First Generation Angst

I am very priviledged to have some dear Korean friends who from time to time allow me into their world.  Recently over lunch, we had a surprising discussion that gave me a small glimpse into the concerns that face them as they navigate life here in the U.S.

The first topic was the college ministry at the church, and their concern about the college students (mostly 2nd gen or 1.5 gen) lack of commitment to the church.  There was anger that the students seemed to lack any appreciation for all the effort put into serving them, and confusion over why.  At first they wanted to include me in the conversation, expressing themselves in English, but the level of frustration was such that only speaking in their mother tongue would suffice.  And so I told them, “Don’t worry… say it in Korean.”  And that is when I knew for sure how angry, how hurt they were.  Emotions translate, even when language doesn’t. 

My friend looked at me, his eyes asking a question I couldn’t answer.  I work with 2nd gen’s; I am a minister; I’m an American – could I help them understand.  I couldn’t although I tried. I could only say what I knew – that the students weren’t Korean only, they were also American and that they thought differently and acted differently.  And when I said those words, “they are not just Korean – they are American,” I saw the pain of hurt and the conversation went to an entirely new level. 

We talked about the 2nd gen students in one of their classes and my friend said, with angst in her eyes, ” When I see them and hear them talk, I think about my daughter.”  I looked down at the table. “My daughter doesn’t understand why I want her to speak Korean at home.”  My friend said so little but her words said so much.

My friends are Korean, and Christian and they make time, lots of time, for church – seeing it as a genuine expression of their devotion to God and not merely a ritual.  They pray for their friends to know God and they study scripture with a desire to obey.  They do not understand students who would fail to devote themselves in the same way.  It seems to them a betrayal and rejection; of the church, of God, and of their Korean-ness.

My friends came to the U.S. to make a better life; to study hard so that their children would succeed.  They knew that moving here would mean different things for their children, but it does not change the pain they feel when their children look at them with shame or view speaking their parents language as a burden and not a gift.  They sacrifice so much to give their children the kind of life that allows them to reject their parents – it is not what they signed up for.

I think we who live and serve among the second generation must be careful.  I feel privileged to hear the hurt and pain of the 1st generation that to their children must often comes out as unreasonable demands & anger.  But simply because it goes unexpressed doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter and doesn’t mean that it is unimportant.  It is easy for us (I include myself as a child and beneficiary of the civil rights struggle) to critique our parents and the choices they make about church and life while failing to realize that we have the privilege of critique because of their sacrifices.  It is easy to overlook their pain and disregard their hurt and even to cast them aside as having nothing to teach us.  In so doing we run afoul of the scriptural command to honor our parents.

To honor our parents goes beyond simple obedience.  To honor means to esteem and appreciate.  We cannot appreciate when we will not take the time to hear.

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2 thoughts on “First Generation Angst

  1. It’s a complex dynamic this takes, and fascinating that you perceive it. For one, many Asians treat their children as perennial children and demand honor and obedience, which unsurprisingly, has the power to elicit neither from their children. Given the right to speak and dialogue is a privilege, not a right, in Asian cultures. So it makes some sense that they would give you access to conversation that they would not not to their own children. Ultimately, the problem is communication and the different struggles that each generation faces. One generation is trying to secure the life, the other is trying to find their place in a brave new world. The dimension that runs consistent is the cultural passive-aggressiveness that leaves both sides in an often painful tension.
    Here is why this is only now becoming a possibility for conversation: the rite of passage in Asian culture is marriage itself, therefore, as the 2nd generation comes of age in terms of marriage and beginning the family, we are now able to engage our parents and even accept the mantle of responsibility and being invited to the table for conversation. It will require patient 2nd generation who can articulate and navigate this conversation in a way that is helpful for recent immigrants and their children. The realy question is still whether they will listen. The reality is not that we are willing to cast off our parents, as much as our parents have not invited us enough into their pain, but are willing to reward us with their prosperity — all without any more access to the dialogue that we so crave.

  2. Access to the dialogue to which you refer is difficult because of competing cultural values. Asian and mos t world cultures have an ascribed-authority value system that says you earn the right to speak and be heard because or your title, position, or age. This is why the scribes & pharisees had such issue with Jesus, because they wanted to know by whose authority he said the things he did. This is in marked contrast to the US / western earned authority system which gives almost anyone the right to speak and be taken seriously. It is no surprise then that marriage becomes a type of marker in AA culture earning 2nd gen’s the right to speak & be heard, even if only in a limited way.

    As for the 1st gen, it is hard for any parent to let their children in on their pain because it is counter to the parental urge to protect their children from pain. I think they will listen, but only to those (perhaps like myself) from whom their is no perception of threat or disrespect.

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