First or Second Generation?

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first-gen•er•a•tion
adj. 
Designating the first of a generation to become a citizen in a new country
Designating the first of a generation to be born in a country of parents who had immigrated
– a first-generation Canadian whose parents were born on a farm in Vietnam
Designating the first version of a type made available
– first-generation descrambler technology

sec•ond-gen•er•a•tion
adj.
1. Of or relating to a person or persons whose parents are immigrants.
2. Of or relating to a person or persons whose parents are citizens by birth and whose grandparents are immigrants.
3. Of, relating to, or being the second form or version available to users: a second-generation Web browser.
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I had to look up a definition of myself.

First-generation. That’s what I’ve always called myself. But recently I questioned if I was misusing the term. I remember telling a new acquaintance that I was Polish American.

“Oh so your great-grandparents came over?” she said.
“No, my parents.” I responded.
“So your grandparents came on the boat.” She replied.
“No, my parents did. Well, mom via freight boat. Dad came on Pan Am two years later.” I said.
“So you’re Second Generation.” She concluded.

I became puzzled. Was I first-generation or second-generation? My parents arrived in the United States as adults in the mid1960s. My two older brothers and I were born in the United States and grew up bi-lingual and bi-cultural. Was I naively calling myself one thing, when I was actually another? I had to look it up. This was the first time I had to look something up about myself that I didn’t intrinsically know. Who was I telling people I was? And why was it becoming more important for me?

I guess up until that moment, I hadn’t noted the importance of defining it. I’ve always considered myself first-generation because my brothers and I were the first-generation born in the United States. That makes perfect sense to me. After some research I discovered that technically, my parents, my brothers and I can all refer to ourselves as first-generation. We all share the same definition. At the same time my siblings and I can also jump tracks and be called second-generation too. But who wants to be second in anything? I hereby, proclaim myself as first-generation.

It’s important for me to know so that I am conscious of how closely woven my parents’ past is to my present life. As a child, trying to understand the duality of cultures was like trying to look down at my own nose. The more I understand what defined my parents, the more I understand myself. During a writing workshop two years ago, a teacher assigned us the task of writing our life memoir in only six words.

I wrote: Could have been born in Poland.

Every once in a while that fact floors me.

8 comments on “First or Second Generation?

  1. ilona says:

    You are first generation, clearly. I’m neither first nor second but somewhere in between…foreign-born father, American born mother. I’d love to coin a term for this hybrid!

  2. Mark Conway says:

    I think the term first-generation refers to those in a fmaily that are the first to be born in a specific country? Both sets of my grandparents came over and my parents were the first to be born in the States, so I’ve been going around telling people I am 2nd generation Irish-American for years. 3rd generation wouldn’t be as interesting, so that is my story and I am sticking to it.

  3. Adam says:

    I always wondered about this too – thanks for clearing it up!

  4. Young B. Kim says:

    I can related to this confusion. I’m what they call a 1.5 generation. Born in Korea, raised here.

    • Jannett Matusiak says:

      Thanks for sharing your generations stories. It does get confusing what with the first, second, 1.5’s…etc. Something to ponder.

  5. Ann says:

    Good challenge, a memoir in 6 words. I came up with:
    Once a farm girl always roaming.
    It pretty well says it. Currently in Alaska for 2 months :-) and glad to be back in gypsy mode.
    Ann

  6. Laura Fonda Hochnadel says:

    I’ve looked those terms up as well–first generation and second generation. My parents came to America from Italy in the mid to late 1950s. What am I? I used to call myself first generation, and then switched to second generation after I read the definitions, but now I’ll switch back to first. We are the first generation born in the US. And, like you said, who wants to be second?

    • Jannett Matusiak says:

      Exactly Laura. Seems to me like you are definitely first generation. As you can see, this first-generation thing is a large pre-occupation of mine. We should talk over thawing bread sometime. Swap stories.

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