeconomic (dis)advantage

-entrepreneurship and socioeconomic mobility in Canada,

-ethnic and racial concentrations in STEM majors and employment sectors    


Mental health and identity: a lot of studies are now finding unique differences between members of different ethnic and racial groups on physical and mental health outcomes. A growing literature has looked into mental health of various Asian Americans and Asian Canadians, Koreans being one such ethnic subgroup. Drs. Il-Ho Kim (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), Samuel Noh (U. of Toronto, CAMH), Neha Ahmed (U. of Toronto), Marianne Noh (U. Western Ontario), and Nam Soon Song (U. of Toronto) covered:

-Discrimination and mental health

-Identity as a moderator of stress

-Identity formation differences in the US and Canada

-Religious community participation and ethnic identity


Family dynamics: much of the mainstream conversation on Asian Americans focuses on family dynamics as a means of explaining the perceived greater educational and socioeconomic advantages of this racialized collection of ethnic groups. Scholars like Drs. Angie Chung (U. Albany-SUNY) and Miliann Kang (U. Massachusetts-Amherst) have called these perceptions into question in their studies of:

-Gender, birth order, identity and family responsibilities

-Second-generation Korean parenting and stereotypes

These studies are particularly interesting since their interviewees are adult Korean Americans who can articulate their experience growing up in households that supposedly are ultra-disciplined and competitive. How do they interpret their experiences and what do they do when raising their own children?

Social integration: finally, another important avenue of research looks at the degree to which SGKAs and other SG Asian Americans are integrating with society’s main civic and political institutions as well informal relationships. Drs. Dae Young Kim (George Mason U.), Sook Hee Oh (U. of Missouri-Kansas City), and myself fit into this area with the following presentations:

-Racial othering

-Asian ethnic differences in political participation

-Ethnic and religious identity retention, endogamy and group insularity


One guest presentation further stretched my knowledge of the changes taking place in Korea. Dr. Sung Kil Min (Yonsei U.) presented his recent work on foreign-born immigrants in Korea. Migration then is not only North American, it is truly becoming more global as countries like South Korea and Japan bring in non-native workers into their industries and businesses.

Since most of my research interests are in the worlds of racial minorities, this conference was admittedly one of the most refreshing intellectually. It’s interesting how different the dynamics are in such a setting where everyone understands some of the basic assumptions of racial and minority difference. More precise questions come up that push our thinking and hopefully engender better research that reaches large academic audiences and the greater public. While our society tends to lump all Asian groups together, better studies like these are helping to point out that only some characteristics are similar across groups, while many other characteristics are quite unique to each group. For those with ties to a Korean community, be on the lookout for these studies and the scholarly investigators who aim to make their research practical and worthy of consideration.

Since Waco is often lacking in culinary variety, here’s a gratuitous pic of some of the great food in Queens NYC. As a parting comment, I’m grateful to Dr. Min, Dr. Noh and their respective research organizations for including me in this gathering.

Edit 4/12:13 (1:52pm): click here for another short summary of the conference 


Tracing Your Ancestry? Thank a Mormon!

Work in the summer continues and while the emphasis is on getting research papers written, I still keep an eye out for good “edu-tainment” pieces that might be useful in the classroom. One of the ones I have been trying out has been the genealogy series’ that have been shown on two networks: NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are and PBS’s Henry Louis Gates’s Finding Your Roots. I admit that while the NBC one is probably well produced, I am much more hooked by Gates’ series. It’s probably because the recent episode included two Asian American celebrities who are children of immigrants, comedienne Margaret Cho and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The series did a great job at reminding viewers that very often new immigrants arrive in America with lives full of tragedy that they will never speak of, not even to their own children.

Finding Your Roots: Martha Stewart, Margaret Cho, Sanjay Gupta

In Margaret Cho’s story, she never heard her father explain why their family left North Korea. As it turns out Margaret’s father’s father was branded a traitor for doing his job under the service of the Japanese flag in the early 20th century when they occupied all of Korea. For some Korean men like Margaret’s father, that’s a kind of family shame he won’t speak of, and didn’t, not to his own daughter even in her 40s.

For Sanjay Gupta, his mother experienced terrible loss as India was partitioned creating the new country of Pakistan in 1947. I was captivated by the map video that traced the path she and her family took from her home city, across the coastline, through the interior of India. She would not see her homeland again. And over 1 million people were killed in the partitioning.

In Cho’s case there was another remarkable dimension, the work of Mormon genealogists. As Gates explains, Mormons collect all manner of data that helps track down the ancestry of anyone who wants to baptize their families retroactively. Given the importance of baptism in the Mormon tradition, they take the work of ancestry documentation very seriously. As it turns out, there are records called (in Korean) “jokbo” which is basically a family record that apparently can be traced back to some prime individual (usually male I believe). The Mormon genealogy center has a microfilm copy of Cho’s jokbo! Apparently her family starts in the 1200s as was seen in the jokbo documentation (written in Chinese as is the Korean tradition).

For Gupta, his father’s lineage was still intact but this time it was held through a combination of oral history (his father visited the village that still has elders who remembered his father or Sanjay’s grandfather), and written documentation held on immensely long strips of paper material stored in a collection held by two brothers in their house (or a structure that doesn’t look fitting for preserving this kind of paper). It struck me how delicate these histories are held by living memory and preserved under conditions that could easily be subject to natural disaster or social disorder. Imagine if the Mormons can make a copy of this and store it in their archives.

So if you wind up searching for your roots, you may want to send a thank-you to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who are fervently working at preserving a wealth of data that can give us a sense of rootedness and meaning that is irreplaceable.