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 \o7 meant \f7 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 \o7 will \f7 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.