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Running head: THE CHALLENGES OF BEING A SECOND-GENERATION ASIAN AMERICAN ADOLESCENT 1

The Challenges of Being a Second-Generation Asian American Adolescent

Mimi Dao

Azusa Pacific University


THE CHALLENGES OF BEING A SECOND-GENERATION ASIAN AMERICAN ADOLESCENT 2

Abstract

This paper aims to bring awareness of the difficulties of being a second-generation Asian

American adolescent (SGAAA). The author plans to incorporate her own personal

experience as evidence and validation to the findings in the research that will be discussed

through her commentary. The process of acculturation for SGAAAs is more arduous than

what they are given credit for. Because Asians are stereotyped to be a model minority,

there are not many studies on the population because it is assumed they do not deal with

many adversities. However, being a SGAAA comes with a multitude of challenges such as

the acculturation process, the cultural dissonance between two cultures and not fully

belonging to either of the two cultures, the pressure on academics and success, the parental

and family dynamics, and the psychological effects that come with bicultural alternation

and bicultural fusion just to name a few. Each challenge listed will be examined in fuller

detail.
THE CHALLENGES OF BEING A SECOND-GENERATION ASIAN AMERICAN ADOLESCENT 3

The Challenges of Being a Second-Generation Asian American Adolescent

The Asian American population has been neglected in research because of its

reputation as the model minority, creating the assumption that the Asian population does

not come across many challenges based on their level of success. Ironically, Asian

Americans are now the most rapidly expanding U.S. ethnic minority population found by

many studies (Gartner, Kiang, & Supple, 2014, p. 1715; Kiang & Buchanan, 2014, p. 611; Lo,

Hopson, Simpson, & Cheng, 2017, p. 99; Tummala-Narra, Deshpande, & Kaur, 2016, p. 194).

Even still, there are limited resources to understand the number one rising minority

population in America. It is essential to understand the trials Asian Americans face to build

cultural competency. It is especially essential to understand the adversities that second-

generation Asian American adolescents (SGAAAs) face because of its exceedingly harmful

effects. The topics of acculturation, the cultural dissonance between two cultures, the

pressure on academics and success, the parental and family dynamics, and the

psychological effects of it all will be explored.

Acculturation:

The term acculturation alludes to the culture shifts made when one is immersed in

two or more cultures and usually includes shifts of behaviors and beliefs from the

dominant culture and minority culture (Tummala-Narra, Deshpande, & Kaur, 2016, p. 196).

The topic of acculturation will continue to be visited throughout the paper, as the process

of acculturation is one of the main causes of the distress faced by SGAAAs. It creates a

dissonance in cultural identity. The cultural dissonance leads to acculturation stress from

the challenges of “adjusting to a new and unfamiliar family structure and roles, pressures

concerning learning English, minority status, and discrimination” (Tummala-Narra,


THE CHALLENGES OF BEING A SECOND-GENERATION ASIAN AMERICAN ADOLESCENT 4

Deshpande, & Kaur, 2016, p. 196). SGAAAs seem to acculturate to the dominant culture

quicker than their immigrant parents because of their earlier exposure in life. Although

their immigrant parents are slowly adapting to dominant culture, they still maintain

traditional Asian culture practices at home. Because of this, SGAAAs need to shift cultures

to better adapt to the culture that is presently surrounding them. The constant shift causes

acculturative stress that impacts their unique identity and their sense of belonging in the

dominant society (Tummala-Narra, Deshpande, & Kaur, 2016, p. 196). Along with the

process of acculturation and acculturation stress, SGAAAs additionally face what is called

acculturation gap, also known as intergenerational cultural dissonance, that is cultivated by

the culture clash between SGAAAs and their parents (Choi & Harachi, 2008, p. 85). The

continuous exposure to acculturative stress can cause detrimental psychological effects.

Cultural Dissonance and the In-Between:

As SGAAAs with immigrant parents, it is difficult to balance both the Asian culture

practiced at home and the American culture that one has been emerged in since birth. It

takes a lot of talent for one to be able to alternate behaviors and beliefs, depending on the

situation, also known as bicultural alternation, successfully. Bicultural alternation requires

cultural competence “in both heritage and host culture, values both equally, and maintains

positive orientation toward values, ties, traditions, and languages of both. An individual

expresses cultural competencies based on situational contextual demands” (Ecklund, 2016,

p. 116). This creates dissonance in one’s cultural identity. The feeling of not belonging to

either the Asian culture or the American culture puts oneself in the position of the ‘in-

between’. SGAAAs reported that they have experienced emotional stress from struggling

with dual sense of self because they constantly need to shift cultures when they are at
THE CHALLENGES OF BEING A SECOND-GENERATION ASIAN AMERICAN ADOLESCENT 5

home or at school (Tummala-Narra, Deshpande, & Kaur, 2016, p. 203). SGAAAs are living in

an acculturation gap. They are forced to learn how to fuse both cultures on their own.

It is tough to please both family members and oneself from their bicultural fusion.

SGAAAs have difficulty in psychologically building a bridge between the acculturation gap

of minority culture at home and the majority culture in mainstream society (Tummala-

Narra, Deshpande, & Kaur, 2016, p. 203). European American culture and Asian culture are

polar opposites, especially in the way each communicate love. Being exposed to two

different means of affectionate communication is confusing. After observing how European

Americans express love through hugs and words of affirmation, SGAAAs start to perceive

their parents as too strict or too traditional (Tummala-Narra, Deshpande, & Kaur, 2016, p.

205). It takes skill for one to develop a competence that allows one to cope with the

cultural dissonance well and combat the struggle of being in the in-between through

successfully creating a fusion that is pleasing to both cultures. Outside of home, SGAAAs

face discrimination; within the home, SGAAAs face the pressure of becoming ‘too

Americanized’ (Tummala-Narra, Deshpande, & Kaur, 2016, p. 206). Either way, they are

stuck in a lose-lose situation. Discrimination is a form of injustice, just like stereotyping.

The most common stereotype SGAAAs are known for is their reputation in academic

success.

Pressure on Academic Success:

Asian Americans as a whole are known for excelling in academics. Society places

stereotypes them as the ‘model minority’. The model minority stereotype describes Asian

Americans as hardworking, intelligent, and successful (Gartner, Kiang, & Supple, 2014, p.

1716). It raises the assumption that since Asian Americans excel in what they do, they
THE CHALLENGES OF BEING A SECOND-GENERATION ASIAN AMERICAN ADOLESCENT 6

probably do not face many adversities. Therefore, there has not been much research on

their specific population. Because Asian Americans are known to be “uniformly successful

academically and professionally, [it minimizes] the recognition of the impact of structural

challenges and social injustice on their psychological well-being” (Tummala-Narra,

Deshpande, & Kaur, 2016, 194). Living with this kind of stereotype placed on them can

cause SGAAAs to experience stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is the tendency for

minorities to experience stress or anxiety over the likelihood that their behavior can be

used by society to confirm the stereotypes about their minority group (Ecklund, 2016, p.

202). SGAAAs already have high expectations put on them by their parents. But because of

this stereotype put on them, they are also feeling high expectations from society as well.

SGAAAs with immigrant parents deal with immense pressure to succeed and

perform well in everything they do. Immigrant parents use phrase like, ‘I did not suffer to

come to America for you: to behave like this, to perform in academics like this, to be like

this’ or something with a similar message that will motivate their children to be successful

in everything they do. Asian immigrant parents put their children’s needs before their own

interests, health, and careers (Wu & Chao, 2011, p. 494). This causes a preposterous

amount of pressure on their children to perform well to make their parents’ sacrifices

worthwhile. If they do not, they are left with the feeling of guilt. Because of this, the slang

term ‘Asian F’ emerged. This means, as an Asian, one “should receive the top grade.

Anything less than an A is an ‘Asian F’” (Lee, 2013). Because of their parents’ hard work,

they feel as if they cannot afford to do anything less than the best. This kind of stress to

succeed greatly affects SGAAAs’ family relationships, self-esteem, and physical and mental

health (Yee, 2015). Something needs to change. Celia Lo, Laura Hopson, Gaynell Simpson,
THE CHALLENGES OF BEING A SECOND-GENERATION ASIAN AMERICAN ADOLESCENT 7

and Tyrone Cheng (2017, p. 98) believe there should be an intervention that raises the

awareness in immigrant Asian parents about how their excessive expectations for their

children is impacting their children’s emotional health.

Intergenerational Cultural Dissonance in Parental and Family Dynamics:

The excessive expectations can be due to the cultural dissonance between SGAAAs

and their family who have clashing worldviews. In Asian culture, excessive expectations are

a way of care and love. In mainstream society, it can come across as overbearing.

Intergenerational cultural dissonance “may occur with adolescents endorsing the norms of

the mainstream American culture to a greater extent than their immigrant parents” (Wu &

Chao, 2011, p. 493). It plays a vital role in shaping parental and family dynamics. It can

increase misunderstandings and miscommunications in SGAAAs’ relationship with their

family by impeding family process and adding complications (Choi & Harachi, 2008, p. 86).

As mentioned before, SGAAAs need to learn how to alternate cultures depending on their

environment. The misunderstandings and miscommunications are from conforming their

beliefs and values to European Americans’ beliefs and values. SGAAAs thus develop a new

perception that is different than their family’s.

The cultural practices of Asians and European Americans, likewise to their values

and beliefs, are conflicting. Asian parents provide more instrumental support instead of

physical and emotional expression like European American parents (Wu & Chao, 2011, p.

494). Instead directly saying ‘I love you, I appreciate you, you matter’ and others of the

liking, Asian parents express their love through acts of service, making their love harder to

identify. It creates a misinterpretation and misunderstanding that SGAAAs’ parents lack

warmth and love (Wu & Chao, 2011, p. 493). A child needs to feel love and affection to feel
THE CHALLENGES OF BEING A SECOND-GENERATION ASIAN AMERICAN ADOLESCENT 8

content. Feeling like there is a lack of it from their parents disrupts the process of human

nature. They develop insecurity, lose self-confidence, and raise other psychological

concerns.

Within the Asian culture, parents often times have a fixed mindset about what they

believe in and are not open for discussion. Although the intergenerational cultural

dissonance is drifting their relationship with their children apart, they do not seem willing

to work with their child on how to improve their relationship. Issues over autonomy in

parent-child relationships within Asian culture are found. For example, they may have an

idea if some ideal relationship qualities that clash with their children’s idea. But because

they have higher authoritative power, they expect their children to oblige. Parental

authority is emphasized, forcing their children to placate and deal with the implicit conflict

by going along with their parents’ opinions and demands without being able to express

their own views (Wu & Chao, 2011, p. 494). There are very little opportunities for SGAAAs

to have freedom in expressing themselves at home. That is why majority of SGAAAs seem

shy or have trouble speaking up. They were raised to believe sharing their opinion is

disrespectful.

Because of this unique dynamic inside the Asian home, there is a concern with the

psychological problems that come from it. SGAAAs are reluctant to confide in their parents

for their help to cope with emotional stress (Tummala-Narra, Deshpande, & Kaur, 2016, p.

206). It heightens the risk factor for external problems such as being anti-social or

aggressive, and internal problems such as depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem (Choi &

Harachi, 2008, p. 86). It is frowned upon to talk about psychological issues with extended
THE CHALLENGES OF BEING A SECOND-GENERATION ASIAN AMERICAN ADOLESCENT 9

family as well because of the fear that it will ruin the parents’ reputation in the family. The

only option is to internalize it until they are old enough to seek help on their own.

Psychological Effects:

The intergenerational cultural dissonance SGAAAs have to deal with daily has

negative impact on the well-being of SGAAAs. Facing the challenges of cultural dissonance

and fighting expectations makes SGAAAs extremely vulnerable to not only psychological

issues, but also psychological disorders. Compared to the European American adolescents,

research has shown that SGAAAs have a higher risk for mental health issues such as self-

injury, depression, anxiety, self-esteem, and suicide (Tummala-Narra, Deshpande, & Kaur,

2016, p. 194). The level of stress for SGAAAs from all the pressures is outrageously high.

According to a case study on a 15-year-old Asian high school girl, the girl attempted suicide

many times after reporting “a history of extreme anxiety that she attributed to the stress

caused by her family’s expectations for higher academic achievement, which resulted in

alleged physical and emotional abuse by her parents due to [her] inability to meet those

expectations” (Nissirios, Levitt, & Pimentel, 2017, p. 348). This happened because she was

getting average B and C grades, which count as an Asian F, she was not enrolled in honors

classes, and was not on track to attend an Ivy League university (Nissirios, Levitt, &

Pimentel, 2017, p. 348). Unfortunately this example was a real-life event.

If the pressure of success does not come from parents directly, it comes from their

extended family that fosters the need to compete with cousins. Another stereotype of Asian

adolescents is that they are musical prodigies. Traditionally, Asian children learn how to

play a musical instrument growing up. Piano and violin are the post popular. During family

gatherings, it is common to have ‘my child is better than yours’ talent shows for parents to
THE CHALLENGES OF BEING A SECOND-GENERATION ASIAN AMERICAN ADOLESCENT 10

show off their musically prodigal children. Murray Mclachlan, a music teacher from

Manchester, exclaims, “‘Today, most young musicians winning competitions are Asian’”

(Whitaker/Reuter, 2014). Asian adolescents are spending all their time either in

succeeding in academics or perfecting their musical talent, they do not have time to

socialize with friends. Lacking socialization also plays into the development of

psychological issues. Asian adolescents do not get to experience social support, causing

more struggles in self-esteem.

Socializing with friends at school in mainstream society may be the only

opportunity to express emotions freely. Expressing strong emotions is considered

unhealthy in Asian households (Wu & Chao, 2011, p. 494). It is taught to restrain and

suppress emotions to maintain relational harmony in their culture. This is detrimental to

one’s mental health on so many levels. Psychological counseling enforces the processing of

emotions to improve one’s mental health. Internalizing them is doing the total opposite

even if is part of one’s cultural practices. Not practicing open communication adds to the

frustration of intergenerational cultural dissonance. It is not surprising that “parent-child

intergenerational cultural conflicts are the most frequent problem among [SGAAAs] who

seek counseling” (Choi & Harachi, 2008, p. 93). Most SGAAAs who are able to break the

cultural norm seek psychological help to learn how to process emotions in a healthy

manner. The first few counseling sessions are the most challenging because SGAAAs are not

used to open communication and discussion and do not know how to express emotion

correctly. Based on their research, Lo et al. (2017, p. 99) declared SGAAAs showed the post

depression and least self-esteem of any group they studied. New studies should be
THE CHALLENGES OF BEING A SECOND-GENERATION ASIAN AMERICAN ADOLESCENT 11

conducted to find ways to assist SGAAAs in coping with cultural dissonance. The

discoveries from the new studies would help combat the intense psychological effects.

Conclusion:

The more society neglects to do research on the harmful effects of cultural

dissonance on SGAAAs, the less resources they have to mitigate their psychological

problems. Bringing awareness to this topic can also serve as a wake up call to help this

population feel more included and cared for in mainstream society in the midst of being

stuck in the in-between. Altogether, learning about different cultures and subcultures is

important and will strengthen one’s cultural competence and enhance one’s overall

maturity.
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