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April 22, 2024

Navigating Identities: The Life of First Generation Asian Americans

Asian Americans are one of the fastest growing groups in the United States, often carrying the title of “model minority”, and the pressure to assimilate quickly into American society. Being an immigrant assimilating to American culture and lifestyle is not easy. Not only do many immigrants experience grief when leaving their countries, but they may also experience a feeling of exclusion due to lack of community and racial disparities. To embrace their culture completely means exclusion in their new home, but complete assimilation can lead to feelings of dissociation and confusion. Here, we will explore protective factors when learning how to balance these two worlds as an Asian American.

Within Asian culture, collectivism is highly valued – meaning they value having community and dependability on others within the community. This belief system clashes with the individualistic American culture, which is highly focused on radical self-reliance and hyper-independence. This clash can be difficult for many Asian Americans to understand, accept, and adapt to. This is something personal to me (Pavan Basra) as an Asian American and coming from a family of immigrants. I continue to help my clients with self-actualization and understanding how they see themselves. Once they know how they perceive themselves, their energy and what they want to put into the world, they can do so in their personal and professional lives. To book with me, click here: Reach Out for Support | Contact Us | WOC Therapy

The life of first-generation Asian Americans is rooted in assimilating just enough to American culture to feel a sense of belonging with both Americans as well as other Asian Americans. Asian Americans (and many other ethnic groups in America) are at risk for the potential of being exposed to racial disparities and prejudice. Since America is an “ethnic melting pot” it puts many Asian Americans and other ethnic groups at risk for racial discrimination and prejudice. It can be difficult and frightening to embrace their identities and cultures when feeling at risk of prejudice and injustice. However, the beautiful part about America being an “ethnic melting pot” is that there are opportunities for first-generation Asian Americans to find like-minded communities. It is important for first-generation Asian Americans to still be connected to and empowered by their identities while learning to embrace a new identity in America and finding community can help them embrace their identities more. This is why finding community is a pertinent part of the identity navigation process when adapting to America. Additional protective factors are supportive partnerships and interaction with other marginalized groups.


Community ensures a safe space where Asian Americans can connect with others who relate to their experience. Several resources are listed below where Asian Americans can find mental support specifically for them. In these spaces, immigrants do not have to worry about masking and assimilating. Instead, they can openly talk about their cultures and values. Assimilation can afford Asian Americans peace of mind and opportunities, but it can also backfire and be incredibly draining. Since early American history, the Asian population has received incredibly harsh treatment or ignorance, depending on world events. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act or the Japanese work camps are some of the greatest atrocities committed. This whiplash ensures that assimilation is never enough to protect the wellbeing of Asian Americans. Most recently, vitriol for AAPI escalated during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Community protects against isolation that many Asian Americans feel when faced with the realities of assimilation. Though only continued advocacy can improve conditions, consistent community ensures multiple people who can validate the experience of an AAPI immigrant.

These communities can also be very helpful for different generations. Parents have a vastly different experience compared to children who immigrate young or who are children of immigrants. They may have different resulting values and complications. For example, older immigrants may struggle more with language assimilation and getting respect in corporate environments. Despite being respected in their home countries, attending education in the United States, and doing their best to assimilate, they may face microaggressions around job retention, accents, and more. They might feel frustrated with their children who appear to take on American identities easily, forgoing cultural norms. Children, on the other hand, may feel frustrated with growing up in one country, but having the intrinsic values of another. They feel conflicted on how to merge conflicting messages from both cultures. They have different versions of family, career, and ethnicity. By engaging in communities for both generations, Asian Americans find sure ways of support, understanding, and validation.

Supportive Partnerships

In addition to positive community, Asian Americans benefit from supportive partners. Over 25% of Asian Americans are engaged in interracial relationships. This does not even include inter-ethnic relationships, where an Asian American from one country is engaged in a relationship with another Asian American from a different country, of course still posing several different cultural differences and histories. However, when a relationship is intercultural and interracial, it can be isolating for both involved if they do not consistently focus on supporting each other and understanding where the other comes from. Vulnerability may feel uncomfortable, as most cultures function on understood gender roles and histories, not on express communication about values. Yet, when partners expressly communicate their perspectives, it creates a powerful aid in fighting the wear of assimilation on the nervous system. Despite the different cultures, the Asian American partner knows they can come home and be completely themselves. Their home is their safe space as well as Asian American communities that they engage in.

Other BIPOC Support

The final pillar of support for Asian Americans is embracing connection with other groups in the BIPOC diaspora. It can seem like the differences outweigh the commonalities, but the differences create strength. There is a history of division and separation between various BIPOC groups, but there is also a history of supporting each other and making each other stronger. Speaking with others can help with validation that the American system is not benefitting most. Asian Americans can talk with others about how assimilation positively and negatively affects them. They can share strategies for decompressing and advocacy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the collaboration of AAPI and Black Lives Matter vastly promoted both movements by raising awareness, numbers, and broad support. The success of one group is predicated on the success of all BIPOC groups. In America, our success is tied up in one another.

In conclusion, Asian Americans struggle with the balance of assimilation and maintaining cultural values. However, there are strategies for maintaining positive mental health. Interacting with the broader Asian American community, communicating positively with partners, and collaborating with other communities can all support as coping strategies.

Below is a list of resources for first-generation Asian Americans:

Asian American Health Initiative: https://aahiinfo.org

National Alliance on Mental Illness: https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Identity-and-Cultural-Dimensions/Asian-American-and-Pacific-Islander

National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association: https://www.naapimha.org/aanhpi-service-providers

Asian Mental Health Collective: https://www.asianmhc.org

Sunshine Behavioral Health: https://sunshinebehavioralhealth.com/resources/mental-health-issues-facing-the-asian-american-community/

Yellow Chair Collective: https://yellowchaircollective.com

Meetups: https://www.meetup.com/find/us–ca–los-angeles/asian/