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Intersections: A struggle to break free from the middle

One of my earliest memories takes place at the doors outside of kindergarten my first day of school. The cackles of school children fill the hall while I stand there frozen, growing more anxious as the minutes linger. My little hand slips out of my mom’s protective grip and as I’m pushed toward the classroom, the lump in my throat grows so big, it feels like it’s going to burst.

I’m not worried about meeting new friends or being away from home. At 5 years old, I’m worried because, even though I’ve spent almost my entire existence watching and understanding “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons,” I can’t speak English.

How will I understand my teacher? How will I be a functioning member of this classroom? How will this ever work?

I had come to America a few years before with my parents escaping persecution and strife in the form of a revolution. My story, sans the details, mirrors the stories of immigrants who came before me and continue to come after me. I was old enough to remember the transition, the fear of never having spoken the language of the country I was living in, the fear of not being able to participate — the feeling that I was neither a child of there nor here.

The fears are gone now, and I warmly embrace my multi-hyphenated identity, but I never could define my experience or that stuck-in-the-middle feeling that differed from that of my refugee parents and my U.S.-born sister.

Then last week, I heard a term that encapsulated it all — the 1.5 generation. The 1.5 generation, or 1.5G, are people who were brought to the U.S. as children or teenagers by their immigrating parents. The term is attributed to UC Irvine sociologist and Cuban American Rubén Rumbaut and used to describe those who are neither part of their parents’ generation or to those who were born in the U.S.

Southern California’s KPCC held a forum last week, detailing the 1.5G American immigrant experience. One of the highlights from the discussion came from UCLA Chicana/o Studies Professor Leisy Abrego. As noted on KPCC’s resourceful blog Multi-American, curated by reporter Leslie Berestein Rojas:

“It’s about this struggle , this process of adapting,” Abrego said. “It’s very difficult — learning a new language — and so children who are 1.5 experience more of that firsthand than children who are born here.”

The process of adaptation, of defining who you are and where you belong, of feeling American, but not quite completely, never goes away. The way you identify yourself tends to change, too, from what mood you’re in, to who you’re interacting with.

Recently, I was in a cafe and the husky Armenian women behind the counter began to stare at me, debating my ethnic background. My light skin and eyes confused them, and as I went up to pay, one of them couldn’t resist — “Are you Russian?”

No, I said, I wasn’t.

Normally, I would have continued the conversation in Armenian to clear up the confusion. But I didn’t. I asked her a question instead.

“Do I look Russian?”

She nodded.

Two decades after my kindergarten fears, on this particular day, I was feeling more Angeleno than Armenian, with our sprawling concrete jungle pumping through my veins — a disjointed diversity I feel proud to be a part of.

“I’m from Los Angeles,” I said, failing to mention our shared background or my pre-American nationality.

She wasn’t convinced. I don’t even know if I was, but it felt right to claim membership to the city that fostered my growth over the years.

As a member of the 1.5 generation, it felt right, at least for that moment, on that day.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic.