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Adolescent literacy and identity construction

among 1.5 generation students

From a transnational perspective

Youngjoo Yi
Georgia State University

The emergence and significance of transnational adolescents at school and

in society have recently been recognized, and yet, little is known about how
their transnational lived experiences affect their literacy learning and identity
construction. Thus, the study reported in this paper explored transnational
literacy options and practices that two Korean transnational adolescents had
experienced and addressed how their online literacy practices served them while
negotiating their transnational identities. The findings show that the partici-
pants engaged in multiple literacy practices and forged transnational identities
through online activities involving “creating and constructing a transnational
and transcultural community” and “communicating via instant messaging.”
The findings suggest that we should re-conceptualize the teaching and learn-
ing of students who share multilingual, transnational lived experiences and that
we should re-examine what it means to be good, educated students and global
citizens in the 21st century.


Transnational pathways
Soon after I moved to a Midwestern city in the United States from South Korea, I
encountered quite an intriguing student population in the local Korean commu-
nity: transnational1 adolescent students who were born in the U.S., thereby classi-
fied as U.S. citizens, but who were raised and had formal schooling in both the U.S.
and Korea at different points in their lives. I observed that they lived “dual lives:
speaking two languages and having homes in two countries” (Portes, Guarnizo,
& Landolt, 1999, p. 217). Interestingly, there was considerable variation within
the group, especially in terms of linguistic diversity, which was highly noticeable.

Journal of Asian Pacific Communication 19:1 (2009), 100–129.  doi 10.1075/japc.19.1.06yi

issn 0957–6851 / e-issn 1569–9838 © John Benjamins Publishing Company
Adolescent literacy and identity construction among 1.5 generation students 101

For example, some students were placed in an ESL program, while others identi-
fied themselves as native speakers of both English and Korean.2 The transnational
students that I encountered in a Midwestern city where I lived and conducted
research did not necessarily mark a sharp break with the country of origin of their
parents (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001), nor “leave everything behind”
(Jo, 2003, p. 41). Instead, they tended to cultivate continuous transnational ties to
their home country (i.e., Korea)3 while employing a “dual frame of reference” to
explore or evaluate their life experiences and outcomes within their host country
(Louie, 2006a, p. 363), with the Internet playing an important role in their various
border crossings.
Importantly, at some point I came to realize that simple categorizations like
“immigrant” students or “English language learners” (ELLs) are not quite ade-
quate descriptors for this newly emerging transnational student population. For
instance, they are distinctive from “immigrant” students, whose journey tends to
be unidirectional, that is, it involves a permanent change of residence from a home
country to a host country (Pries, 1999). Transnational migrants, by contrast, tend
to make “two-way” back-and-forth movements in terms of the flow of informa-
tion, resources, capital, locations, and commodities they experience (Kearney,
1995; Levitt, 2001). In fact, in the field of transnational migration studies, Portes,
Guarnizo and Landolt (1999) have argued that transnationalism should be distin-
guished from the previously existing concept of “immigration” by emphasizing
that occupations or activities, from a transnational perspective, should “require
regular and sustained social contacts over time across national borders for their
implementation” (p. 219) rather than the simple occasional contacts, visits, and
activities across the borders of members. Further, Levitt (2001) differentiates be-
tween “transnationalism” and “globalization” by stating that “global processes tend
to be de-linked from specific national territories, while transnational processes are
anchored in and transcend one or more nation-states” (p. 14). Given these unique
characteristics and the recent emergence of transnational students (Jo, 2003), as
well as the complex and sometimes conflicting pathways they traverse, particu-
larly during adolescence, this population merits its own attention among research-
ers. Indeed, there is a strong need for researchers to better understand this newly
emerging student group in terms of their transnational and transcultural experi-
ences, options, and opportunities in life (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001),
so as to better serve their needs in and outside school. This spirit motivated the
study reported in this paper.
Several scholars have begun to recognize the significance of further investi-
gation of the nature of students’ transnationalism and border crossing. As Lam
(2006) observes, “transcultural flows have significant effects on how young people
develop their identities and affiliations, learn and work, and develop visions of the
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world in their everyday lives” (p. 218). And yet, we have relatively little knowl-
edge of how transnationalism affects the everyday lives of children of immigrants.
As a literacy researcher, I felt compelled to explore the nature of the multiple lit-
eracy practices that transnational adolescents are likely to experience and their
formation of multiple, dynamic identities as they make their way across borders.
In addition, “computer networks increasingly serve as sites within which people
from around the world design and redesign their lives through literacy practices”
(Hawisher, Selfe, Guo, & Liu, 2006, p. 619), and transnational students seem likely
to navigate those computer networks while living transnationally. What is not clear
is how, specifically, they might benefit from such engagement, and whether they
experience difficulties at the same time. Not surprisingly, cyberspace as a relatively
new social space where adolescents can socialize and form communities through
literacy practices is “perhaps the least understood location of youth culture”
among teachers, parents, and researchers (Woo, 2004, p. 174). Thus, I conducted
a study of Korean-American transnational high school students in a Midwestern
city with respect to their online literacy practices and identity construction from
a transnational perspective. The study that I report in this paper was aimed at (1)
describing and explaining transnational literacy options and practices that Korean
transnational high school students had experienced across time and space (‘here’
and ‘there’) and (2) addressing how their online literacy practices enabled them to
negotiate transnational and transcultural identities.

Literacy and identity

In the recent discussions about the nature of literacy, researchers in the New Lit-
eracy Studies (NLS), those who conceptualize literacy as a social practice that is
socially, culturally, and historically situated, mediated, and contextualized (Bar-
ton, 1994; Gee, 1996; Heath, 1983; Street, 1984, 1993) have paid attention to issues
of identity in relation to literacy practices and learning. According to Brandt and
Clinton (2002), literacy is closely related to people, in that “literacy historically has
served in connecting people across time and space — its role, that is, as transcon-
texualizing social agent” (p. 351). Given that, what counts as literacy, what kinds of
literacy are valued or devalued, and under what circumstances, and who uses lit-
eracy and for what purposes, are always changing and depend on the interactions
between people who surround any literacy activities (Williams, 2003). Similarly,
Mahiri and Godly (1998) argue, while drawing from Street (1984, 1993), that “who
people are and how they live made all the difference in how they learned, how they
engaged in literacy practices, and the role that literacy played in their identity” (p.
420). Further, when identity is defined as “a certain ‘kind of person’ in a given con-
text” (Gee, 2001, p. 99), identity construction is highly contextualized, and people
Adolescent literacy and identity construction among 1.5 generation students 103

are likely to have multiple identities that are connected to their roles and perfor-
mances in any given context. Given all of these perspectives, literacy and literacy
learning are closely related to issues of identity development.
In exploring the relationship between literacy and identity, a social construc-
tionist view of language and literacy learning offers a useful lens for understanding
and interpreting the multiple and dynamic nature of identity construction (May-
bin, 2000; Ochs, 1993). According to social constructionists, identity is neither the
product of the individual mind nor socially determined, but rather socially and
culturally constructed and situated (Ivanic, 1998; Pavlenko & Blackledge, 2004).
In addition to the multiplicity of socially constructed identities, the dynamic and
discursive nature of identity construction is also important to consider because
individuals continuously engage in presenting, representing, and performing who
they are in relation to others and in revising their sense of self while interacting
and observing how others position themselves. With respect to language and lit-
eracy learning, people “use language (both oral and written) to form and represent
their identities” (Guzzetti & Gamboa, 2004, p. 413); and “literacy events are part
of continual construction and negotiation of identity for people in different kinds
of groups and communities” (Maybin, 2000, p. 207). Therefore, “literacy work is
identity work.” (Guzzetti & Gamboa, 2004, p. 413).
Research on the issue of identity construction and literacy practice can be
more complex and compelling when it addresses adolescent students who engage
in multiple literacy practices during their daily lives. It has long been known that
adolescents are not only searching for a sense of self (who they are), but are also
trying to determine how they can construct, perform, and display their identities
moment by moment and in different situations (Alverman, Hinchman, Moore,
Phelps, Waff, 2006). In addition, “adolescents can be more metacognitive about
their practices and they are in-between multiple spaces” (Moje, 2002, p. 221). Thus,
many studies have examined “how youth construct and represent themselves in
hybrid ways across different spaces and contexts, and often show how youth con-
flict or problems are a function of social and political (and adult) contexts” (Moje,
2002, p. 216). Similarly, adolescent literacy researchers have investigated how ado-
lescents use various literacies to pursue their own interests, to make sense of their
daily lives, and to (re)design their identities (Alvermann et al., 2006; Blackburn,
2003; Camitta, 1993; Knobel, 1999; Luttrell & Parker, 2001; Schultz, 1999; Stroud
& Wee, 2005).
In particular, investigating multiliterate adolescents can enrich inquiries into
literacy and identity construction because, while exploring multilingual students’
identity construction and their literate experiences across different settings, litera-
cy researchers can examine complex and important relationships among language,
literacy, and identity “without separating them into distinct categories or without
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lumping them altogether” (McCarthey & Moje, 2002, p. 235). Therefore, the study
of multiliterate adolescents with respect to literacy and identity construction is an
important and promising area for educators and literacy researchers.
Given the just noted importance of an in-depth understanding of multiliter-
ate adolescents’ literacy practices and identity construction, this paper reports a
study on Korean multiliterate adolescent students with respect to their transna-
tional and transcultural online literacy practices and identity formation. The study
that I report in this paper addressed the following guiding questions: What kinds
of transnational and transcultural literacy options, opportunities, and practices do
Korean-American adolescents experience? How do online literacy practices serve
them to engage in transnational and transcultural literacy practices? How and to
what extent do online literacy practices provide them with opportunities to nego-
tiate or form their transnational and transcultural identities?


As part of a larger study on Korean immigrant students’ literacy practices (Yi,

2005), I met two Korean-American transnational adolescents, Mike (11th grader)
and Joan (9th grader),4 who attended different high schools, but the same Ko-
rean Catholic church in a Midwestern city in the United States. I employed a case
study approach (Merriam, 1998; Stake, 1995) because, as Portes et al. (1999) have
proposed, the ‘individual’ is the appropriate unit of analysis for understanding
the nature of transnationalism, and I hoped to obtain an in-depth understanding
of individual’s experiences of and perspectives on transnational literate lives and
identity construction through a case study approach.

The researcher and the researched

Mike and Joan were two of the high school students that I met in the local Korean
Catholic church. When I first visited their church, I distributed recruiting fliers to
high school students and their parents and obtained the email addresses of high
school students there. Upon their permission, I then sent them email recruiting
fliers, entitled “Do you want to be in my story?,” along with the initial recruit-
ing survey questionnaires. Mike was the first student who returned the completed
survey to me. From the four email messages and basic information about his lit-
eracy practice and computer use reported in the initial survey questionnaire, I felt
that Mike’s story (i.e., his views toward and experiences of transnational living
and heavy Internet use) could offer a compelling account of adolescent literacy
Adolescent literacy and identity construction among 1.5 generation students 105

Joan did not actually join the study until the 4th week of the data collection
period. During the 4th week of the study, I learned from Mike and other research
participants in the larger study that Joan played a role as a ‘literacy broker’ among
Korean students in the local area, especially in cyberspace, by sharing her writing,
responding to others’ writing, and encouraging others to engage in writing. Prior to
this point, I had met Joan three times in various places (church, library, and school),
and she knew me as an adult who conducted research with adolescents. In fact, she
also completed the initial recruiting survey questionnaire for me in the local library,
and yet she did not show any interest in participating in the study until our first four-
hour marathon of online-chatting. During the online chatting, we talked about her
transnational life and literacy practices. Soon after, she agreed to join the research.
While I played multiple roles (as researcher, tutor, counselor, elder sister, and
classroom volunteer), I tried to position myself as “least adult” so as to reduce
any kind of power relationship (Guzzetti & Gamboa, 2005). I was also attentive
to maintaining reciprocal relationships with the participants and engaged in sys-
tematic self-reflexivity by documenting how my assumptions and biases affected
the ways in which I collected, analyzed, and interpreted the data (Wideen, May-
er-Smith, & Moon, 1998). I offered them free tutorials on any subjects that they
wanted help with. My tutor role during the data collection allowed me to learn
more about their in-school and out-of-school literacy learning. In addition, the
participants and even their peers often came to me to open up about their emo-
tions (e.g., adolescent crushes) and concerns (e.g., academic achievement, trouble
with their peers, future careers, and pursuit of happiness in life), which indicates
that they saw me as a ‘counselor’ or an ‘elder sister,’ as Mike called me. This role
was very helpful in establishing a strong rapport with the participants as well as
their peers and gaining knowledge of what happened in their lives “here and there”
(in the U.S. and Korea). I also worked as a classroom bilingual aide at Joan’s high
school and thus was able to learn about her social network, especially her ethnic
peer group at school, and to obtain her ESL teachers’ perspectives on Joan and
other Korean students at school. As such, my multiple roles with them throughout
a long-term involvement with them allowed me to enrich my perspectives on the
students, as well as their literacy practices and identity construction.

Data collection and analysis

Throughout two phases of the study over a period of one academic year, I collected
data from multiple sources, including interviews (17 interviews with Mike and 12
interviews with Joan), literacy activity checklists, observations, informal conversa-
tions — face-to-face and online (i.e., online chatting) — field notes, and literacy
artifacts (e.g., participants’ literacy autobiographies and samples of their writing).
106 Youngjoo Yi

For the first six months of the data collection period, I conducted semi-struc-
tured interviews with each individual almost once a week, provided tutorials be-
fore or after the interviews, and collected research participants’ literacy activity
checklists. In the interviews, which usually lasted about one hour, we discussed
the participant’s out-of-school literacy activities that were already recorded on a
weekly literacy activity checklist, which sought information about the contents,
contexts, motivations, medium (print or online), and language (Korean, English
or both) of their reading and writing. We often talked about their in-school litera-
cy activities as well, though it was not the primary focus of the study. The research
participants were free to use either Korean or English during the interviews; inter-
estingly, they chose to use both languages.
After the first phase of data collection, I met with each individual weekly only
for free tutorials until the end of the academic year and was able to observe them
during tutorial sessions. I also continued to engage in informal conversations with
them via online chatting (36 instant-messaging experiences with Mike and 30 with
Joan throughout the entire study) and collected samples of their writing (print
and online) for school and for pleasure. To maintain validity, the participants and
I conducted informal member checks during our weekly interview sessions and
formal member checks in the final meeting session. In these exchanges, the par-
ticipants had ample opportunities to make comments, elaborate on certain points,
and/or adjust my interpretations.
While collecting the data, I paid attention to the frequent, dominant or sig-
nificant themes emerging from the raw data, and I engaged in an ongoing and
recursive process of data analysis and interpretation. Employing inductive data
analysis, I systematically arranged and explored the interview transcripts, literacy
activity checklists, field notes, and other materials, and then I searched for patterns
and themes and tried to identify the links among them in order to make sense of
the data (Bogdan & Biklen, 1998; Strauss & Corb, 1990). In this process, several
important themes or patterns emerged; among them, I focused on (1) transnation-
al lived experiences, (2) multiple (transnational) ties with home and host coun-
tries, (3) social networks across time and space, (4) language and literacy learning
across contexts, (5) transnational and transcultural online literacy activities, (6)
ways in which online literacy practices enabled them to engage in transnational
practices, and (7) multiple identities constructed through daily literacy activities.
Though some of the themes were addressed in previous work (Yi, 2007, 2008b), a
transnational perspective has not been explored until now.
Adolescent literacy and identity construction among 1.5 generation students 107

Findings and Discussion

In the first part of this section, Transnational Life Trajectories, I provide a portrait
of each case so as to help us better understand what kinds of transnational and
trancultural life experiences and opportunities Mike and Joan had had. In the later
part of this section, Border-Crossing Online, I explore samples of their online writ-
ing to illustrate the ways in which literacy was related to and helped shape their
transnational and transcultural experiences as Korean adolescents living in the
United States.

Transnational life trajectories: Mike and Joan

Mike, who lived “double lives”
When I first met Mike (Grade 11), he had already lived in the United States for
seven and a half years, combining four years in his early life and three and a half
years in adolescence. Mike was born and raised in the U.S. until his family moved
to Korea when he was four. When he lived in Korea, he learned Chinese characters
and became deeply interested in computer technology (e.g., video games, word
processing). In Grade 7, he unwillingly returned to the USA with his elder brother,
a U.S. born transnational student, and mother for educational purposes while his
father made a living in Korea and visited them two or three times per year. During
this study, his mother returned to Korea, and Mike lived with his elder brother
When Mike returned to the U.S. in Grade 7, he was quite frustrated about not
understanding teachers’ directions, even though he had studied English while liv-
ing in Korea. Within a year, he was mainstreamed in middle school. During the
study, he was an 11th grader who took creative writing, American literature, and
Spanish II courses, joined ‘cultural awareness’ and computer clubs, and was in-
ducted into the National Honor Society. Mike was a self-motivated top ten student
and was popular as a hip-hop dancer and athlete who played volleyball and soccer
on school teams.
Because of his transnational lived experiences, he showed a very interesting
constellation of bilingual and biliterate skills, in that he tended to use a different
language for different purposes across different contexts:
In terms of speaking and listening, of course Korean, Korean is more comfortable.
But writing now, in Korean, cause there are so much Chinese words in Korean
that I don’t know. And they use it for their writing. So I don’t know about the writ-
ing like as a real document or a formal paper, I feel more comfortable with writ-
ing in English though. [In terms of reading], depends on what kinds what type it
is. If it’s just like informal, it’s so much easier for me to just read in Korean. If it’s
108 Youngjoo Yi

formal, it’s about the same. Newspaper, cause they use a lot of hard words in both
of them in English and in Korean [laugh]. So it’s kinda same [laugh]. (Interview,

Depending on the degree of formality of a text or a task in reading and writing as

well as the vocabulary involved, Mike’s dominant or strongest language differed.
This suggests that a traditional dichotomy which posits that ‘L1 and L2 are Ko-
rean and English, respectively’ or ‘he is a native speaker of Korean and non-native
speaker of English’ does not seem to be adequate to explore and explain a student
like Mike.5
More intriguing examples of Mike’s daily language use help unravel the com-
plexity of his engagement with multiple literacies and his negotiation of identities
through such activities.
For instance, one example that shows how he used Korean for academic pur-
poses and how it was perceived by his American peers illuminates why Mike was
possibly able to forge a new identity from such a daily encounter. As a junior
who prepared for the SATs, Mike often used Korean for definitions of SAT words
and English for their synonyms and antonyms in his SAT vocabulary lists while
at school. One day in his study hall, he received recognition from his American
friends for his being able to read and write in Korean. Mike explained this incident
very proudly in an interview:
There were two guys sitting beside me, we kinda talked. When they saw my note-
book, they asked ‘what is that?’ like cause there was Korean. They were like ‘it’s
cool.’ I just said that’s SAT vocabulary, and they said ‘Do you know how to read it?’
I said, ‘Yeah, of course’ [laugh]….Probably, almost all of my friends know that I
can speak Korean. (Interview, 11/02/03)

Mike sometimes used Korean words to conceptualize and memorize new English
words (as well as vice versa). Clearly, the heritage language, Korean, turned out to
be a resource (Peyton, Ranard, & McGinnis, 2001) in this situation. More impor-
tantly, when he realized that his American peers at school saw it as ‘cool’ for him
to read and write Korean, he seemed to (re)learn the value of his heritage language
and to construct a positive self-image of a Korean-American who can read and
write both languages.
Even though Mike received compliments from his peers for knowing some
Korean vocabulary, which seemed to contribute to his pride as a Korean-English
biliterate in an English-speaking school context, he also experienced frustrations
over limitations he encountered, such as his inability to compose a reflection, in
Korean, on a church retreat:
Adolescent literacy and identity construction among 1.5 generation students 109

After we went to the retreat, Father Lee told me and Charlie to write an article
about retreat [for a church newsletter] and told me to write a reflection of our
retreat. I wrote a reflection. He didn’t specifically mention what language, but he
said, ‘why don’t you write about?’ So, I was thinking. I don’t know it was Korean
or English. I just started with English and just wrote a whole thing, and I showed
it to Father Lee. And he said, ‘You were supposed to write in Korean.’ I was like…
I was like ‘NO.’ He was like ‘Change that. Change that to Korean by next week.’ I
got that paper back, and I was like ‘I can’t do this in Korean.’ I kinda started it off,
and I ended up with deleting the whole thing and closed off MS word. Later, I just
said ‘I didn’t have a time for that.’ (Interview, 11/22/03)

This is a telling example that reveals another dimension of how multiliterate ado-
lescents (who, it must be remembered, are still language learners, so that they need
to develop various languages simultaneously) might negotiate or might be asked
to negotiate their identities through interactions with others and through literacy
activities. Here, it is interesting that the two Korean-English bilinguals (priest and
Mike) shared a different assumption about the choice of language for the reflection.
In addition, Mike did not want to tell the priest about his lack of translation ability
or his restrictions in writing in Korean. Instead, he simply made the excuse that he
was too busy with school work to compose the reflection according to Father Lee’s
specifications. From this experience, he came to learn that formal writing in Ko-
rean is a challenging task; in particular, he encountered difficulties with employing
appropriate honorifics in formal writing in Korean (which features six levels of
formality). And yet, Mike tended to choose Korean over English in his informal
and more personal writing activities, such as diary writing and web-posting. The
two examples above of his daily use of language across different social contexts and
through different kinds of social interaction suggest that he perhaps negotiated
his identities or positioned himself in multiple, conflicting, and ambivalent ways
while becoming a ‘cool,’ proud Korean-speaking Mike at school and embarrassed,
less-literate-in-Korean Mike at the Korean church. These examples also suggest
that his identity formation must have been fluid and malleable rather than rigid.
In addition to his different use of languages, Mike expressed his different sense
of ‘self,’ especially when he spoke English to Korean-speaking friends, as reported
in an interview:
M:6 I feel more comfortable speaking Korean with Koreans, cause it seems weird
to speak English with Koreans.
Y: Why?
M: I don’t know. Cause, like my friends, my Korean friends, I know they can
speak Korean really well, sometimes better than English. And they kinda
sound different. It feels like there is somebody else [when] they speak in Eng-
110 Youngjoo Yi

Y: So. Even do you feel different when you speak in English?

M: A little bit. I feel like I’m a different person.
Y: Interesting. When you speak in English, you are Mike, and you speak in Ko-
rean you are Sangjin?7 [laugh]
Y: Does a difference mean it’s bad or good?
M: NO.
Y: It’s just different?
M: Feels different that they don’t seem like a person that I used to know.
(Interview, 10/25/03)

Here, Mike was quite conscious of his different sense of who he was and how he
felt about his friends (others) and himself and suggests an awareness of his mul-
tiple identities related to the different communicative contexts he encountered.
In a similar but more global sense, Mike also talked about two different worlds
where he had lived. In an interview when we discussed an article entitled “double
lives” in his school magazine, he described his life in an interesting and positive
manner: “Come to think of it, my life is like ‘double lives’. At school, I hang around
with American friends, and outside of school, I hang around with Korean friends.
Oh well, all the people [Koreans] here live such double lives [translated]” (Interview,
1/10/2004). In school, where there were only three Korean students, his social
group consisted of non-Korean speaking friends, while outside of school he was
closely connected to Korean friends, culture, and the local Korean community.
The interview excerpt above also shows that Mike seemed to be well aware of his
“dual identity” (Suarez-Orozco & Qin-Hillard, 2004) or “hyphenated identity”
(Rumbaut, 1994). Clearly, Mike lived multifocal lives in two co-existing, comple-
mentary, and competing, worlds in which he acted out different roles or perfor-
mances with different languages, cultures, and peers. By taking advantage of mul-
tiple languages across different contexts, he negotiated multiple senses of self and
the world that linked him simultaneously with more than one nation and culture.
Among various transnational and transcultural opportunities and options
available in Mike’s world, online activity was the most salient and critical literacy
practice in terms of what enabled him to cross borders and to enrich his transna-
tional life and experience. For example, when he got home from school, he im-
mediately went to his computer and engaged in multi-tasking. He logged on to
instant messaging (i.e., MSN), checked emails, played music, and searched for and
read articles that attracted his attention, all of which constituted his daily trans-
national practice. Often times, he did his homework while sitting before his com-
puter and responding to sporadic instant messages from online buddies. It was at
his computer that his English and Korean literacy activities took place at the same
time via the transnational and transcultural cyber movements that were available
Adolescent literacy and identity construction among 1.5 generation students 111

to him. In fact, his out-of-school literacy checklists were filled with references to
American and Korean popular culture-related literacy activities, e.g., reading In-
ternet comics and novels as well as news articles on soccer/volleyball matches;
reviewing new CDs; posting full-motion videos about music concerts; creating
screen names with song titles; reading Linkin Park’s song lyrics; and playing video
games. These activities occurred in both English and Korean. As such, while tak-
ing advantage of the linguistic, cultural, and symbolic capital in his world (e.g.,
languages, technology), Mike enjoyed his daily transnational life, or what he called
his “double lives.”
Throughout Mike’s transnational lived experience and opportunities, he had
refined ways in which he negotiated his use of multiple languages across contexts
and forged his sense of self, social relations, and the world.

Joan, who exercised “Korean Pride”

Joan, an outgoing 9th grader, was born in America and lived there until she was
five, when both of her parents completed their degrees and her family moved to
Korea. According to her mother, Joan was equally bilingual at five (she knew the
Korean and English alphabets and was minimally biliterate); however, some of
her negative early childhood experiences made her focus only on learning Korean
while living in Korea. In her literacy autobiography, Joan reflected:
When I first went to a kindergarten class in Korea, my friends made fun of me.
They called me names like “American” because I often pronounced English-loan
words with an English accent instead of a Korean accent. At that time, I hated
being called “American.” So, I did my best to forget English and learn Korean as
quickly as possible [translated]. (Joan’s literacy autobiography)

Since her parents knew what their only child went through that time, they did not
mind her forgetting English and stressed the learning of Korean. While living in
Korea, Joan had improved her Korean and won several writing contests at middle
In Grade 8, Joan (like Mike) unwillingly returned to America with her mother,
a visiting scholar from Korea. During her participation in this study, her mother
had to return to Korea, but Joan decided to stay alone, mainly for educational
purposes. Though Joan did not want to move to America at first, she changed
her mind about life in America while living in the U.S. and interacting with oth-
er Korean peers who shared similar life experiences (e.g., traveling between the
U.S. and Korea). During this study (in Grade 9), Korean was her more dominant
language, and at school, she took upper intermediate and advanced ESL classes
and a foreign language (i.e., Japanese II) class where many Korean ESL students
were enrolled. She also joined a ‘multicultural club’ and learned ‘Tang-Soo-Do’ (an
112 Youngjoo Yi

empty-handed, traditional Korean martial art of self-defense) outside school. She

received a perfect overall grade average point, 4.0.
Joan was an avid reader and prolific writer in Korean and was very analytic
about her Korean friends’ language proficiency. For instance, in an interview, she
talked about her friend Yoon and his lack of Korean8 in quite a lamenting tone:
[Laugh] He really doesn’t know vocabulary, I mean Korean vocabulary. I don’t
quite remember when, but when chatting online, we often use some difficult
words [in Korean], but then, he goes “What’s that?” Sometimes, he even asked
me really easy Korean words. So, I told him, “I told you to speak Korean. You
go to Korea and learn Korean first. Then, come back to learn English.”…When I
read his online postings in Korean, I feel like correcting his Korean [translated].
(Interview, 12/2/2003)

Yoon (11th grader), a Generation 1.5 student who came to the U.S. in Grade 7,
was perceived as one of the disadvantaged students among his Korean peers. He
was one of Joan’s best Korean friends at school while taking ESL and Japanese II
classes with her. In the same interview, Joan added that Yoon not only forgot many
Korean words, but also had not learned age-appropriate Korean vocabulary since
he had moved to the U.S. in Grade 7.
Joan was more critical about a group of Korean teenagers who devalued the
Korean language. Her comments on those teens during the interview excerpt seen
below clearly show that Joan believed that her “language doubleness can be an as-
set,” as a Latino teen, Carlos, asserted in a study by Jarratt, Losh, and Puente (2006,
p. 37):
There are some [Korean] students who try to speak English only. Yeah, I under-
stand they are trying to improve their English, but the stupidest thing is that some
of them pretend that they can’t speak Korean or at least, they think that they can’t.
Then, they tell people that they can’t speak Korean. I mean, they intentionally
pretend that they can’t speak Korean….They don’t even speak English well. They
are native speakers of Korean. What’s the problem with being able to speak Ko-
rean well? I think the better their Korean proficiency is, the more they should feel
proud of themselves. Anyway, there are shameful kids who pretend that they can’t
speak Korean [translated]. (Interview, 12/18/03)

When Joan returned to the U.S. in Grade 8, she initially joined a Korean teenage
group through a Korean church which consisted of U.S. born Korean-American
adolescents who could not speak Korean and a group, as described above, of Ko-
rean ESL students who pretended that they could not speak Korean. In order to
communicate with these 2nd generation Korean-Americans, Joan had to learn
English as an online language via instant messaging (e.g., kno wat?) and to up-
date an English weblog, called Xanga. But, after several months of her efforts to
Adolescent literacy and identity construction among 1.5 generation students 113

socialize (or fit in) with English-speaking Korean teenagers at her church and
some conflicts with them, Joan finally moved to a Korean Catholic church, where
she made friends with those who were either Generation 1.5 students (who were
Korean born, but who emigrated and spent a significant portion of their adoles-
cence in the U.S.) or Korean-American transnational students like her. With this
group of Korean-English bilingual and biliterate students (who all learned foreign
languages at school), she seemed to feel a greater sense of belonging and to exer-
cise ‘Korean pride.’ (Also known as ‘KP,’ which was quite a popular term among
her Korean peers. For example, some wrote ‘KP’ on the cover of their school bind-
ers.) Together, these Korean friends at the Catholic church created an online com-
munity, that is, a transnational and transcultural social space, called Welcome To
Buckeye City (Yi, 2008a) where Korean transnational adolescents voluntarily and
actively engaged in transnational literacy activities in a sustained manner, as will
be discussed later in this article.
As such, Joan’s interactions with diverse social peers across time and space
(e.g., kindergarten peers in Korea as well as 2.0 and 1.5 generations of Korean-
Americans and Korean-ESL peers in American middle and high schools) seem to
show that Joan believed in the value and importance of having Korean proficiency
and thus became an advocate of multilingualism (Korean, English, and foreign
language). In this sense, her story supports what Hall has argued: “there is no
identity that is without the dialogic relationship to the Other” (Hall, 1991, p. 16
as cited in Giampapa, 2001, p. 290). That is, by observing, interacting with, and
mentioning others, Joan seemed to re-position herself as somebody who wanted
to be a decent, proud multilingual and multiliterate individual.

Transnational families
Mike and Joan each had two homes (in Korea and the U.S.) and had participated
in social and cultural activities in the two countries on a daily basis. For instance,
Joan and Mike lived with their mothers while their fathers made a living in Korea.
Both participants’ mothers returned to Korea during the period of the study, and
Mike lived only with his elder brother and Joan with her legal guardian. This type
of family situation among Koreans has recently been referred to as “Ki-reo-gi Ga-
jok” (wild goose family), that is, one where the father mostly stays in the home
country to make a living, while the children and mother stay in the host country
to seek better educational opportunities for the children. Similarly, the term “sat-
ellite family” has been used in Canada to refer to Chinese families whose parents
work abroad, e.g., Hong Kong, while their children live and study locally. In the
field of sociology, students like Joan and Mike have been identified as “parachute
kids,” that is, students who live with a relative or a legal guardian in order to attend
school in America (Zhou, 1998). In fact, parachute kids are becoming a significant
114 Youngjoo Yi

portion of transnational adolescents, who are now a steadily growing population

in American schools (Jo, 2003), especially in high schools, partly because they
want to be prepared to attend college in the U.S. As noted earlier, though these
family members live separately, they regularly travel between the two countries:
the parents visit the children in the USA two or three times per year, and the chil-
dren visit Korea during the summer. For instance, during this study Joan stayed
with her family in Seoul, Korea during the summer and took an SAT preparation
course which was filled with Korean transnational adolescents like her.
In addition to their physical visits or movements, online literacy practices
powerfully and meaningfully helped the participants cross borders on a sustained
and regular basis, make transnational attachments and establish or maintain ori-
entations, and create communities that spanned borders while living double lives.
Louie (2006b) found that among second-generation Dominicans in the U.S., their
online literacy practices “constituted a thick transnational identity” (p. 558). Given
that backdrop, the subsequent section will describe and discuss ways in which on-
line literacy practices enabled these transnational Korean adolescents to engage in
transnational and transcultural literacy activities as well as to construct identities
through such activities.

Border-crossing online: Transnational and transcultural practices

As transnational theorists have argued, the advancement of global technologies
allows people to stay locally, but act globally (Vertovec, 1999). Likewise, for the
transnational adolescents in this study, online practice was their primary trans-
national and transcultural daily activity. More specifically, the participants’ online
transnational activities involved (1) “creating and constructing a transnational
community” and (2) “communicating via instant messaging” whose activities are
the primary focus in this section.

Creating and constructing a transnational and transcultural community

According to Vertovec (1999), “transnationalism has changed people’s relations to
space particularly by creating ‘social fields’ that connect and position some actors
in more than one country” (p. 456). This section focuses on the participants’ liter-
acy practices within Welcome To Buckeye City that served as a cyberspace (instead
of a physical space, as Vertovec states), what some scholars (Faist, 1999; Pries,
1999) would call “transnational social spaces” or others (Basch, Glick-Schiller, &
Blanc-Szanton, 1994; Castles & Miller, 2003) would call “transnational commu-
nities,” where locally-connected transnational adolescents (including Mike and
Joan) explored their sense of being “here and there and in between” (Guarnizo,
1994 as cited in Louie, 2006b, p. 559).
Adolescent literacy and identity construction among 1.5 generation students 115

Welcome to Buckeye City was an online “community” that was maintained by

approximately 25 Korean-American adolescent students in a local area where Joan
and Mike lived. Initially, a transnational college freshman, often called “Captain”
(who was born in the U.S. but raised in both Korea and the U.S.), created this
cyberspace site with the help of Mike and Joan in the hope that Korean adoles-
cent students in the local area would have a channel through which they could
share their life experiences and establish social networks among locally-connected
Korean students. Their “homeland” and their remembered and re-imagined im-
ages of it had partially served as “symbolic anchors of community” for the WTBC
members, and they attempted to “construct imaginatively their new lived world”
(Gupta & Ferguson, 1992, p. 11). (See Yi, 2007 and 2008a for detailed accounts of
the literacy practices in WTBC.)
According to Castles and Miller (2003, p. 30), “the notion of transnational
community puts the emphasis on human agency” [emphasis added]. In fact, the
research participants, Joan and Mike as founding members of WTBC, acted as
active agents in the community. WTBC was one of their favorite websites and an
important transnational space for themselves and their peers. Given that “local
contexts play a critical role in mediating the scope and depth of migrants’ transna-
tional practices” (Portes, Guarnizo, & Landolt, 1999, p. 231), WTBC represented a
significant and meaningful online context in which multilingual adolescents culti-
vated, supported, and nurtured their transcultural activities and identities.
I now explore ways in which Korean transnational adolescents created and
constructed their own community that served as a significant context for them
to engage in multiple literacy practices, develop transnational attachments and
orientations, and construct transnational membership and identities.
Mike, Joan, and the members of WTBC continuously reflected on their “dou-
ble lives” as they discussed issues and events that took place in both Korea and
the U.S. In particular, messages that they posted in WTBC reflect the fluidity and
diversity of the exchanges across countries and further show that these adolescents
seemed to engage in “both-and-and” (not either-or) construction of themselves
(Kearney, 1995, p. 558). In other words, they did not attempt to choose either a
Korean or American identity and life; instead, they decided to and were allowed to
construct both Korean and American identities and lives in this space.
Let me share some specific examples here. Among 428 postings in a section
called “1,000 People and 10,000 Stories,” many could not be fully understood by
students who had not experienced transnational and transcultural lives. That is,
some postings addressed issues and events that take place or exist only in one
country, and thus, for instance, students who do not have a Korean schooling ex-
perience would not understand a particular grading system in Korea (i.e., ‘Soo,
Woo, Mi, Yang, Ka’ instead of ‘A, B, C, D, E’ in the United States), and students
116 Youngjoo Yi

who do not have a U.S. schooling experience would not quite understand certain
nuances of American school culture that do not exist in Korea (e.g., Homecoming,
Sweetheart party, tryouts, and pep rallies).
Further, some postings dealt with certain issues or concepts that exist across
Korea and the U.S, and yet subtle differences also exist, so that WTBC members
had to be aware of those nuanced differences and needed to develop transnational
perspectives in order to appreciate them. For instance, the American SAT and
Korean College Entrance Examination, Soo-Neung, were hot topics for Mike, Joan,
and their peers. Since Soo-Neung takes place only once per year, unlike the SAT,
if students fail to get into a university, they have to wait for another year to take
the examination and apply for college. In a sense, Soo-Neung seems to be more
of a high-stakes exam, and these stakes were frequently discussed along with the
exam’s differences from the SAT and American academics in other regards. Joan
posted a humorous article (that was sarcastically written by a Korean high school
student) entitled a “Great Soo-Neung Project” regarding what to prepare on the
Soo-Neung day. This article can be appreciated or understood only by those who
have experienced both cultures.
Equally important, Joan added comments indicating that the posting was par-
ticularly for some transnational members (including herself) who might need to
take Soo-Neung in the near future in case they make another movement from the
U.S. to Korea. Her comment demonstrates that she (and other members) did not
think that the U.S. is necessarily their final destination (Jo, 2003; Suarez-Orozco
& Qin-Hillard, 2004). Given this, it is less surprising, and yet intriguing, that the
transnational adolescent members in this space continually tended to keep up with
events or issues, especially educational issues in both national contexts, that might
directly or indirectly influence them and thus tended to develop a transnational
and transcultural perspective in their daily lives. This is just one way in which their
circumstances differed from those of the other adolescents around them.
While Joan’s postings involved a clear sense of comparison and contrast be-
tween ‘here’ (e.g., SAT) and ‘there’ (Korean Soo-Neung), Mike’s postings tended
to focus more on what’s going on ‘there and now.’ For instance, Mike, who played
a role as a ‘reporter’ in this community, uploaded postings, video clips, songs, and
self-created survey-questionnaires related to Korea. He often informed members
of social and cultural events or holidays in Korea. His postings were often entitled,
“Today in Korea is….” [translated]. For example, November 11 (11/11) is known as
a “Ppe-ppe-ro Day” on which people share a Korean snack called ‘ppe-ppe-ro’ that
is shaped like chopsticks (thus resembling the number 11). Mike wrote a posting
pointing out that WTBC members may not be able to get ‘ppe-ppe-ro’ in the U.S.,
but could eat some similar American snacks as a substitute. In so doing, he drew
upon his (and their) transnational status.
Adolescent literacy and identity construction among 1.5 generation students 117

Another posting from Joan, entitled “Tae-guk-ki” (Korean national flag) was
quite striking to me because it not only reflects her strong sense of being a proud
Korean (e.g., ethnic identity), but also illustrates how she voluntarily shared a very
patriotic reflection with other teenagers who would be positioned to appreciate
such a sentiment due to their own transnational identity. According to her post-
ing, when Joan pledged allegiance to the flag of Korea in her Tang-Soo-Do class
and heard her American master pronounce commanding words in Korean, she
suddenly felt strong emotions toward Korea. As soon as she got home, she com-
posed a short reflection and posted it in WTBC. Most powerfully, the last sentence
of that posting was “언제 어디서 무엇을 하든, 나는 자랑스런 한국인입니다.”
(“Whenever, wherever, and whatever I do, I am proud Korean.”) (Joan’s posting
in October, 2003). Two members replied to this posting with similar sentiments
of Korean pride. Joan also explained in her posting that she had become more
Korean (e.g., fostering a stronger sense of ethnic identity) since she moved to the
U.S. I couldn’t help wondering if Joan would or could have shared that same post-
ing with her previous social group, which consisted of both non-Korean-speaking
Korean-Americans and Korean ESL students who pretended not to speak Korean.
She expressed her sense of Korean pride while living in the U.S. to those who
shared a similar lived experience within such a safe space. For her and the other
members of WTC, that’s what the website represented to them: a space where
they could embrace and explore their transnational and transcultural identities.
Because the daily circumstances of their lives made it difficult to experience this
communal experience of identity sharing and construction, the availability of this
kind of safe space was crucial to them.
Along with Mike’s “Today in Korea is” postings, Joan’s reflection on the Ko-
rean national flag show that Mike, Joan, and other members were likely to rep-
resent, construct, and negotiate their ‘ethnic identity’ and positive self-images
while sharing such a ‘KP’ sentiment through ‘literacy’ activities taking place in
the deliberately created safe space. I believe this is a critical aspect of constructing
transnational and transcultural perspectives of self, the world, and social relations.
Without a positive ethnic identity, it might be difficult to keep or forge transna-
tional identities. Hence, they needed these literacy practices that constructed a
bridge between their ethnic and transnational identities.
A cautionary note here is that I have mainly discussed the participants’ efforts
to sustain ethnic identity and strong ties to Korea, partly because I wanted to show
that they neither gave up their heritage culture and language nor tried to be as-
similated into the host culture. The emphasis on their ethnic identity construction
does not at all mean that Mike and Joan did not enjoy or benefit from cultures,
opportunities, and resources available in the United States. Both participants ex-
pressed throughout the study how much they had appreciated their educational
118 Youngjoo Yi

opportunities in the United States and being fluent in English. Their postings on
Homecoming, a Sweetheart party, tryouts, pep rallies, and so forth show that they
had positively negotiated their American side of life and self. In addition, perhaps,
they comfortably and/or frequently positioned themselves as “in between worlds,”
just as the Asian American college students at UC Berkeley managed their linguis-
tic and cultural identities in a study by Chiang and Schmida (1999, p. 85).
I now move to another transnational online activity, i.e., instant-messag-
ing, through which the participants communicated in a more synchronic, rapid

Communicating via instant messaging

Mike and Joan felt connected with people living in the U.S. and Korea (e.g., friends,
immediate family members, and other relatives) through the practice of instant
messaging (IM), which proved to be their most frequently engaged form of online
literacy. Woo (2004) likewise found, in a study of 207 Korean-American youth in the
Los Angeles area, that IM was their most common use of the computer. In this study,
Joan reported on her literacy activity checklists that she engaged in instant messag-
ing every day, with very few exceptions, during the data collection period, and both
Joan and Mike stated how intimately IM was attached to their daily lives. Mike and
Joan articulated the meaning and function of IM in their daily lives as follows:
[Online] Chatting becomes so popular. We got so used to it, so we just get online
and talk. And we talk about something about love or something. It feels better
like to just read it not like talking. Typing and reading what they say, it feels more
comfortable with me. (Interview with Mike, 11/8/2003)
[We chatted online with mom because] chatting doesn’t cost anything. Mom
[in Korea] knows that we are gonna be online anyway (Interview with Mike,
I don’t think I enjoy using the computer per se. It’s the issue of communication,
not the issue of whether I prefer online reading and writing to print-based read-
ing and writing. When nobody in my MSN buddy list is online, I simply leave the
computer on, but do something else [translated]. (Interview with Joan, 3/22/04)

Here, Joan stressed the importance of the “communication aspect of computers”

(e.g., instant-messaging, emails) along the same lines as a young boy mentioned in
a study by Smith and Wilhelm (2004, p. 457). For both Mike and Joan, IM was a
“fact of life, a way of being in the world” (Lewis & Fabos, 2005, p. 470), even to the
extent that, as Mike noted, “I can’t live without it”. In this way both Joan and Mike
could stay at home alone and yet be connected to others, i.e., stay locally, but act
globally and in the process continue to build their transnational and transcultural
lives and identities.
Adolescent literacy and identity construction among 1.5 generation students 119

To gain deeper understanding of the transnational and transcultural aspects

of IM, I asked Joan and Mike about the topics usually selected for an IM exchange.
Topics were quite difficult for me to identify on my own because I, as an adult and a
researcher, was only partially accepted into their private world of online chatting.9
However, Mike and Joan shared with me that they talked a lot about “life,” (인생
in Korean), especially with “locally connected peers” who shared a similar type of
life. (Though the Internet enables teenagers to interact with anybody in the world,
many studies, e.g., Lewis & Fabos, 2005; Smith & Wilhelm, 2002; Woo, 2004, have
found that IM serves as an extension of real life interactions. That is, teens engage
in IM primarily with those they already know so as to cultivate stronger relation-
ships.) Here, the popular topic ‘life’ appeared to serve as a platform through which
they could address and enact their multiple roles and responsibilities in different
dimensions of life (e.g., role as a student, a teenager, and a transnational child). For
instance, they expressed sorrow about their parents’ sacrifice in which they lived
apart to secure their children’s educational opportunities in the U.S. This kind of
topic (i.e., transnational living) might be comfortably shared only among transna-
tional adolescents who share a similar situation.
In addition to topics appearing in instant messaging language use and choice
for their screen names in IM seem to signify another important characteristic of
transnational literacy practices and identity construction. Typically, screen names
(often abbreviated as “s/n” among online chatters) are displayed nicknames of
the conversants, and they provide online chatters with another identity. Screen
names typically consist of relatively short phrases or sentences, often in combina-
tions that can form long strings of these phrases, and they demonstrate intriguing
hybrid uses of languages (e.g., code-switching) as well as a blending of content
(in this case related to both Korea and America). According to Ibrahim (1998),
code-switching can be defined as “a mirror of the self” (Ibrahim, 1998 as cited
in Giampapa, 2001, p. 284). In addition, the screen name (or nickname) shows
“the first sign of individuality” (Bays, 1998,
htm). Thus, the crafting of screen names (or nicknames) by combining letters,
symbols, or numbers, could be seen as one aspect of the ongoing negotiation of
one’s identity in computer-mediated communication (Bays, 1998). These partici-
pants seemed to hybridize and design their identities by crafting and re-crafting
their screen names so as to entertain a wide- ranging audience (English or Korean-
speaking online chatters in Korea and the U.S.), to inform other online chatters of
their daily events, and to (re)present their thoughts, feelings, and actions of the
moment in relation to their transnational lives. Figure 1 displays my own MSN
instant-messaging buddy list, and the ‘transnational adolescents (1/12)’ section
includes twelve transnational students, including Mike and Joan.
120 Youngjoo Yi

Figure 1.  My MSN Contact List and Screen names of Transnational adolescents

The screen names of the transnational adolescents in Figure 1 show that they
employed several languages and symbols to display their names — and thus their
identities — online. The participants in this study and other transnational adoles-
cents tend to include their nicknames (mostly in the first part within the brackets)
and some additional information that captures something notable about them.
For instance, Joan’s and Mike’s screen names took advantage of several different
types of letters or symbols: Korean, English, Chinese, and emoticons. These con-
stituted numerous descriptors for themselves. What follows are samples of Joan’s
and Mike’s screen names:
1. Joan’s screen name
+너구리의 기도+ Because miracles can happen..千年友情-
+Raccoon’s prayer+ Because miracles can happen..1000-year-old-friendship
2. Mike’s screen name
[BrownEyedDevil] 북천이 맑다커늘. Brown Eyed Girl이 나를 정말 사랑했
을까. My Everything인 나의 Candy.이렇게 아름다운 날들 Brown City에
서 술과 Blue Day을 즐긴다. 바보 같이 어디를 Go하며 시계를 보고, 전
화해 주길 빈다.
[BrownEyedDevil] Even though the sky is crystal clear, did the Brown Eyed
Girl truly love me? My everything is my Candy. I enjoy drinks and blue days
in Brown city for these beautiful days. Where do you go, you fool? Watching
the clock, I wish you to call me. [translated]
Adolescent literacy and identity construction among 1.5 generation students 121

Joan’s screen name seems to consist of her nickname (“Raccoon”), what she values
(“1000-year-old-friendship”), as well as her philosophical message to her peers
(and to herself), “Because miracles can happen.” While Joan’s screen name sounds
rather personal and appears designed to send meaningful messages to other on-
line chatters, Mike’s screen name was more entertaining, in that he created it by
combining “thirteen” Korean popular song titles, as underlined above, from his fa-
vorite Korean Rhythm and Blues group, The Brown Eyed Soul.10 He explained that
it was fun to create such a screen name. Interestingly, these thirteen songs are all
Korean songs, but include many English words in lyrics and song titles.11 As such,
the participants combined elements of both their Korean and American worlds
through the creation of their screen names. In other words, their code-switching
reflected “the individuals’ dual, hybridized, and somewhat unique identity con-
struction” (Jimenez, 2000, p. 987).
Another point to consider is that their contact buddy lists consisted of both
local and global peers, and they felt compelled to reach both sets of them (ranging
from English-speaking peers to Korean-English bilinguals). Thus, when creating
their screen names, they were likely to consider the linguistic and cultural affili-
ations within their audience. In this process of selection, they participated in the
construction of their transnational identity while trying to simultaneously enter-
tain their trans-contextual audience and communicate with them more effectively,
or what Giampapa (2001) would call “playing the game linguistically” (p. 305).
While creating their screen names in several languages, the participants ad-
dressed their personal and social issues related to their dual (Korean and the U.S.)
lives. In particular, some screen names reflect the mixture/hybrid of Korean and
American pop cultures. Mike’s screen names were full of examples embracing his
American school life and Korean pop culture.
Below is a list of some of his screen names:
[SoccerDevil] B.E.S.Win 4:0!! 8–3-1
[BrownEyedDevil] CP#214–6999!! 아싸 준우승이다~~~2 Goals~~
[BrownEyedDevil] FFX-2!내게는 거짓뿐인 너이지만 내안에 담긴 세상이
란 너라는걸~
[BrownEyedDevil] FFX-2!but she’s gone away…그어떤 말을해도 조금더널 보
[BrownEyedDevil] SAT끝이네..ㅋ
[BrownEyedDevil] Break까지 2주!
[BrownEyedDevil] SG Wanna Be 좋군! 서태지도 죽음이네 ㅡ.ㅡ
[BreakinDevil] No Hand Windmill~
[BreakinDevil] V-Ball Season Starts!…아주피곤해 ㅋ
[BreakinDevil] Representin’ DepressioN~
122 Youngjoo Yi

Mike’s basic format for screen names was that he first put his nickname (in Eng-
lish) in the brackets and then added short phrases featuring a mixing of English
and Korean. After this identification (e.g., [soccerDevil], [BrownEyedDevil], and
[BreakinDevil]), he added a brief report about his daily life and interests. Some are
related to his living in the U.S. (e.g., his school’s soccer team won 4–0; he finally
got his cell-phone; he showed his affection for a video-game called Final Fantasy X
(FFX-2); he felt relieved after taking the SAT; he was waiting for spring break; he
announced that his volleyball season had started). Others were related to then-
current Korean popular culture (e.g., he added Korean song lyrics and names of
Korean pop stars and hip-hop groups). In this way, Mike, like Joan and the other
transnational teenagers they communicated with and expressed his immediate,
often-changing feelings and emotions through such creative and entertaining acts
of writing. Thus, each screen name might “perform a version of self ” (Lewis &
Fabos, 2005, p. 493) in the process of transnational identity construction.
Examining this crafting and recrafting of screen names offers valuable insights
into what these transnational adolescent participants wanted to express or what
they wanted to let other online chatters know (the issue of contents of s/n) and how
(the issue of language use). By way of explaining this practice, given that someone
“can lean on and negotiate his/her identities through the interplay of linguistic codes,
thus positioning him/herself in a particular way” (Giampapa, 2001, p. 284), these
multilingual students were likely to need different languages in order to accurately
(re)present who they were and to express their transnational daily lives in a more
complete and comprehensive way. Relying on one language (and thus one culture)
would be too limited. They might have felt more attached to some words and notions
in one language and to others in another language, especially when they needed to
address issues related to either Korean or American culture and their lives within
each of them. Here it is important to remember that the participants in this study
continually interacted with other transnational teenagers, and they attempted to es-
tablish solidarity or affinity within their social networks by sharing some aspects of
their transnational lives (e.g., blending several languages and addressing issues oc-
curring in both home and host countries). Certainly, creating and recreating screen
names in this manner is a voluntary and conscious social act, which illuminates the
point that literacy is a social practice. Equally important, in doing so, they negoti-
ated their way through multiple languages, identities, and worlds.


This study shows the complexity of adolescent multilinguals’ negotiation of litera-

cies and identities. In particular, the participants’ transnational lived experiences
Adolescent literacy and identity construction among 1.5 generation students 123

had allowed (or required) them to engage unique options and opportunities for
multiple literacy practices and identity construction. The online literacy context
enabled them to stay locally, but act globally. In other words, both Mike and Joan
engaged in transnational literacy activities online (e.g., visiting various websites
across borders, creating and constructing a transcultural online community, and
communicating with people across the U.S. and Korea via IM). It was their trans-
national online literacy practice that enabled Joan and Mike to maintain ties to
their heritage language and culture, solidify their social networks with other trans-
national people, develop transnational consciousness, and make sense of them-
selves and their worlds. Thus, the study sheds light on the interconnected nature of
online literacy, identity, and transnationalism.
The findings of the study suggest that we should reconceptualize the teach-
ing and learning of students who share multilingual, transnational lived experi-
ences; additionally, they also suggest we should reconceptualize what it means to
be good, educated students and global citizens in the 21st century.
First and foremost, transnational adolescents are not simply ELLs nor immi-
grant students. A more comprehensive view looks at them as strategic and ana-
lytic users of multiple languages and literacies who are “re-makers” of the textual,
technological, linguistic, and cultural resources available to them (Lewis & Fabos,
2005, p. 496). For instance, the participants were becoming active, participatory
social agents who constructed their own transnational and transcultural commu-
nity, Welcome to Buckeye City, which Jimenez (2000) would view as one of the most
“culturally and linguistically productive spaces in contemporary society” (p. 996).
While managing such a safe, productive transnational space, the participants and
the other transnational adolescents in their social network had developed abilities
and orientations suited to the use of multiple, multimodal literacies. This shows
that the participants had been actually “developing very marketable skills, which
may in themselves become capital in a new techonologised social order” [empha-
sis added] (Merchant, 2001, p. 304). This is the “mark of the educated student” in
the 21st century (Yancey, 2004, p. 305).
Equally important, today’s immigrant students or children of immigrants who
have physical or virtual transnational experiences do not need to adopt a straight-
line assimilation paradigm, but can take an “alternative [transnational] adaptation
path” (Portes, Guarnizo, & Landolt, 1999, p. 221) while cultivating transnational
social networks across space and maintaining transnational ties. For them, “success
does not so much depend on abandoning their culture and language to embrace
those of another society as on preserving their original cultural endowment, while
adapting instrumentally to a second” (Portes et al., 1999, p. 229). In addition, their
transnational and transcultural identities (sense of self, social relations, and the
world) that they had negotiated across time and space are “most adaptive in this
124 Youngjoo Yi

era of globalism and multiculturalism” (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001,

p. 117). By acquiring tactical competencies that enable them to comfortably and
skillfully operate within more than one linguistic and cultural code, transnational
adolescents are at an advantage (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001).
This investigation has practical value in that the findings offer valuable in-
sights into literacy instruction and assignments. In the same spirit as Guzzetti and
Gamboa (2004) and Knobel and Lankshear (2002), I do not argue that classroom
teachers should link online literacy activities (e.g., creating online communities,
instant messaging) directly to classroom activities or writing assignments. Instead,
teachers and educators may be able to identify and construct learning experiences
that can facilitate students’ language development. Recently, literacy researchers
have demonstrated how we can draw from video gaming (Gee, 2003) or instant-
messaging (Jacobs, 2006; Lewis & Fabos, 2005) to better understand ways in which
digital youth enjoy certain learning experiences and develop new skills. Similarly,
we can look into out-of-school literacy activities (like the self-sponsored online
transnational literacy practices in this study) to better understand the kinds of
voluntary literacy activities young people initiate as well as the roles in which
they participate and identities that they construct through such literacy activities,
and then consider how to build effective and engaging classroom environment in
which students take ownership of ways of doing and learning in order to develop
multiple (complementary and competing) understanding of identities, and to en-
gage in cultural self-exploration and self-expression in meaningful ways. We can
provide opportunities for students to use multiple languages, literacies, cultures,
and technology and “develop a flexible and adaptive sense of identity” (Suarez-
Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001, p. 92).
Regarding possible future studies, just as George Marcus (1995) advocates for
“multi-sited ethnography,” we can examine transnational students across translo-
cal (not just multilocal) movements comprising multiple sites over a long period
of time. This kind of longitudinal study will advance the notion of transnational-
ism and increase our understanding of how transnationalism shapes the lives of
immigrant or 1.5 generation students. Similarly, we may also want to ask what it
means to establish or develop transnational consciousness or perspectives of the
world and how this affects immigrant students and their performance in school
and in society.


1.  The term transnationalism is often used as different meanings, but, in this paper, I draw upon
a comprehensive definition of “transnationalism.” According to Basch, Glick-Schiler, and Blanc-
Adolescent literacy and identity construction among 1.5 generation students 125

Szanton (1994), it is “the processes by which immigrants forge and sustain multi-stranded social
relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement” (p. 8). Basch et al. (1994)
emphasized the fact that “many immigrants today build social fields that cross geographic, cul-
tural, and political borders….An essential element… is the multiplicity of involvements that
transmigrants sustain in both home and host societies” (cited in Faist, 1999, p. 40). This concept
offers an analytic tool to understand transnational (multilingual) adolescent students who travel
between home and host countries in a regular and routinely manner and are likely to construct
and perform hybrid, transnational literacy practices and identities.

2.  Researchers have acknowledged the variations within a group of immigrants that consist
of both foreign born and U.S. born (Harklau, Losey, & Siegal, 1999; Roberge, 2002; Suárez-
Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001). More specifically, Vertovec (1999) points out variation within
immigrant groups in the “frequency, depth, and range of transnational ties.” (p. 456). As for
Korean-American immigrants, Lee (2006) notes that they are becoming increasingly diversified
in “class, education level, and occupational status” (p. 15). When these researchers addressed
‘immigrants,’ transnational children, the type of students that I report in this paper were in-
cluded though they did not use a term, transnational.

3.  The research participants in this study were born in the U.S., and thus, the U.S. is technically
their hometown, and yet, in this paper, I use a term, ‘home country’ to indicate the origin of
their parents’, i.e., Korea.

4.  All names except Joan are pseudonyms. Joan requested to use her real name.

5.  Similarly, Chiang and Schmida (1999) challenged the native versus non-native speaker dis-
tinction and asked for specially attention to “blurred cultural and linguistic boundaries of lin-
guistically diverse students” (p. 94).

6.  M and Y indicate Mike and a researcher, Youngjoo Yi in this dialogue.

7.  Mike and Sangjin (상진) are English and Korean pseudonyms. Mike often uses a different
name in different situations or to different people. When he put this signature in a short letter on
the back of his sweetheart picture, he signed “Mike 상진 Park” (his English name, Korean name
written in Korean, and his last name in English).

8.  It has been discussed that language shift/maintenance among the second-generation adoles-
cents is closely related to their ability to sustain transnational lives (Jones-Correa, 2002; Louie,

9.  Lewis and Fabos (2005) and Jacobs (2006) shared a similar experience while conducting re-
search on adolescent youth’s IM practices. Given the privacy of the participants in my study and
the difficulties to access their actual IM conversations, here I focus mainly on their screen names
in IM because they were created to be open to public.

10.  Park (2004) argues that Korean American youth can be creators of transnational popular
culture while exemplifying the success of many Korean American youths in the Korean music
industry (e.g., Rap and Hip Hop).

11.  Diasporic Englishes (e.g., the phenomenon of inserting many English words into Korean
popular songs in this case) is beyond the scope of this study. But, Jamie Shinhee Lee (2004, 2006)
has examined the use of English in Korean popular (K-Pop) culture, such as TV commercials
126 Youngjoo Yi

and pop music. The English-Korean mixing or switching ranges from a single English word in-
serted to entire songs in English. This appears to result from transnational or global transactions
of resources, skills, knowledge, and so forth.


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Author’s address
Youngjoo Yi
Dept. of Middle-Secondary Education & Instructional Technology
College of Education
Georgia State University
P.O. Box 3978
Atlanta, GA 30302-3978