By: Movina Nagarajan
The United States today has a larger immigrant population than any other country in the world. Immigrants and their U.S. born children make up 28% of the overall U.S. population according to the 2018 Current Population Survey (CPS) and this number is only trending upwards for the next decade. For years now we have heard stories of first-generation immigrants, how they travelled to an unfamiliar country, the challenges they faced assimilating into the new culture, and the sacrifices they made, all in search of a different and better life for their families and children. Well guess what? Their children have grown into what we call the 1.5 and 2nd generation American immigrant population and they have a whole new outlook on life. They are here for a good time and what looks to be a long time as well.
According to studies most 1.5 or 2nd generation immigrants like myself tend to identify with both their cultures equally. We internalize the two and live in a world where they coexist, sometimes in harmony and other times in opposition. We have lived through the process of our families’ assimilation, often playing important roles of “bridge-builder” or “cultural interpreter”. I can remember multiple times me and my sister would coerce our hesitant parents into trying different cuisines we had never eaten before. It wasn’t long until pasta and tacos started to make a regular appearance in our home. I’m sure many of us have played the “family representative” when our parents wanted to speak to customer service on the phone or explained to our parents what exactly “dating” in America really meant. Taking on these various roles has made a significant impact on the way we think, speak and present ourselves to the world. This can be seen in the ways we identify, vote, and even marry. Juggling both cultures is something we do daily. Being 2nd generation immigrants gives us a special skillset most people aren’t privy to. It has in effect created our own subculture within our own communities.
However, achieving a balance within the cultures proposes a challenge in many ways. This can be felt and seen most immediately in our social and economic politics. Our unique experiences have created a breadth of viewpoints all of which are difficult to reconcile. But the real takeaway during these times is that if nothing else, we desperately need more representatives of this culture. It is not surprising that more and more 1.5 and 2nd generation immigrants are taking on positions in the government (e.g. Kamala Harris, Neal Katyal) or are seen more often in leadership positions in the corporate sector (e.g. Sundar Pichai, Angela Chao). Some of the brightest minds today are 2nd generation immigrants whether it be the brains behind an up and coming start up in Silicon Valley (Reshma Saujani of Gilrs Who Code) or a doctor furthering important research in the search for the cure of AIDS (Katherine Luzuriaga). But technology and medicine are not the only places we are excelling in. We are now turning our attention to the entertainment industry.
2nd generation immigrants are starting to step off the beaten track and onto untouched territory. Our parents spent their lives focused on building a new world full of possibility and opportunities. Now we are leveraging the security provided to us to beautify our lives through art. We possess a cognitive flexibility honed from our experiences that is rare in others. This flexibility along with the help of social media has now extended to our creativity. This ability to express ourselves across different cultures is a huge reason we are seeing a shift towards diversity in mainstream media today. Whether it is through Instagram, YouTube, Netflix, or other online platforms, the immigrant is making her presence felt in our homes. We are creating a multidimensional minority no longer solely seen as engineers, IT professionals, or doctors. We can be comedians, actors, singers, poets, beauty mavens, and filmmakers. We are now, as we speak, ushering in the age of the creative immigrant.
It comes as no surprise that social media has had a huge role in this emergence. The minority immigrant subculture is already catching speed on trendsetting social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube. Hundreds of Instagram accounts promote and spread this subculture through posts on fashion, memes, makeup tutorials, dance covers, and food recipes to name a few. Some of the biggest YouTube accounts are run by 2nd generation immigrants. Anybody heard of Lily Singh, Ryan Higa, Farah Dhukai, or Michelle Phan? Chances are high you have. Their subscribers and fans come to these accounts in search of relatable content that pulls from their shared cultural experience. Whether it’s through skits of immigrant parents or makeup looks for people with Asian features, these social media influencers are bringing in major traffic. They are creating a widespread online community and putting faces to a thriving subculture.
The most striking quality of this subculture is its reach and growth. 2nd generation immigrants are not shy about sharing their heritage. While our parents might have been hesitant to share their traditions outside their own communities, we take pride in both cultures and often reflect this duality through our daily lives. Long gone are the days when we think twice about wearing traditional clothes in public or change the song when it’s in a different language. Today many of us take photoshoots in traditional grab before a community event and blare international music in our cars. We share traditional beauty regimens with each other, gush over our favorite KPOP stars, and take pride in learning new Bollywood choreography. While our parents tend to socialize within their own communities, the 2nd generation minorities sit together at the same table. We socialize with each other, study together, work together, and celebrate together. It is more important how we think than how we look and as a result we are creating a culture that crosses boundaries and languages. We are starting a movement of inclusion and acceptance.
This movement is only just beginning but like all trends, once an online community grows, it is only a matter of time before it spills into mainstream media. People are hungry for representation and the market is listening. Our influence and buying power are fast increasing and lending to content made specifically for us. We are seeing more Asian representation in our favorite shows. Streaming platforms like Netflix have greenlit multiple Asian comedians and added many more movies and tv shows to their libraries in order to cater to our wide and varied interests. We have woven ourselves into the very fabric of American culture. And whether America wants to admit it or not, she is all for it. Whether its yoga, acupuncture, cuisines or diet fads, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the effect immigrants and their customs have on this country. How many people do you know who are yoga devotees or tout the benefits of herbal medicines? How often have you seen lychee inspired drinks on the menu? Which one of us hasn’t indulged in late night Chinese takeout? Whether it be traditional medicinal remedies or fusion cuisines it is safe to say immigrant culture is informing and uplifting the nation. Sure, we have a long way to go. There is much more work to be done. But the tide is shifting and the 2nd generation is in a unique position to usher in important changes. We can bring about the new world full of opportunities our parents came in search of when migrating to this country. We can create a bigger, more inclusive world.
Movina Nagarajan is an Indian-American singer, songwriter, and performer based in Atlanta, Georgia. She put out her first single and music video titled “Call Me Baddie” last month. The song is a female dance anthem and meshes musical influences from both her Indian and American roots. She works closely with her sister Meghna Nagarajan as they pioneer a path for Indian-American women in the music and film industries.