Children of Immigrants Often Torn Between Two Cultures : Assimilation: As parents continue to bring their families' hopes and expectations to the United States, a complex tension can develop for young new Americans.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michael Balaoing somehow misplaced the memory, the one that long rested beneath the clutter of alphabets, pledges of allegiance, patriotic songs, theorems, significant dates and locales committed by heart for exams. The memory that has been dimmed by the day-to-day debris of important study--inside the classroom and out.

Surprising himself, the 25-year-old law student unearths this long-lost version of his old "new" self: Only a handful of years out of Manila, a starched-and-pressed sixth-grader is smiling, his dark eyes scanning an expectant crowd.

"My dad," Balaoing says, "always tried to improve himself as a public speaker. He encouraged me to do the same thing. So I did this speech: 'I am an American.'

"Back then, I didn't see the irony in it. Looking back, I can imagine how people viewed me--this cute little Filipino kid, 4-foot-9, saying, 'I'm an American'. . . . I'm sure back then that's what people liked to see with new immigrant kids--accent-free, speaking English in complete sentences."

Balaoing says he never really thought that he was a good speaker or that the speech was that moving. "But, I guess, combined with my parents and my background, it really made an impression on the people who were judging me--who were mostly white Americans," he says. "I just kept winning contests."

For years to follow, Balaoing wrestled with the frustratingly abstract notions of identity and place. His family first settled in Echo Park, then moved to Glassell Park--both ethnically rich pockets of Los Angeles. It wasn't until Balaoing went to a Loyola High, a private school, that the concepts of race and class collided, he says: "I just sensed that I was different at that point.

"I didn't know what being Asian Pacific-American meant until I went to college. It was like ethnic consciousness didn't dawn on me until later."

So, Balaoing distinguished himself academically. But as he got older, high marks weren't an adequate base upon which to build identity.

"There was definitely this growing sense that 'I'm different.' I can't just pass. But there was just no support. You could mainstream or you could become marginalized," says Balaoing, rooting around for words as if making the decision again. "I became marginalized."

While his push to mainstream, to "Americanize"--and his persistent, if low-grade inner turmoil with it--is certainly not unique, it is complex. As immigrant parents continue to bring their families' hopes and expectations to the United States, a multichambered tension can develop.

Grappling with their own frustrations over the acculturation process, many children of immigrants find themselves enmeshed in another tangle: battling parents over the familiar land mines of rites of passage while simultaneously risking a break with cultural tradition.

Pushed by society and encouraged by parents to master the new tongue and become self-sufficient, confident, independent thinkers, these children sometimes are double bound--violating venerable traditions of their native cultures while driving to succeed in a new culture.

To this day, Balaoing says, he cannot convey to his parents the weight of his worry, the intricate nuances of his path: "We haven't really developed that kind of relationship. . . . There's not that 'Brady Bunch'/'Family Ties'/'Cosby' show kind of rapport where you kind of open up and tell your parents about all of your problems.

"A lot of time you have to internalize a lot of it, because the expectation is that you should succeed, you will succeed. Even though I feel that my parents don't put that pressure on me now, most of my lifetime was spent responding to that pressure."

According to one study, the acculturation of post-1965 immigrants hadn't been formally examined until recently, the details lost or merged into the romantic tales of Ellis Island-era crossings.

But a study recently published by Johns Hopkins University professor Alejandro Portes and Ruben Rumbaut of the University of Michigan presents a cross section of findings about the adaptation patterns of some new immigrants.

Portes and Rumbaut polled 5,000 subjects--U.S.-born children with at least one foreign-born parent and foreign-born children with at least five years' residence here--in Miami/Ft. Lauderdale and San Diego. The authors contend that the growth of pockets of nonassimilated people have produced two concerns: a rise in "de-Americanization" (as some children of immigrants grow up more attuned to the language and culture of their parents) and the "segmented assimilation" phenomenon (why some gain a firm middle-class foothold while others do not).

The focus group varied widely--Cubans, Nicaraguans, Haitians, West Indians and South Americans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Laotians and other Asians. Portes and Rumbaut found that new immigrants haven't discarded their cultural trappings in order to assimilate quite as easily as others before them.

Reading beneath the percentages and charts, part of the pressure many new immigrants encounter occurs when they attempt to create a balance--blending old and new while attempting to retain a sense of personal identity. Some children of immigrants seem less inclined to give up that strong undergirding of the past and are more apt to think about consequences, according to the study.

With the added, oftentimes self-imposed pressure of not wanting to let their parents down, they sometimes neglect their own dreams for those of their parents.

Not fully American, yet suddenly separated from what is familiar, these second-generation immigrants sometimes believe that the complexities of their new experience are inexplicable--even to those who love them.

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Martha Arevalo, 22, admits that El Salvador ghosts her. Even though her family came here more than a decade ago, Arevalo still finds herself attempting to square her life here with the hazy far-flung "there" of her childhood. Even her work, as communications coordinator for the Central American Refugee Center, is a way to keep a foot in both worlds.

"For me, the transition was even more difficult than the war," she recalls. "I'd grown up with a different set of values and principles at home, and it was a very different story at school or on the streets. It was very hard, especially not knowing the language. Kids are cruel. They call you names. They don't want to hang around with you."

Arevalo remembers a passage that was rocky, at best. Her father took a strenuous factory job at age 50 and their new status as immigrants, she says, put the family in a dubious and unfamiliar societal position: "Here we were just another number, another minority, another 'problem.' "

She now realizes that her obsession to fit in isn't easy to shake: "I still don't feel I fit in perfectly. The most difficult thing for me was keeping my rituals and my culture in a country that tells you that you shouldn't do that--that you should assimilate into this new culture." She fought to keep them, she says, because "that's where I saw my worth as a person."

After years of walking the margins in El Monte, befriended but feeling not quite accepted, Loyola Marymount University offered her a huge, new canvas upon which to reinvent herself.

"In El Monte, most of my friends were Latinos or Mexicanos--people who also migrated here, who also had a very strong sense of culture. In college, it was different. Some of the Latinos didn't really have that cultural strength. They were Latinos who grew up in the Valley, in different circumstances, in a different economic structure," Arevalo says. "They were the ones who were joining fraternities and sororities, and they were very different from who I was."

She majored in political science and explored widening boundaries. By picking a school far enough away to allow some growing room, but close enough that she could get some weekend nurturing, she thought she had devised the perfect plan.

The new arrangement, however, sent ripples through the family and drove in the first wedge. Her sisters "told my mom not to let me go, that it was a mistake because I was going to 'separate myself from the family,' that I was going to have 'new freedoms' that I shouldn't have."

Those predictions, Arevalo now concedes, proved true, and for a while she felt like a stranger among them: "I had this new freedom and this new life and independence. I had to find my place. For the first time I had a boyfriend. . . . By the second year, I really separated myself from my family. . . . (I) had formed this new family at school. I thought my family was wrong. I didn't think they understood me, this new me."

The distancing didn't last long, Arevalo says. She doesn't recall a dramatic epiphany nor a teary confrontation, rather just a slow, comforting realization. Instead of resenting or crumbling under family pressure and her culture's long shadow, she began to revel in it; the influences became fuel, not impediments.

"I realized toward my senior year . . . that friends came and went and my family is always there," Arevalo says.

Even though juggling her U.S. and Salvadoran cultures was traumatic, "I was always able to use that frustration, anger and pain positively, because I had my family to guide me.

"If I (hadn't had) so much love . . . I think that I probably would have been killed by now. That's what happens with a lot of our young kids. They have very traumatic experiences . . . and use all of that pain negatively because they don't have that support from the family."

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Language unlocks a vast and kinetic world. But what those new to the soil grow to understand is that it's not enough to simply translate basic, quick-gloss terms. The trick is to comprehend a language's vastness and contradictions.

"I just felt that I wasn't part of this scene," says Marcia Choo, 29, program director at the Asian Pacific American Dispute Resolution Center. "I was too little to be seen," says Choo, who at age 5 left Korea and met her father for the first time. "I found my strength when I found my voice."

Integrating a new language can be overwhelming, many attest, and can gnaw at even the sturdiest of family foundations.

Bill Seguritan, originally from the Manila suburb of Rizal, remembers that while family members focused feverishly on learning the new language and customs, and doing well in school, they worked in concert to keep the culture alive in several ways. The most vital, he says, was speaking the native language, Ilakano, at home: "That was important for my parents, even to the point that (they) were offended if we spoke a language (other than) the national language of the Philippines."

That only started the misunderstandings. The not-so-gentle merging of cultures at times erupted into generational tiffs only exacerbated by cultural chasms. "After we had been here for about five years, (my parents) began to see that we were internalizing American values, speaking English all the time. They began to see that as an offense to the culture. So there were fights within the family," says Seguritan, 35. "Our out was: 'We're in America now.' "

There were other problems as well.

"You had your teen-age pressures and you also had your assimilation pressures," he says. "In high school and, for the most part, in college, I felt close to my parents when I was around them--and apart from them when I was not because the world that I lived in is very different."

Although the children were encouraged to speak their minds and hold their ground, Seguritan found that such assertions could be painful, especially with career choices.

Setting the "white middle class" as the model, Seguritan's parents had high aspirations for their five children. His father had given up a career in law, familiar terrain, friends and family in a pricey gamble he hoped would yield something grand. "My parents encouraged us to pursue anything that we wanted to," Seguritan says, "basically anything in the medical profession or the legal profession."

After graduating from UCLA with a degree in biochemistry and anthropology, he dutifully prepared medical school applications. "I decided against it at the last minute because I realized that I really wanted to pursue something that I really want," says Seguritan, who now works as a computer systems coordinator in a Downtown law firm.

Not going to medical school was probably the most rebellious move he ever made. "I felt that I had let my father down. . . . But I just felt I was making a career move to please them, and I knew that that pressure was going to be too much to bear."

As time has passed, his family's definition of success has expanded. Seguritan has noticed that the expectations have eased. "The most important thing is just to feel part of the culture, and you realize at that point . . . you are an American. Because American does not mean 'white middle class.' Getting to that point was really the last barrier."

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At first flush, parents are the prism, the trusted interpreters of the terrain. They confront a complex set of signs and codes, determine goals, then chart the road to attain them. It took years for Enrique Castillo to work through what his parents accepted as indisputable fact and what they believed it would take to live well in America.

Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Castillo's father dreamed of coming to Los Angeles to become an actor. "That," says his son, a writer, accomplished actor and member of the Latino Theater Lab, "is my genetic memory pushing me on."

Castillo's dad found more accessible work instead as a field hand, and he insisted that his two sons join him so they would learn to appreciate the value of education. "He was a very disciplined individual," recalls Castillo, 43, of his late father. "He always wanted the best."

Castillo grew to understand that the "best," however, was somehow connected to having skin a shade lighter than his own, he says: "I remember sometimes my father saying 'marry an Anglo' to my sisters--or 'somebody with money'--he associated money with being Anglo."

Frequently, Castillo encouraged his father to challenge his bosses, to lobby more vigorously for a better position for which he was more than qualified.

"He felt that Anglos were biologically more intelligent than minorities," Castillo says. "He wasn't the type of person who really researched his culture. . . . He was too busy working to bother with those kinds of things. He was very proud of being Mexican, but in an Anglo-dominated culture, he felt somewhat inadequate."

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With more confident footing, the children of immigrants build on the dream.

"American people don't have a monopoly on the American Dream," says Alix Baptiste, sitting ramrod straight behind his desk in the executive offices of Radisson's Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. In a slate-gray suit with canary-yellow bow tie, the 39-year-old general manager speaks with a confident countenance: "People have the tendency to think that if you come here, you 'discover' the American Dream. People all over the world have (it)."

After emigrating from Haiti with his mother 22 years ago, Baptiste and his family are now preparing the next generation. "The first generation has a tendency to stay within the culture. . . . The focus is not to become an American per se, but to provide a better life for the children," he says. "The parents are not looking for the glory for themselves, they are looking for glory through their children. The sense is, back in the motherland, that once the children go to school, they bring the culture home."

Baptiste believes that since the stakes were so high, the pressure was commensurate. Rules crossed unusual lines, he says, and sometimes abruptly rerouted paths: "(You're) here for a reason you don't understand . . . as a young adult, but (the parents) made a sacrifice to ensure that you could better your life. As a result, they become very protective of your environment--that includes your friends. . . . Anything that gets in the way of those goals is a hindrance."

The Baptistes' well-tended tree now yields plentiful fruit: a doctor, an MBA, a linguist and a nurse. "All of us were told in so many words that you are not on your own until you finish college," he says. "So education was the focus."

Now with children of his own, Baptiste notes a shift in roles. The grandparents now connect the next generation to their roots: "A lot of it is lost with the parents who are too busy or who have forgotten. But luckily, there is this living link."

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Although it would seem the odds are stacked against it--considering the pressure to acculturate in order to succeed--some families have weathered the passage with few blemishes.

Beverly Lew, 30, who left Hong Kong when she was 3, says she didn't experience the intense pressures many contemporaries have. She calls it "just a transition."

But the Century City legal secretary is careful not to sugarcoat it: "There were times that I was taunted at school because I was one of the few Asians there. But you can just brush it off. I think every kid goes through that, whether (you're) a different race or a little bit chubby, or your hair is a little bit bizarre."

Lew grew up in South-Central Los Angeles, in the house her parents still live in today. "The neighborhood has changed and they've changed right along with it," she says.

Lew's mother treks to the market for masa to make tamales, and her dad, who worked in the restaurant business for several decades, "speaks Spanish because his customers wanted to know what he was making." Years ago, he learned English the same way, in turn passing on Cantonese phrases to those eager to learn them.

"It was that sink-or-swim theory," says Lew of her acculturation process. "Either you go in there to learn it or you don't."

Her family's culture wasn't passed down formally, Lew recalls: "It wasn't like I was sent to Chinese school. It was just something we did. I spoke Cantonese and another dialect not too many young people speak now called Toishan. Or I'd go with my dad to Chinatown on his one day off from his restaurant."

Lew's parents let her develop the drift of her own path. "I think my parents are pretty out of the ordinary that way," she says. "There was never any pressure to stay within the culture."

What has kept her focused the most, she acknowledges, are Chinese maxims her parents preserved and shared, at once basic and universal: Respect toward elders, hard work, education.

"But it doesn't matter what you do in your life," Lew says she has been taught, "as long as you do it honestly and do it fully."

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