We often forget that even Asian millennials have different personal experiences from each other. This realization has led me to reflect upon how different narratives between generations can be. Hence, I thought it would be helpful and personally significant to many of our listeners to shed light on what it means to be part of the 1.5 generation. In this episode, we discuss the barriers that my guest speakers, Soojin Cho and Tam Nguyen, have faced transitioning into a world outside of their home culture. (And for those of you who don't know who the 1.5 generation includes, you should tune in!)
Tam Nguyen is a caffeine-craving, cat-obsessed introvert. As a 1.5 Vietnamese American, she is always curious about how cultures influence one’s psyche and identity. She graduated from Smith College in May 2016 and now is working as an application systems analyst for Smith College. Being able to understand people, understand design, and understand how technology can include human-centered design is very important to her. She also likes to make art and see art.
Sooj Cho is a Korean American. After graduating with a bachelor's in economics and chemistry at Boston College, Soo went on to work in the city's growing biotech scene. She is currently working as a project engineer at widely-known healthcare technology firm. Fun fact: she was the Associate Director of Entrepreneurship of the National Association of Asian American Professionals - Boston Chapter (NAAAP Boston) and was one of the lead organizers of Asiafest.
TRANSCRIBED BY MINNIE NG
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JESSICA NGUYEN, HOST: Hi! Welcome to Project Voice. This is Jess and thank you for listening in.
So here I have two awesome friends of mine, Tam Nguyen, and Soo Jin Cho. And, I'm excited to interview them today because they have narratives that I don't have- I mean, every Asian American has her own narrative, her own story. After talking to them, I realized that there was a common thread, that, that I don’t share with them, but I’d love to hear their take on it and that is the experience [of] being part of the 1.5 generation.
To start off, I want to have you two introduce yourselves. Share a little bit about your background, what you do, who you are, to our audience.
SOO JIN CHO, INTERVIEWEE: So my name is Soo Jin Cho. As Jessica mentioned, I go by Soo easily. People are assuming it’s spelled S-U-E but it’s actually S-O-O. Well, yeah, I go by Soo. And I’m currently a professional working in Boston. In Health I.T. space.
TAM NGUYEN, INTERVIEWEE: Yeah, so I’m Tam and I just recently graduated from Smith College. Me and Jess went to the same school together. And I’m currently working as the application systems analyst for Smith College, I.T. Department.
JESSICA: Cool, thanks for taking the time off to talk today, guys. I guess to start off, I’m second generation and being second generation by definition means that you’re someone who’s born in The States or, which also suggests that you have at least one parent who is not born in The States. Or usually, but for me I have both parents who immigrated here back in the 80’s. And which... but then for other people, my parents - they’re part of the first generation. Being first generation means that you are immigrants who came over to the U.S. and had to assimilate to a culture that you didn’t belong to. And today we’re going to be talking about what it means to be part of the 1.5 generation and what is the 1.5 generation to those of you who haven’t heard of it before. And so did you two know what the term 1.5 generation meant growing up?
CHO: I did, but only after I moved to the US. ‘Cause that concept really doesn’t exist in the conscience of normal Korean adolescence in Korea, I guess. But like once I came to the US, you’re categorized in a different category of people, like as an immigrant. And as people start putting you into this group. And there are different types of immigrants like depending on which race you’re in. So that’s when I started coming across the concept of oh, like, “x:, call me “x” generation. So yea, that concept became similar to me almost immediately following my immigration into the US.
JESSICA: I didn't know what 1.5 meant either until I took an Asian American studies course. I even was confused over what generation I was a part of, so you’re not alone.
TAM: Yeah, so I’m the same as Jess. Like I didn’t hear about the 1.5 generation until I took the Growing up Asian American class in Smith. When the professor has us read an article, the 1.5 generation term was brought up. It really struck with me because I never - I guess like, it’s hard for me to identify where I was. In terms of the generation in coming here when- I was a really young age when I came here. And I had what I know of Vietnam but I spent like the latest age of my childhood assimilated into US and learning English, (INAUDIBLE) being in the first generation and the second generation and I’m kind of like the middle and the 1.5 kind of struck with me because it helped me reevaluate my anonymity and learning more about other people who have the similar or really different as well, narratives of the 1.5 generation.
JESSICA: Yeah and I know that we’ve learned in the course about what it means to be 1.25, or 1.75 generation either.
TAM: Yeah, so I honestly didn’t know about the 1.5. I thought there was the 1 and 1.5 was something I learned recently like from college and then second generation, but then I just read an article just recently and they brought up the point about the 1.25 and the 1.75 and depending on your age, from when you came to America, the number applies to you. It’s hard for you to actually, put yourself in a box and know for sure you’re the 1.75 or you’re the 1.5 or something like that. I think my sister, I was looking at her age and compared it to the article, she's actually, she’s older than me and her age was when she came to America was around 14 and, that categorizing her as, as a 1.25 generation and that’s very interesting ‘cause I can kind of see we have a really different identity growing up despite the fact that we were born in Vietnam and we immigrated to America at a young age.
JESSICA: I was surprised too, when I first heard it, I didn't even know what it meant then. So being part of 1.5 means that you're closer to your parents. The immigration experience that your parents have experienced versus being part of the 1.75. It's like, I have a cousin who was born in Vietnam, came over to the country at the age of three. So she has no recollection of what it was like being in Vietnam at all. And so her experience is more similar to those who are born here. A.K.A. the second generation
CHO: Yeah, so I eventually- I've heard of, they said, 1.5 right after I started moving into the US, but 1.25, 1.75; this is the first time I'm hearing about it. But it makes sense, totally, like when I saw your correction in my message earlier this week. I was like oh, interesting concept but is that really necessary? Because I feel like, 1.5 already does the job of addressing that conflicting identity issue. Like 1.5 is like, fragmented. It’s not one, not two, it's like, in the middle. But that's interesting, 1.25, 1.75, yeah.
JESSICA: Yeah, that's interesting. And again, every immigrant's experience is different and you made a really good point last time we talked about how every person who's part of the 1.5 generation has her own unique experience, her own narrative to share, and oftentimes these narratives get lost or are forgotten, or ignored. I'm interested to hear you share, your, and your parents background. What was it like growing up. And there is this problem where oftentimes people just automatically assume your experience growing up in the US, your family's situation. Or your, your reasons of coming here, some immigrants come here by will, some immigrants didn't have that privilege. Some immigrants were forced to move to another country. Some did for better opportunities.
CHO: Yeah, so I had shared in the previous poll that I had that the common misconception or the stereotype that immigrants in the U.S. are put in is that we moved here because of the economic standing or because when we were in our original country, we couldn’t make a living and it was difficult to put up with that growing up because as a generic assumption that's put into immigrants in general, so I do see that in the media or the different kind of episodes that are appealed to move towards Asian Americans, in the US is still very poignant and I think this kind of platform, I guess, to maybe change that or set a different kind of standards, yeah.
JESSICA: Yeah, good point.
CHO: Yeah. I constantly come across people being angry about- oh, like there aren't enough Asians in the media or Hollywood. People who are creating content in the media like yourself can be the agent of change. They don't always have to reflect on what has already been establish. Yeha, so that's why I think this podcast is really awesome. And because, yeah. (LAUGHTER) We create our own future. I believe in the power of will, so I think this is great.
JESSICA: Yeah we actually addressed that in another podcast interview that will be uploaded soon. And we talked about the importance of creating content because you have the ability to create content; like if you care enough about your community, about your identity and you want to show that you care, the best way to do so is to create and get your work shown out there. That's how you not only increase visibility, but also diversify the representation that's currently being seen in the public. I'm glad that you brought that point up. Decided to stress that message every time I upload an interview. Yeah, just go out there and create; if you're frustrated, if you're angry or you're not happy about what you're seeing, just get out there and do something.
CHO: Yeah, do something about it, right?
JESSICA: Yeah. Takes a lot of work, but it's worth it.
TAM: So, for me, I think, my parents... what they told my sister and I that they want us to have a better education. And their perspective on it is that they were very attracted to the, what I guess is the, American dream and they think that this because- ‘cause being in Vietnam was more limited for us growing up, so they wanted us to have more opportunities and that's why they immigrated. I think mainly for my Dad, he, after fighting in the Vietnam War, he was actually fighting for the Southern side. And after the Southern Vietnam lost to the war, how do I say it, he didn't really have a chance to go to college. And after the war, he's almost blacklisted from companies and being able to take a higher job. So, he was moving around doing small jobs and it was really difficult for him, and after marrying my mom, it pushed him to really want to come to America, because they think that it would provide a better education for us and provide more opportunity. And I don't necessarily agree with that. We struggle a lot coming to America and the American dream is, it's not for everyone; it's definitely not for minorities. It's something that's really hard to achieve unless you have the privilege. And I think I've seen my parents have to work so much harder here.
JESSICA: I can definitely agree with you on that. The American Dream, it's possible for some. But it takes a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifices. I know that my dad, he was one of the boat people who immigrated here, and he worked his, not only did he have to learn English on his own, as a refugee in the Philippines, he also had to use it throughout, he had to learn how to use it, and learn how to use it every day in order to go to school obtain a college degree, get a job and not just like a job after college but part time job in order to help pay his education, being in the US. But the American dream was always possible, but it's not like when you come over to The States you're starting off with an advantage because you're an immigrant; it's in fact, the opposite.
CHO: So I can see that perspective, but I also want to shed a light on the different side of the perspective just that, like 40 percent or something like that of Fortune 500 companies were actually founded by immigrants. And I think as hard as it is for immigrants and their families to like, adapt to different culture, I think it builds resilience. There is a potential for girls and people who are adaptable and has the will to be the agent of change. So I think even maybe some of that thought that, oh, we can't do anything about it, maybe; there is an element of being a victim to the existing media out there about how they reflect our own identity in the general population. I think, so I just want to let it out there that it's the fact.
JESSICA: We worked our butts off and, you know, you do see people succeeding there. Yeah, but there are those who have made it, who have achieved the American Dream. That brings it into an interesting question, like what it means to achieve an American Dream, what it takes to achieve it. There are different stories out there. I was wondering if you'd be happy to share your experiences growing up in the US. Because it's always interesting to hear where everybody comes from, and what kinds of shit they have to deal with. (LAUGHS)
CHO: Where do I start? Just kidding. (ALL LAUGH)
TAM: Yeah, so I came here when I was seven years old. And we lived in Hartford, which is this kind of predominately Hispanic and Black population. I came to school and I was like the only Vietnamese in my grade, for my fourth and fifth grade. It's pretty tough. At least I had my sister she was in eighth grade, and she was in the same school as me. And we talked during lunch time to meet up and stuff and we had ESL together. But I came to America as not having any English background at all. I remember just carrying a dictionary around and just trying to tell people what I want to say. It's really hard. The first day I actually, like- the class had a test and I remember the teacher just passed out a paper for me and I had no idea what to do it was math, supposed to be like symbols, or something like that but I just couldn't understand, I was so out of place. Yeah, so, that's my experience, first coming into the US and growing up it was really hard to find someones who are of my age and who are Vietnamese in my sixth grade. There's actually like a boy who came to our class; he was Vietnamese. But I ended up not really becoming friends with him. I went to high school and I was also the only Vietnamese during there throughout high school but I ended up connecting with a lot of international students, just because I've felt a connection to the language barrier and having to learn English in a very different environment. I connected a lot with international students from my high school and our school was actually a private school so it was made up with a lot of international students from, yeah, so just a lot of international students who I connected with.
JESSICA: Hmm, interesting, your social circles were different. Yeah.
TAM: Yeah, it was really strange because, I think in a way back then public school I connected to people in like our socioeconomic backgrounds because my parents were working in the minimum wage work and a lot of people in my public school back in elementary and junior high were from that same background. Like they had to have depend on basically on minimum wage, and their parents working really hard for them. And I really related to that. And then when I went to private school, it was different in the way that a lot of students were able to afford the money to go to private school whereas I was on full financial aid. And it's really hard to have the same connection anymore but then I had a connection with the international students about the language barrier. So like, there’s a shift in identities.
CHO: Yeah, I think it's a very complex question that I probably cannot answer fully in this interview. But I would say definitely like I had come across frustrations because of ignorance towards immigrants. But I feel like, whenever you are sorted in a new environment even nowadays, if I go to like new different types of people like you always have to explain yourself. Oh, my name is actually spelled S-O-O! For example, different variations of that. So, I feel like going through that stage in my life pretty early on, challenged me to to not be afraid of talking for myself, not being afraid to correct people. I still feel like I have to do more to be proactive in that sense.
JESSICA: Yeah. First of all it's understandable that they may not be able to answer that question. Because growing up, it's possible that you've experienced certain events that you may not be able to pinpoint that are frustrating to you whether it's something language-related or something else. But deal with microaggressions to this day and most likely we've experienced a lot of them before like the years that led to this day. And what I'm basically saying is that it's okay if you can't explain your struggles because it happens all the time and it would take a lot more time than we have now to make a list out of them. Does that make sense?
CHO: Yeah, I feel like if I were to list out all of them, probably impossible and waste everybody's time. I mean it's- I feel like it never ends, because being an immigrant is like not a past; it's like a stay, I'm still an immigrant, you know. (LAUGHS)
JESSICA: Yeah, not a phase or anything; it will always be a part of your identity and Motherland. You're going to have to deal with whatever shit and go along your way and-.
CHO: Yeah, you just got to like, understand that always people who just don't know anything and you just have to be patient and yeah. Understand [that] people just don't understand. (LAUGHTER) Yeah, and, there's almost this sense of satisfaction though when you finally get on the same level with another person of a different background. I always approach people who have misconceptions with assumption that they have good intentions. Might say Oriental and is politically incorrect but they probably didn't even know that. And there's so many different instances of that, right? I think it's just best for both parties, if you respond to them with understanding that they just don't know. And this is your opportunity to really try to get on the same level.
JESSICA: Yeah, that can be difficult. It's frustrating for us because we shouldn't feel responsible for educating everybody who doesn't know that certain messed up things are constantly being perpetuated. So, at the same time it's a struggle to suck it up. And so, you know, we do what we can, I think. Building that bridge, establishing allyship with other people, white people specifically in ongoing topics in discussion make what it means to be a good White ally to us Asians, Asian Americans and it's a bridge that's yet to be forged. But it's constantly up in the air: how? So, this question that I have for you guys is associated with the previous question on your personal experience- you coming with the language that you're born with. I talk to them about this life, about the language that you're born with and then, forgetting the identity and the languages that you associate yourself with. Like, so all of us have to balance between two cultures, at least two cultures. And so, that involves two languages that we have to like, struggle between and sometimes switch back and forth depending on our environment, and I'm curious to know what role does language have to play in your history and what does it mean and how does that influence your perception of your self identity, how you identify yourself, whether or not it even influences how you identify yourself or whether or not you consider it as a big role in your identity.
CHO: Yeah, it is, for me, very integral to my identity because I speak it. And I think that it forms how I think and conceptualizes as things, for one, there actually was an article, I think a study about how the language, the mother language shapes how you approach math, for example, and defining one's like, oh, because Asian languages have more a more logical way of counting. That's why Asians are better at math and I think there are some truth to that. You know like the way that languages are, like structured really does shape how you think but kind of not personal. So if I were to speak about my personal story if it’s still true. Just going through the circumstances of being educated in English and college, especially; I think that's when most of my fundamental ways of thinking were shaped. So right now, I do think English is like the primary language for myself although I still do have an accent, I talk to my family in Korean, I can, I'm still bilingual; I'm very fluent in Korean, I read and write in Korean. I think that's the fact that I was educated in English. Maybe that's even to the extent where like, I have certain connotations when it comes to English, that like, emotional attachment to that, you know? I don't know, like, Korean to me is more like just kind of intimate. I don't really think of it as me using it in a professional sense, maybe which I will use in the future, but I think I delineate from your question a lot.
JESSICA: No! It's fine.
CHO: But that's, that's my standing when it comes to, like, the languages I speak.
JESSICA: Yeah, no, that's a really good point there, a unique point, yeah. Again, it's your own, and if you delineate, it's fine.
TAM: Yes, the thing about the numbers, I actually, I find it so much easier when I do like, calculation in Math, when I count in Vietnamese. And, it, it just, it, it helped me like, every time I have to count something. So, like I count in Vietnamese. Like it's just-
CHO: I do, too! I count in Korean! (LAUGHTER)
TAM: Yeah, it's just so much more helpful. But yeah like, about my experience right now, English really helps me with expressing my emotion and because I'm so used to Vietnamese and English speaking environment it's becoming harder for me to be able to speak Vietnamese to my relatives. Especially my parents. Sometimes I have to explain to them what I do at work. And I, I can't really tell them I do something with the computer. And it's so hard to translate everything else. And yeah, so, I think only my sister gets what I do because we speak in a more Vietnamese- English hybrid, that whenever I kind of talk to her, I would talk 80% English and then some- some words that I would say in Vietnamese that I would just throw it out because I'm just so used to saying them.
JESSICA: English or…?
TAM: But it's interesting...
JESSICA: It's interesting, which is a complicated language and in Asian America, we have a love-hate relationship with it. We actually have another podcast episode solely dedicated to the discussion of the English language to me and the second generation American. It's interesting, really. I find that a lot of, of my peers are identifying themselves as second generation; they have a hard time bonding with the language, with their home language; English is the more primary; it's more… it has more prevalent presence in their lives. And the main language we use, like we all use today. But I find that it's more commonly used in the second generation. And the issue, some may see it as an issue, really. Yeah, the idea behind this is like there is a loss of the home language not being able able to connect with family culture, your people from your culture because you aren't as articulate in your home culture's language. And I think that it's a common trait in the second generation. Sometimes it's hard to bridge that. The more generations you have, the harder it is to retain a language and it's just how it is, so I've noticed. Like fifth generation, versus being like, second. Maybe use English most of the time and that doesn't mean that doesn't take away the fact that you're Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese or whatever. But language is really interesting how it ties into your identity and whether or not you let that define yourself. And so my next question is what are the takeaways that you hope our listeners would gain from this conversation because we discussed a lot of good points and wanted to know what is the messages that you want others to hear and to really feel and internalize, and maybe even take action on them.
CHO: Yeah, generally very curious to what people have to say about their lives and what they're doing about it instead of liking things on Facebook without doing anything about it in real life.
NGUYEN: So, more people sharing their own stories online and offline.
CHO: Yeah, yeah. And I think it's a great initiative because you cultivated this space for people to talk. But talking by itself is not going to get anywhere. I think people should be more proactive they should do something about it. So whether it's going to be at workspace or on non-profit or in your daily routine, there should be some sort of action item that you keep in your lifestyle if you really want to see some change happening.
TAM: And so, like take away specifically for the 1.5 identity. For me, I'm still trying to figure out myself a lot. And it's a hard spot to be when you kind of have to balance the cultural background or bad news in the values you have growing up in a different country and coming to America and I always struggle with that and I think the struggle- it's okay to have that struggle. It took me a long time to, I kind of had a lot of shame growing up thinking that; Oh, well, like I had things that were not the same as people I hang around with and just learning how to incorporate that and finding out what are my own values. And it's a process. And I think people should be okay. It's a process they can't really, it's always going to keep changing and I keep learning and for someone who is watching this Podcast right now could learn something and start to reevaluate their identity and I think that similarly, that's something we can do, we can keep incorporating new ideas and recreating out new ideas for ourselves.
NGUYEN: I agree, I feel like when we create content for example when I'm creating this podcast of course it's not directly impacting a change that will make racism disappear or anything but I think creating content is a good first step. It's a good way to create a foundation for those who don't have no vocabulary to move themselves forward and and feel comfortable starting dialogues and feel comfortable defending themselves or initiating conversations in spaces that don't have the sense of awareness that need awareness on our issues. Again going back, the importance of creating content in general. It's a small difference. And everybody has their own way of making changes. What I hope from creating this podcast is that not only will it increase visibility on the issues that are being discussed, but also it acts as a good resource for everybody out there who wants to use this as a stepping stone for something else. I find that access to vocabulary, access to these ideas can be hard to obtain, but due to the availability of technology, fortunately, we are able to find what we need to find.
That's a good leeway to my final question, actually. So what are some resources and spaces you think our community should look into or even your generation?
TAM: I'm not sure. (LAUGHTER)
NGUYEN: Yeah, I mean this is why it's important to have a question like this because it just shows that sometimes it's hard to find. We don't really know who to suggest to go to, or where because we don't know what resources, basically, are out there and that's okay! Again, I know that I wouldn't have known, or wouldn't have been able to start with this podcast if it wasn’t for the Asian American Studies course I took back in college and it's sad that it took me until... it took me eighteen years to finally find something that spoke to me, personally. In terms of spaces, it could be family, or friends, so personal spaces which are easier to find, but public spaces, like, where would you go? I mean there are organizations out there, Asian American interest organizations. But you have to make the effort to find them.
CHO: For me, personally, like I just kind of talk to my friends about it. But generally, I feel like I'm also not the most emotive person. In the sense that I don't easily react to things emotionally. I rationalize things a lot.
TAM: Yeah, I don't, I don’t know, I have to think about that a little bit more, but when it comes to resources, and looking into family, it's sort of, kind of hard for me to discuss Asian American issues to my family. We don't really have that dialogue at home. It's also, I think language could be one of the reasons why I couldn't really have that conversation with my parents so I don't really look at my family as a resource. Yeah, like when you guys said it's really hard to find a good resource. It's not that there aren't good resources out there but it's just that there's a lack of- on both sides. The media and the conversation taking place and also sometimes for me, I find myself not being proactive enough to seek the material, the resource. I would say their class that we would talk about growing up Asian American in college. That was such a great resource for me. And you know, if you're in college you can't even find like, you know, a podcast like this, or like the courses or readings, materials that could help you learn more about different issues and raising your own awareness.
JESSICA: Also, a good point you brought up is that, and something you mentioned before I remember is that, you know, you didn't see yourself as Asian American, or Vietnamese American. I mean I, too, didn't start using that term until college. Really. I saw myself as Vietnamese person who's also American but it never occurred to me to combine those two words. I think that's also a key part of not being aware of how you identify yourself and because you don't know what your identity is, how you should identify yourself, you don't know what direction to take from there. What are the resources when you don't even know the name for it, for the experience that you have? And so, that concludes our conversation.
TAM: Thank you so much for having us.
JESSICA: Yeah, no, thank you for, thank you two for carving out your day to talk to me. I’m excited to show this interview up there, once it gets edited. (LAUGHS) But anyway, if anyone out there is interested in giving feedback, or even participating in my podcast series, please tweet me @projectvoiceaaw. Facebook message me on our Facebook page, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hope you all have a nice day and for those of you who were able to relate to this conversation, I’d love to hear from you. Thank you, bye!
CHO: Thank you!
TAM: Thanks, Jess!
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