Between Two Worlds: The Filipino 1.5 Generation Immigrant Experience

December 12, 2016


Photo by: Ram Reyes

Being the new kid in school is never a good feeling.

The uncomfortableness of this strange and new environment takes a while to get used to — new school, new teachers and new classmates. But for the 1.5 generation immigrants, it’s not just moving to a new school, it is moving to a new country. New country means new culture, new people, new way of life.

Jemimah Barba, along with her mother and sister, immigrated from the Philippines to the United States and settled in Fresno, California on Oct. 15, 2006. She was only 12 years old.

“I came here in seventh grade. I basically came into school and people were already settled,” Barba remembered. “Back in the Philippines, I was already in high school, so the mentality in itself was different. Everyone was, I would say, very immature.”

On Dec. 21 of the same year, Sherai Innah Bisquera, aged 9, immigrated with her parents and younger sister from the Philippines to the state of New York, where she stayed for five years before moving to Fresno.

Bisquera remembers being surprised by how her classmates interacted with her teachers. “We treat our teachers here as friends,” Bisquera said. “That was a culture shock for me. It’s just so different. How they ask questions. That was a huge thing.”

Barba and Bisquera, now 22 and 21 respectively, both experienced, at an early age, how starkly different they were perceived by their peers. Their Philippines upbringing gives them a unique perspective melding their Philippine and American values which are often in conflict. Their identity is right between the two venn diagram of their Filipino heritage and American lives. They are 1.5 immigrants.

The 1.5 Generation

The term 1.5 generation is a rather new concept in sociology. In 1999, UCLA anthropologist Kyeyoung Park used the term in the Amerasia Journal in reference to young Korean Americans. Park described how many of the child immigrants were often called “1.5ers, or what is called ‘ilchom ose’ within the Korean-American community.”

One of the key defining characteristics of a 1.5 immigrant is the duality of their identity between their home country and America. They have characteristics and traits of both first and second generation immigrants.

For example, most 1.5 immigrants speak English fluently and serve as bridges for their first generation parents but they may not have the same sense of belonging as a second generation person, who would’ve been born here in America.

The in-between nature of being a 1.5 immigrant is that the more time they spend here in America, the more they change the values they acquired from their home country while still feeling like outsiders in America.

“Second generation born here see their own identity as more Americanized,” Asian-American Studies Prof. John Cho explains. “They sense their identity more as that. Whereas, 1.5 are more wavering between the two. Then it becomes a dilemma. I think it’s much more of an individual dilemma.”

In Barba and Bisquera’s case, although they have similar origins, they described themselves differently when they were asked if they were more American or Filipino.

“I’m an American,” Barba proclaimed. “I’m American in a way that I don’t have restrictions of a Filipino in me. But I’m also Filipino in a way that I’m conscious of who I am, my difference.”

“I’d say Filipino,” Bisquera said. “But I do have American values. For me, identity is who I am and first and foremost, I am a Filipino.”

They had in common the acknowledgement of their difference in America, a difference that they had to struggle to overcome when they first arrived here.

A Modern Filipino Tale

Barba reflected on the journey that her family went through before she and her family immigrated to America. Her mother had already been working in Saudi Arabia as a nurse and her father was already in Arizona. Her whole family was separated from each other before they were reunited when they immigrated to America

“That’s the modern Filipino tale,” Barba reflected.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, Filipinos are now the fourth largest immigration group, right behind Mexico, China and India. Of the 1.8 million Filipino immigrants, 45 percent live in California, and of the 617,000 children residing with one Filipino immigrant parent, 36 percent were born in the Philippines.

The reasons for immigrating to the adult mind (???) would make sense. They want better opportunities for their children than the Philippines can offer. But for a young mind, it could be hard to comprehend why they were leaving the only place they knew to call home, where all their friends and family were.

“There was a period when I first moved here when I didn’t talk to anyone at all, even my parents,” Bisquera said. “I was mad at them. It was like ‘why did we move here? We don’t know anybody?’ I don’t have any friends. That’s why I didn’t understand why I moved here.”

Barba on the other hand, knew of the reason at the time why they had to. She recalls an article she recently read calling the Philippines “a land where they train people to leave.” And she agreed.

Barba’s mother and both Bisquera’s parents immigrated as nurses and still are to this day. A common occupation that Filipino immigrants have and the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011 cites that Filipino men were most likely to report working in the healthcare sector and 18 percent of Filipino-born women 16 to 64 reported working as a registered nurse.

The opportunity that the U.S. offered in attaining a higher quality of life was obvious. But at the cost of leaving everything behind in their home country, even they won’t leave their Filipino identity behind.

Coming of Age in America

The most striking and authentic characteristic of a 1.5 immigrant is the feeling of being an outsider, especially during their formative years and going into their pre-teen, teenage years where being different can be isolating.

“I became more conscious of the differences at that early age,” Barba remembering her 7th and 8th grade years, her first two years of school in America. “You’re already growing physically different. Culturally, being visible was even more of a struggle. Because I was already different. My color was different.”

Barba remembered the times where she would get embarrassed of her mom speaking Tagalog to her in public and trying to blend in more in school.

“I didn’t like having that attention. I wanted to blend in,” Barba said. She laughed as she remembered asking her mom to buy her Uggs shoes.

“I wanted to be like everybody else. I bought Uggs and I don’t even like Uggs!” Barba said with laughter.

Bisquera was rather more passive in her interaction with her new environment as her transition was eased through a Catholic private school that had other immigrant students. But she did still feel very different from the rest of her new country.

“I remember during middle school in our history class there was this banner that said ‘We are all Americans.’ and my friend and I said ‘noooo, we’re not all Americans!” Bisquera recalled.

Dueling Cultures

Throughout the years they lived in America, both Barba and Bisquera have learned to forge their own unique cultural identity as both Filipino and American.

“I tried so hard to blend in that I started to forget who I was,” Barba said. “But the thing is, I don’t want to do that. I want to be different; I want to acknowledge my difference.”

Both Barba and Bisquera acknowledge their broadened worldview and sensitivities because of their upbringing in the Philippines.

“The biggest advantage is our empathy,” Barba said. “Empathy in our way, our ability to relate to first world country problems.”

Bisquera observed, “Some people just take things for granted here; the fact that I have a car and I could drive anywhere, I don’t take that for granted.”

They do not however just take what America offers at face value; they are more attuned to criticize what American society have.

“But at the same time,” Bisquera said, “I see things that I don’t like about this country.”

Bisquera said that the racial injustices that the Black Lives Matter movement has suffered causes her to sometimes question why she’s in the U.S. in the first place.

“There’s times that make me wonder why America?” Bisquera said. “It’s a great country, but there’s still certain things wrong with it.”

Barba noted how hard it is being a person of color and a woman in the U.S.

She said she is fearful that her race or anybody else’s race could be used against them in important areas like employment and careers.

“You’re already brown and you’re also a woman in this man’s world,” Barba said. “You have to say things twice or more, so it’s really annoying.”

Their much more liberal views makes it harder to relate to their Filipino relatives who are largely much more conservative.

When she went to the Philippines during her junior of high school, Bisquera noted how much she had changed culturally compared to her friends back home.

“I was much more outspoken. I was hanging out with some of my friends and they were talking about how much more outspoken I was compared to before,” Bisquera said.

Barba expressed the same sentiment and attributes it to why she feels detached from her family back in the Philippines.

“I feel like I’m too liberal,” Barba said and explained how sometimes her conservative grandmother would leave comments on her Facebook feed.

Even though with a time where we can be connected to anyone from anywhere around the world, both have trouble trying to communicate to their relatives back in the Philippines, feeling as though they feel too different.

“I dunno. It’s hard to keep in touch,” Bisquere said. “They have their own lives. We have Facebook but you don’t know what to say.”

In Between

Barba and Bisquera are both just two of the many 1.5 immigrants in this country. They have the great ability of adapting and blending in within this country. It’s how they survived socially, to feel a sense of belonging

But still they still feel in between these two cultures. For both Barba and Bisquera and many other 1.5 immigrants, they have an internal conflict. They however choose how “Filipino” or “American” they want to be. It’s an active exercise, to seek out their identity and forge it.

“We don’t have a sense of belonging,” Bisquera reflected. “I think we’re always going to be right in this middle, no matter what.”

Barba mustered trying to describe how she felt about being a 1.5 immigrant before she knew of the label. Being an aspiring writer and poet, she wanted to write more about her experiences being in the Philippines and America.

“I’m in the sky, in between America and the Philippines. Not belonging anywhere,” Barba said. “You go out where the people are, and people are still different.”

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