Phenomenological Psychology

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Case Study – Psycho-Social Issues Faced by Two “Second Generation” Children of “First Generation” Immigrants to the United States

August 5th, 2009 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

“Deborah” and “Azine” both are in their early 30s.  Deborah is a 2nd generation Latina, her parents having migrated to the U.S. in their middle age.  She is the youngest child and has three older brothers, one of whom is deceased.  She has been married and divorced twice.  Azine is a 2nd generation Iranian.  Her parents, who now are divorced, emigrated to the U.S. after the Shah was deposed and Khomeini came to power in 1979.  She is an only child.  She never has married.  What is interesting about both of them (and what I would like to focus on in answering this question) is the way both of them embody and juxtapose concepts of emigration; homelessness; and assimilation.

Both are in what Erikson would describe as the “young adult” stage of life.  The key antinomy of this stage is intimacy versus isolation, synthesizing into love.  Questions characteristic of this stage are: “who do I want to be with or date?”; “what am I going to do with my life?”; “will I settle down?”.  While it is possible Deborah and Azine are concerned with these issues it seems more likely (especially considering their marital status) they are concerned about maintaining a separate ethnic identity versus assimilating into the prevailing socio-cultural milieu.

Instead of Erikson’s concept of “love,” Maslow’s concept of “esteem” seems better to capture this stage of their lives.  “Esteem” not only is self respect but also a demand that others respect you.  A key ingredient to self-respect is a feeling of competence, perhaps even expertise.  Absent that one feels “dis-ease”: a feeling one has not fulfilled one’s goals and expectations; that life is passing one by; that there are things one should be doing one hasn’t done (and the reciprocal of this, that one has wasted one’s time doing frivolous things); and a general, non-specific feeling of existential malaise.

This dilemma is enhanced for the second-generation children of first-generation immigrants.  One of the key aspects of their experience is tension with their first-generation parents.  The parents retain all of the conventions and protocols of their former culture and way of life.  They inculcate the second-generation with these conceptions.  The second generation, though, is propelled in a different direction to become socially acculturated.  This pull can originate with peer groups, with which they seek to develop and maintain good relations; from education, which emphasizes racial and cultural integration; and from the media, which blandly homogenizes culture to a single lowest-common-denominator.

Conflict manifests itself in many ways including wardrobe, academic pressure, school activities and religious affiliation.  The adversarial nature of the relationship between first and second generation immigrants is qualitatively different than that experienced by normal adolescents or young adults with their parents because it also contains this cultural element.

I have a theory about how people like Deborah and Azine are able to develop and express their own personal identity (physical, cognitive, social and emotional status).  In a profound way it is not necessary for them to devise elaborate personal narratives in order to interpret their being (who they are, why they do what they do instead of something else, who they want to be when they grow up).  They need not ask extensive questions or undergo elaborate introspection.  Rather they are the articulation or embodiment of whom they purport to be.  It only is necessary for them to become aware of the constituent elements comprising their core attitude, outlook and orientation; the ascriptive predicates that properly can be attributed to them.  They are of their time and place.

In contrast a writer for example might have to struggle for years to describe the immigrant experience.  The writer confronts the paucity of her/his own direct knowledge, must extrapolate to imagine the qualia associated with the situation and even then arrives at only a vague simulacrum of what actually is involved.  For the outsider the world of the immigrant is opaque.  Deborah and Azine on the other hand thrive in a world of transparency.  All they have to do is to think of how a proposition applies to them, and then the proposition is true, because they are an expression of and inculcate the qualities they attempt to express.  In this respect they have a root or anchor to their personal identity and actually may be better grounded than a conflicted native.

I believe this distinction between opacity and transparency is key to evaluating their modality for being-in-the-world.  Whereas personal identity remains opaque for most of us, theirs is completely transparent to their lived experience.  They enact it, not contemplate it.  As a result their experiences are congruent, not disruptive; they are familiar, not foreign or disorienting.