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First Generation vs. Second Generation

When speaking of American people with respect to immigration, I had always assumed that “First Generation” meant the people who were born elsewhere and immigrated to this country. “Second Generation” in this sense means those who were born in the US from these “First Generation” parents.

But recently I started hearing people use them the other way around. They call those who were born in the US, “First Generation”, because they are the first generation to be born in this country. Which is correct?

  • December 18, 2005
  • Posted by Dyske
  • Filed in Usage

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What does “first generation” imply? First generation of what? Isn’t it “first generation American”? If so, someone who immigrated and was naturalized to be an American citizen is the first to be the American in the family, in which case he/she is the “first generation.”

Also, if the first-born is first generation, in speaking of “generations” in an American family, what do you call the ones who immigrated here? Zero generation? After all, they are part of the “generations” in the family, aren’t they? Or, are you suggesting that they are not part of “generations” in the family tree at all?

Dyske December 19, 2005, 5:16am

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OK, just to establish the fact that it IS ambiguous, here is the definition of "first-generation" from Merriam-Webster Unabridged:

1 : born in the U.S. -- used of an American of immigrant parentage
2 : FOREIGN-BORN -- used of a naturalized American

So, it appears that both usages are correct. Here are some usage examples I found on the web:

"First-generation Americans always have lived between two worlds, one foot in the old place and the other in the United States."

"As first-generation Americans, many Filipino parents encourage their children to assimilate into American society."

"My family is loaded with first-generation Americans, and not one of them, ever, has said they are Italian first, American second."

"Asian Americans: Oral Histories of First Generation Americans from China, the Philippines, Japan, India, the Pacific Islands, Vietnam, and Cambodia."

"The Oklahoma Historical Society is seeking information on ‘first generation’ Americans and about the experiences of immigrants residing in Oklahoma. First generation refers to the first family members born in the U. S. A."

"Based on Chickerings model, differences in self-esteem and identity development among first-generation American (FGA) college students and non first-generation American (NFGA) students were examined."

"On the one hand, we, as first generation Americans, are trying to adopt a new culture, a new way of life, a new way of expression, and to fit in to the environment around us."

"Coming to China has made me realize how difficult it is for the first-generation to establish an identity."

"Most of the children of the foreign-born first generation Americans are born in the U.S."

"Immigrants to the United States are usually called first-generation Americans, regardless of their citizenship status, and their children second-generation Americans."

Dyske December 19, 2005, 12:37pm

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This is a somewhat ridiculous issue as the above commnets 1-20 illustrate. My parents worked hard to immigrate here through Ellis Island, and even harder to attain US citizenship. They were the first generation in our family tree to become Americans. They were proud of it and rightly called themselves Americans of Italian descent.
My siblings and I became Americans as a result of our parents' efforts and were fortunate to be born here, but we were definitely the second generation in our lineage to become Americans. Calling ourselves first would be disrespectful to the sacrifices, achievement and vision of our parents.

Dick April 14, 2006, 12:23pm

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I always think that the first generation are those who were born in the US. The descendant of the immigrants.

mariskova December 18, 2005, 8:01pm

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Hi Porsche,

"Far more often, the parents aren't naturalized". This is simply not true. You cannot live in this country unless you are a naturalized citizen. I would say 99% of the immigrants who had children here were naturalized Americans. Otherwise, they would have to leave this country. You could possibly stay here forever on a Green Card, but once you have children, it would not make sense to do so. So the very first people in your family to be American citizens are the ones who immigrated to this country. They are the first Americans in the family. Why shouldn't they be the "first generation"?

Dyske December 19, 2005, 12:06pm

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The term is NOT ambiguous. First-generation refers to the people who leave the country in which they were born and move to a different country with intent on making a new life in the new country. If you are a non-immigrant in the US (tourist, student, etc.) they you are not any kind of generation. But if you are an immigrant (a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence) then you are first-generation regardless of whether you are undocumented, a legal permanent resident, or a naturalized citizen. Using the term "first generation" to describe the US-born children of immigrants is incorrect.

Suzanne February 22, 2006, 9:48am

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That is correct. First Generation American means the first generation born here. No ambiguity at all, for a change.

Janeg December 19, 2005, 3:49am

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1. Citizenship is a non-issue here. Those who come here are the first generation to live here. Their children are the second generation to live here.

Karin December 30, 2005, 6:28pm

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dyske, I think you missed the point a bit. The parents aren't zero generation Americans. They're not natural born Americans at all. "generations" doesn't refer to everyone in the family tree. It refers to the number of family generations born in America. I see you added the word "naturalized". Far more often, the parents aren't naturalized, in which case they're not Americans at all.

porsche December 19, 2005, 11:31am

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The percentage of green card holders is a moot point, but that number does not surprise me. I would expect that. The majority of Green Card holders have no intension of becoming citizens because they prefer to be the citizens of their origins. They just want to work here. So, they would never be called “first generation” because they will never have “second generation” (their kids) in this country (and they are not American).

I would still argue that the vast majority of immigrants who have kids in this country are naturalized. I would say your relatives are rare cases. For immigrants (especially non-English-speaking) to have children in this country is a serious commitment. They have to be very serious about being part of this country. So, it would only make sense that they become naturalized citizens.

I can understand why British citizens would not bother becoming American citizens, since the whole family could potentially go back and forth. This would not be the case, if you were Chinese for instance. It would be very difficult for Chinese-American kids who were born in the US to go to China and live. The cultural difference is too great. So, the parents must take that into consideration when they have kids here. They have to assume that their kids would never go live in China, which means that you yourself would be committed to living here.

Also, there is a big difference between coming from a rich country like England and poorer countries China. Many Chinese people here, for instance, become citizens as soon as they can, so they can sponsor their relatives for Green Cards.

Dyske December 20, 2005, 1:25pm

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99% you say? According to the US department of homeland security office of immigration statistics, the number of non-naturalized permanent residents (green card) in the US is almost twice as many as naturalized citizens. If you discount the large metropolitan areas, the number is more like 3 to 1. You can poke around at:

So I must stand behind my previous comment.

By the way, my mother-in-law has been living in the US on a green card since the 60's, raised a family, and has no intention of renouncing her UK citizenship or becoming an American citizen. She still pays income taxes, doesn't get to vote, but does avoid jury duty.

My grandparents on both sides emigrated to the US. None became citizens.

"First generation american" was not listed in my dictionary, but after having checked some more, I would also agree that there is ambiguity about the expression.

porsche December 20, 2005, 12:45pm

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It's a bit like the conundrum as to whether the "first floor" of a building is the ground floor or the first one above the ground floor. There are different cultures that reckon them differently. By the conventions of genetics, the "first generation" (F1) would be the first generation BORN within the realm of consideration -- new country, new hybrid, new breeding stable, what have you. This stems from the literal meaning of the verb "generate" which means "to produce". By this definition, immigrant parents would not be "first generation" because they were not "produced" within the realm of consideration (in this case, the U.S.).
There really isn't any compelling reason, though, for imposing biological conventions on social issues. The term remains inherently ambiguous.

Bismarck June 29, 2006, 5:57pm

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For Japanese Americans there are specific terms, taken from Japanese, to refer to the immigrants and their descendents: issei, nisei, sansei, yonsei, gosei, etc., referring respectively to the "first" generation, "second" generation, etc. In this case, and to all Japanese Americans, generally, the "first generation", or issei (equivalent terms) unambiguously refers to those who came to live here but were not born here.

I recognize that the term may not be unambiguous when used by people that have no knowledge of the issei, etc., terminology or when referring to other ethnic groups, but within any writings that I've seen about Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans that is targeted to those communities, "first generation" has always referred to the immigrants, not their children. I suspect the terminology is consistently used this way within the field of ethnic studies as a whole. Nevertheless, outside of that field, some ambiguity does appear to exist, but it seems to me to favor "first generation"="immigrant generation", and I suspect at some point in the future it will have swung sufficiently in that direction that it won't really be considered ambiguous anymore.

On a side note, with regard to Japanese Americans, there are two other terms of interest: kibei-nisei, which refers to children of the immigrant generation that were born in the U.S., but raised in Japan (and therefore speak Japanese as native speakers); and hapa, a term from Hawaii that refers to people that are half-Japanese American. According to, all of these terms, except for "hapa", are in American Heritage.

Anonymous January 2, 2006, 11:51am

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I found the following definition from Wikipedia:

The term 1.5 generation or 1.5G refers to people who immigrate to a new country before their early teens. They earn the label the 1.5 generation because they bring with them characteristics from their home country but continue their socialization in the new country. Their identity is thus a combination of new and old culture and tradition.

Depending on the age of immigration, the community into which they settle, and other factors, 1.5 generation individuals will identify with their countries of origin to varying degrees. However their identification will be watered down by their experiences growing up in the new country. 1.5G individuals are often bilingual and better assimilated into the local culture and society than people who immigrated as adults.

....this implies that the 1st generation is the immigrant generation.

CQ April 17, 2006, 9:14pm

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Suzanne, I'm afraid that the term IS ambiguous. From Webster's New World Dictionary, 2nd Ed. (just what I happen to have on hand at this moment):

First-Generation (adj.)
1 - designating a naturalized, foreign-born citizen of a country
2 - designating a native-born citizen of a country whose parents had immigrated into that country

If you had actually read the postings below you would have seen that Dykse has already posted this from a definitive source. I would think that would have ended the discussion.

So... how are you coming to the conclusion that the use of definition 2 is incorrect? Have you published your own internationally accepted dictionary that has superceded all others?

porsche March 2, 2006, 8:46am

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Ok, say my grandfather was born in italy. His son, my father, was born there, too, but moves to the US and becomes a citizen. I am born in the US. Now, my grandmother dies and my grandfather marries a much younger woman who was born in the US, but they still live in Italy. Now, let's say my grandfather dies, my step-grandmother and I fall in love, and we get married and live in the US. What generation does that make me? And more importantly, am I now my own grandfather?

OK, still too easy? Say, I go up in a spaceship travelling faster than the speed of light. I come back to Earth, but I've gone back in time. I stop my father from coming to the US...

Anonymous April 10, 2007, 6:33am

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As dyske pointed out, the term "first generation" is simply ambiguous; it's used both ways (to refer to immigrants and to refer to children of immigrants). I think the best way to avoid confusion is to refer to people as being "immigrants to America" (or "of the immigrant generation") or being "first generation American-born" (note that adding "American-born" disambiguates the phrase; it makes it clearly refer to the American-born *children* of immigrants).

Avrom January 5, 2006, 2:36pm

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Am I considered first generation if only one of my parents is an immigrant? My mother came from Germany while my father was born in the US.

John August 15, 2006, 7:20pm

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off course the immigrants are first amercans!

snazecic May 18, 2006, 1:42pm

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"First generation" Americans are those who are the first generation of their family born in this country. "Second generation" are the children of the first generation.

For example, my great grandfather came to America from Greece. Therefore, my grandfather (who was born here) is a first generation American.

Molly January 31, 2006, 11:11am

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My parents were born elsewhere, I was born in the U.S., I consistently refer to myself as a first-generation American because I am the first generation to be born in America, even though both of my parents have had U.S. citizenship for decades. My parents don't consider this disrespectful on my part. If anything, they kind of like it, because it reinforces their original cultural persuasion. Mostly I don't think they care a whole lot. Point is, you can think of this issue from a cultural rather than institutional perspective. I.e., I would be the first generation in my family to have "an American head."

A O April 16, 2006, 9:13am

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I never doubted that "first generation" = "immigrant generation".

anonymous March 1, 2006, 12:42pm

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Hey guys, the first generation immigrants are the people who were born abroad, and the second generation immigrants are their children who were born here. US Census definition.

Merdan May 25, 2006, 10:25am

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Well, it does seem confusing for "Nth generation" to refer to two separate generations for each value of N. After all, the whole *point* of the phrase is to *distinguish* between different generations. That's why I recommended avoiding the phrase by itself in favor of something more explicit.

Avrom January 24, 2006, 7:15pm

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The ambiguity comes from what word follows (or is implied to follow) the phrase "first generation." Clearest is "first generation U.S. citizen" which obviously means the first generation to include a U.S. citizen. So if my father immigrated from Japan to the U.S. but did not become an American citizen, and I was born in the U.S. (U.S. born children of immigrants are U.S. citizens), then I am the first generation U.S. citizen. However, if my father became a U.S. citizen (took the test, oath, met requirements, etc.), then he is the first generation U.S. citizen and I am the second generation U.S. citizen.

I have always understood the phrase "first generation" to imply "first generation U.S. citizen." However, I believe the Japanese immigrants (and probably many others) mean "first generation to relocate to the U.S." So, by that utilization, in the above example, my father would be the "first generation to relocate to the U.S." (or Issei) even if he didn't become a U.S. citizen.

I note that the phrase "first generation" is also used in other contexts. E.g. "first generation University of California" refers the first generation with a person who graduated from the University of California.

Elizabeth December 3, 2006, 9:19pm

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No one has discussed who is first generation if both parent and child immigrate at the same time.

Could they both be first generation?

Would the child still be second generation?

Or are the child's children the first generation?

(this is if the parent and child are both citizens)

Anonymous April 9, 2007, 3:24pm

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I am vietnamese and came here with my parents when I was four years old. I've always considered myself to be of the immigrant generation and that my children would be first generation. I recently had this talk with 2 co-workers, one chinese and another korean. They both immigrated here like I did but consider themselves first generation and their childern second generation. I did a lookup on the web and was surprise to find out that both definitions seem to be correct. Anyways, from the above comments, this subject matter will always be AMBIGUOUS if used in this way. Kinda like the example above about Floor 1, etc. From now on, if somebody tells me that they are first generation, instead of correcting them, i would just find out if they immigrated here or not :-)

Jake August 7, 2006, 1:23pm

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My parents are both from England. My father became a citizen as quickly as possible. My mother did after her mother died in the old country.

My wife's parents are from China. Both parents became citizens as quickly as possible.

We are both first genegraiton Canadians! - at least that is what we call ourselves.

runningdog December 20, 2005, 10:59pm

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"First-generation" alone means NEITHER people born in other countried and moved to the US NOR people born in the US of immigrant parents

"first-generation" means FIRST-GENERATION, it's an adjective that takes on no specific meaning on its own. period.

The term can be used in various context such as "first-generation American" "first-generation immigrant" "first-generation college goer" or even "first-generation of youth greatly impacted by the creation of the internet"

First-Generation AMERICAN means: People who were born in US, but their parents are immigrants.

First-Generation IMMIGRANT means: People who are living in a country other than the country they were born in.

Second-Generation IMMIGRANT: People who were born in the country they live in, but their parents are immigrants.

The kids of those second generation immigrants would therefore be called "third generation IMMIGRANT", and so on

No ambiguity at all

agreedw/above January 15, 2008, 6:30am

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If you read all the above comments, and you read the dictionary, it appears to be correct and OK to refer to BOTH sets as first generation. Why does everyone have a problem calling both first-generation?

Daniel January 24, 2006, 12:08pm

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I forgot to add, all of the dictionary definitions I have seen refer to "first generation" as "first generation U.S. citizen.

Elizabeth December 3, 2006, 9:28pm

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I know the term is ambiguous now. I can rest.

Everyone, it's only a matter of preference. There is no use arguing. Before you reply to this read the dictionary definition above!

My friend was born in another country and immigrated to the U.S. when he was only a year old. If he were to have children, I could say that his children were first or second generation. I would just choose whichever sounds cooler.

What I'm trying to say is that it doesn't matter. We could be technical about it, but if we keep providing our evidence on why we think it should be this way, we'll never finish this discussion.

English is a pain....

tina December 30, 2006, 5:06pm

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i would like to clarify something from anonymous's post on january 2, about "hapa" referring to half japanese american. "hapa" means "half" in hawaiian, and in hawaii this word is often used in the context of "hapa haole" meaning "half foreigner/stranger" or "half white." historically, white people in hawaii were considered foreigners, while asians have been more integrated into hawaii's society. today in hawaii, hapa usually refers to someone half asian and half white, but i have heard the term used throughout much of the united states as a label celebrating all sorts of bi/multi-racial and bi/multi-ethnic makeups.

laurelmei January 30, 2006, 11:20am

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The definition also varies upon psychology, "first generation " implies the generation that immigrated to the U.S. and "second generation" refers to being born in the U.S. to parents who immigrated/emigrated from elsewhere. I've also heard the term 1.5 generation as CQ described above. The term is ambiguous, I'm sure you'd find that even if you asked those holding doctoral degrees.

Butterfly July 6, 2006, 6:45pm

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In the sociological literature on immigration, "first generation" are the immigrants themseves, who can become naturalized citizens. "Second generation" are the sons and daughters of immigrants. They have at least one immigrant parent.

Frank May 25, 2008, 4:20am

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My question is how is a generation figured out. If the father is an american, 4th generation, and the mother is from the Phillipines, they have a baby girl born in the USA, does the generation count come from the mother or the father. In other words, would the girl child be a 5th generation because of her father, or a first generation because of her mother. Thank you.

nomo February 17, 2008, 5:59pm

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Molly, check out dyske's posting below. According to the dictionary, both your grandfather and great-grandfather could be considered 1st generation. The expression is ambiguous.
Now, let's have some fun. Was the expression always ambiguous? If not, what was the original definition?:)

porsche January 31, 2006, 6:53pm

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Warren, we call people like you British (or British American if you prefer). The people who whipped the British and formed the United States were mostly British themselves. Oh, and while we're at it, if you were Native American, then we really should call you Asian American, since your ancestors would have come to the US from there, ten or twenty thousand years ago. As a matter of fact, all of us should really be called African Americans, since that's where we all started. As for what generation, I'm sure you can figure that out yourself.

porsche May 20, 2010, 7:38am

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"The word generation comes from the Greek word genea which means birth.

Therefore, the first generation is the one that is born in the country."

Etymological fallacy

John July 17, 2007, 2:36am

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so i'm pretty sure that first-generation americans /first-generation citizens are people whose parents were born in another country and they are the first person in their family to be born as a citizen of the country (i.e. of the United States). then first-generation immigrants would be the parents in this case, who are the first people to move to the new country (they live in the country now, but they were born elsewhere). for example, my parents are first-generation immigrants who were born in Kurdistan, and immigrated to the United States (and became naturalized citizens). i was born in the United States and thus i am a first-generation American.

she October 7, 2006, 3:46pm

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Regarding this thread I've always considered first generation to refer to the first generation residing as citizens in this country. There is no other logiocal definition. Now as to what to call ourselves based upon our origins, the only correct reference would be 'Star Children' since we all evolved from the dust of the Universe. Once we all realize that fact our perspectives of each other should be enhanced and we will all be better off sharing this world of ours.

felixgiordano July 12, 2010, 7:20am

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Porsche--I doubt you will see this because this entire thread is nearly a year old, but I had to laugh out loud at your staement that the question being debated here was "answered categorically and incontrovertibly nearly 8 months ago"--inqrguably, if it is still being debated however long after the thread began, then it was NOT "answered categorically and incontrovertibly nearly 8 months ago"! Perhaps in your mind, but clearly not supported by consensus!

amazed August 9, 2007, 10:18am

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Wow. I searched the internet for a definition of nth generation because a survey question asked me what generation I was. As I have read, the definition can apply to both foreign-born and native-born. This doesn't help me at all......

les May 1, 2006, 12:42pm

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Okay im going to say that i believe that my parents, (from china) are first generation because they are the first to settle in a foreign country. and I am the second generation. Though I was the first to be born here, I am the second to live here.
Thats what I think it means, and that's what I'm sticking with.
Dictionary says both usage of the definitions are correct, much majority of using "First generation" in sentences and examples, they use the same definition i use.

David Tang March 25, 2008, 6:59pm

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to "agreedw/above", I think you kinda missed the boat on this one. The original question starts with: "When speaking of American people with respect to immigration...", so yes, we are all discussing "first-generation" specifically regarding immigration. We are NOT discussing first-generation college-goers, or first-generation prototypes, or first-generation automobiles, or anything else first-generation. That's the topic, ok?

Next, clearly there are differing opinions on this, just read the comments above. I would think it's pretty clear that the term is ambiguous in the immigration context; even according to the dictionary, so I have to disagree with all of your definitions.

Last, your definitions of first/second/third-generation immigrant are, well, bizarre at best. Nobody says that. There's no such thing as a second or third-generation immigrant. If you're second or third-generation, then you're a natural-born citizen, not any kind of immigrant at all, duh.

Anonymous January 16, 2008, 5:03am

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The word generation comes from the Greek word genea which means birth.

Therefore, the first generation is the one that is born in the country.

My gransparents were born in Greece, my parents are first generation Americans. I am a second generation American.

If I move to Italy and have a chile there it will be first generation Italian. I will still be second generation American and an immigrant in italy.

Nick November 12, 2006, 8:41am

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Guys, Porches clarified the whole problem about one and a half years ago...
Anyway, let's say my father and my half sister -from my mom's side- both born in France, have a little girl over there and then move to the US. 15 years later my half brother -from my dad's side, of a previous marriage which wasn't with my mom- falls in love with my half sister kills our dad and have a baby with her. They then move to Puerto Rico to conceive their second baby to then move to Dominican Republic where my Half sister -who's a bit of a slut- gives birth to their hermaphrodite child. In the mean time my mom has gone out of jail and goes meet her daughter and grand children to fall in love with my half brother. They kill my half sister under the influence of mushroom and conceive a baby in a plan while flying over the us and crash in Canada. The fetus manages to stick into a humidified piece of fabric from my mom's seat and somehow end up in a river and gets eaten by a water snake
that will somehow give birth to my little brother/nephew in the French speaking part of Guyana... now is this baby First generation French? third generation African -never know-? Second generation American? Puerto Rican -no need of generation with Puerto Rican anyway they all more or less live here-? Third generation Dominican? A fucking bastard? 1st/ second generation Snakelander?

Sujes June 17, 2007, 7:57pm

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To be the first or not to be the first generation? Unconsciously we are arguing over inclusion and exclusion. Those who don't consider their immigrants parents as first generation are simply excluding and not honoring their parent's life/existance in America, by the same token, those who considerer their foreign-born parents as first generation, recognize that if it wasn't for them they wouldn't be here in the first place.
There is no generation without parents.

john November 9, 2007, 7:37am

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The Greek word 'genea' means birth. But the applicable Webster's definition of the English word 'generation' is "a body of living beings constituting a single step in the line of descent from an ancestor". So, the word meerly distinguishs my grandparents, my parents and myself as unique links in the chain of geanology.

The question is, what action is "first" qualifying (to be born, to imigrate, to acquire citizenship). I think that it is the first generation "to permantly reside" in the US. When we talk about generations, birth and citizenship are secondary. We are more interested in the level of assimilation into the local culture, language, and community. The immigrant generation deserves credit for being "the first" to struggle with assimilating and socializing into the new country. They are the FIRST GENERATION!!!

Jesus April 30, 2007, 10:25am

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Sorry Porsche, I have to disagree with your disagreement. :)

First of all, you're assuming that the two definitions have a logical "AND" relationship when related to an individual, and I'm arguing that they have a logical "OR" relationship when related to an individual. Specifically, I argue that both statements hold true when talking about different people, but both cannot hold true for the same person. Here is why...

First, second, third, etc. are ordinal numbers used to rank things. In a ranking system there can only be one first, one second, one third etc. Otherwise it would be a rating system and you shouldn't use ordinal numbers to describe ratings.

"First-generation" and "second-generation" are adjectives that modify a word (hence the hyphen). What is missing from much of the discussion in these comments is the word after the hyphen. You have to clarify what you're talking about when you use the modifiers first-generation and second-generation for the discussion to make sense. In my earlier post, I was only talking about first-generation and second-generation **citizens**.

Only one generation can be a "first-generation citizen" to a country. If somebody immigrates here and then become citizens, they are the first generation of citizens. If they never become citizens, then their children are the first generation of citizens. If they become citizens after there children are born, then they become first and their children become second. There is absolutely no ambiguity if we are talking about citizenship.

When we are talking about "first-generation immigrant", I would argue that the discussion is pointless. Generally there is only one generation of immigrants, so there is no need for a modifier. The immigrants children that are born in the country are not immigrants because they did not immigrate. For countries like the US, the children are citizens. Other countries might not grant citizenship to children just because they are not born in the country. I don't know what these people would be called, but they are definitely not "second-generation immigrants". There is probably a better word for these Non-Citizen Children of Immigrants (maybe NCCI's... or somebody should neologize a better one).

When we are talking about "first-generation American", I would argue that you have to look at citizenship to consider somebody American, so I would make the same argument as I did for first-generation citizen.

Javid November 16, 2007, 3:39pm

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i am an immigration attorney and third-generation japanese american (i.e. grandparents immigrated, parents born here) and i find that many immigrants use the terms interchangeably and could care less about this distinction. for example, i have greek friends who loathe being called anything but "greeks living in the usa" despite having been born here in the usa and having never lived in greece. in contrast, i have other friends who bristle at being labled anything other than "american" and do not want that status qualified in any manner whatsoever.

in melting pots like new york, l.a., etc., the question, "what are you?" often begets a declaration of ethnicity followed by an explanation of one's family immigration history. so, my conclusion is that both are correct and it really comes down to a matter of preference.

*note that i did not use a hypen between japanese and american (another "issue" among ethnic groups in america)

masato September 18, 2006, 7:53am

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Wow, I can't believe this post is still active after more than a year, especially when the term is officially ambiguous. Here's another interesting ambiguity. Let's say it's Wednesday and I say we're going to do something next week. It's pretty clear that I mean sometime on or after the coming Sunday (or Monday, depending on your point of view). "This week" is the week we are in, "next week" is the following week. Now, what if I say "next WEEKEND"? Some people will interpret it to mean this coming weekend, and others will interpret it to mean the weekend after this coming weekend. I think the ambiguity stems from the fact that Wednesday isn't part of a weekend. Ifr you aren't in a current time period then it's unclear what is meant by the "next" time period. This coming weekend really isn't "this weekend" unless you are actually IN the weekend already (or is it?:)

porsche December 31, 2006, 10:35am

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From the Oxford English Dictionary (with history of the term):

b. first- (or second-, etc.) generation a., designating a member of the first (or second, etc.) generation of a family, spec. of descendants of immigrant parents, esp. in the United States; also, designating a naturalized immigrant (or a child, etc., of a naturalized immigrant). Also transf. and fig.

1896 S. A. BARNETT Let. Sept. in H. Barnett Canon Barnett (1918) II. 119 There are the usual Americans. One ‘first-generation man’, as he calls himself..has made a great fortune. 1946 J. O'HARA in 55 Short Stories from New Yorker (1952) 199 Francis had his place at the bar, at the far corner, and it was his so long as he was present. First-generation Jimmy and second-generation Jimmy had seen to that. 1951 M. MCLUHAN Mech. Bride 67/1 First-generation immigrants who quickly made good. Ibid. 67/2 The father is just such a second-generation type. 1953 E. COXHEAD Midlanders vi. 153 Herself a second-generation college girl, she now under-valued the freedoms the pioneers had won. 1956 Nature 10 Mar. 489/2 Second-generation inbreds... Fourth-generation inbreds... F1 hybrids between third-generation inbreds. 1960 Guardian 29 July 4/4 Deriabin, born in 1921, was a second generation Communist. 1960 Ibid. 5 Nov. 3/6 A second-generation Kenyan whose father was one of the pioneer settlers in the White Highlands. 1962 Chem. Engin. Progress Oct. 44 (caption) First generation (left) and improved (right) void-free laminates of phenolic resin and graphite fabric. 1968 L. BLACK Outbreak ix. 86 The number of notifications [of smallpox] will rise sharply, as second and third generation cases emerge from the incubation period.

sf guy May 21, 2006, 4:59pm

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In Finland children, born in Finland, of immigrant parents are also called immigrants (at least according to the Finnish national core curriculum.) Therefore here in Finland the term "first generation immigrant" is used as opposed to first generation Finnish. In this sense the first generation are those who moved country.

Jen May 26, 2008, 11:39pm

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I think these folks will always be the first generation, everyone
after are immigrants, unless they were born on this land or from parents who were born here.
Say you and your wife are going to have a bundle of joy soon and low and behold it pops out during a trip to let's say Japan.
This child will still be considered from the parent's homeland.

Yes, thinking about it now, someone a very long time ago,years ago, many,many moons ago should have worded alot of these things or issues or whatever better,
because there is not alot of reasons for arguement except possibly one at the root... Hate

Chris April 21, 2008, 10:07pm

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please take a look at this US Census definition:

'First generation' refers to those who are foreign born; 'second generation' refers to those with at least one foreign-born parent; 'third-and-higher generation' includes those with two U.S. native parents. Note: Numbers in thousands. Universe is the civilian noninstitutionalized population of the United States, plus armed forces living off post or with their families on post. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement, 2007.

available at:

sinus October 4, 2011, 6:41am

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Actually, Amazed, the fact that there is still a heated debate means that there IS NO consensus, which, um, is exactly what I said isn't it?? that the term is ambiguous!!

Furthermore, an ongoing debate in this forum doesn't mean that there isn't consensus in society. Just look it up in the dictionary. Even there, it says that it's ambiguous. The consensus is that there is no consensus! (How can something so simple become so complicated?)

porsche September 20, 2007, 5:38am

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No one has discussed who is first generation if both parent and child immigrate at the same time.

Could they both be first generation?

Would the child still be second generation?

Or are the child's children the first generation?

(this is if the parent and child are both citizens)

Monkey April 9, 2007, 3:24pm

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What happens if I marry an immigrant but she does not get naturalized? What if she does get naturalized? What affect is there on the status of the child if only one parent becomes naturalized? Does this change their status?

Also, I learned in sociology, that it takes three generations to become assimilated. Can you expand on this information? Also does that mean it is the fourth generation that becomes assimilated. And, what is the difference between assimilation and naturalization?

My wife, a soon to be U.S. citizen, tells me that there is a significant decrease in U.S. assimilation AND naturalization. People stop at the green card (permanent resident) and do not go further. This does two things. Decreases loyalty to the U.S. while reaping her benefits and increases disloyalty. What do you think?

Also, the term may be ambiguous, but it does appear to be the general rule with an exception here and there.

By the way, I am happy with your information you provided on December 4, 2006 at 2:19 am. I feel more American and patriotic knowing that I am a second generation immigrant because both of my parents were naturalized. Now I can listen to rock n roll in public. JK

babahoon23456 July 14, 2009, 1:22pm

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Wow, how stupid are people?

It's called context.

Seriously? December 5, 2007, 7:04am

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Were not the Pilgrims who sailed from England First Generation Americans?

Ron August 13, 2008, 7:26pm

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Wow, it is amazing that this has been a topic with such controversy for years. If you are in doubt, just say, “First generation born here.” That would clear up any confusion. Now, on a practical note, the first generation born here should be distinguished from subsequent generations because we are usually raised with “old world” values/norms/social rules. Our parents, upon arriving at Ellis Island, didn’t flip a switch and morph into Americans. They raised us the way they were raised. Even second generations have more of the old world, but I guess that depends on the family ties of the first.

giesthaus November 6, 2008, 1:03am

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According to the U.S. Government, a citizen of the US but born somewhere else is "first generation" and born in the US to at least one parent who was not born in the US is "second generation".

Seems to me a definitive answer; not sure why so many people are so up in arms about it.

6th Gen Californian July 4, 2012, 3:45pm

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I'm a sociology major at UCLA. When I was taking a class on Chinese Immigration, we defined first generation as people who were born elsewhere and moved to American in their adulthood. Second generation are those who are born and raised here in America. 1.5 generation are those that were born elsewhere and moved here before the age of 12.

hongho February 17, 2011, 12:03am

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My parents were born in Turkey and immigrated to the USA in 1911. They are not first generation. My two brothers and I are since we were born in the States.

Would like to know if any of you have had problems as first generation Americans if you're parents only knew the "old country" way.

Diane August 3, 2006, 5:56pm

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"1st generation" refers to the foreign-born immigrants. "2nd generation" refers to the first native-born generation.

This is the official bureaucratic definition and they're fairly straightforward.

The thinking that just because someone is foreign-born, they cannot be considered American has tones of jingoism. And the idea that someone must be citizen to be an American ignores the fact that immigrants and women were long barred from citizenship. You're American the moment you settle on these shores - you're not a citizen, but you're living in the culture, land, and ideals of the USA. It can't be helped.

skim172 November 20, 2011, 6:04am

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Why can't we just accept it the way it is instead of trying to make it more difficult than it already is. Let's just move on... to more important issues, perhaps.

prodocjoe March 8, 2008, 6:17pm

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Why are people so emphatic about knowing the truth when it is clearly ambiguous as this discussion proves?

Masterdoggish August 19, 2006, 11:08am

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I don't think the dictionary definition Porche listed above is ambiguous:

1 - designating a naturalized, foreign-born citizen of a country
2 - designating a native-born citizen of a country whose parents had immigrated into that country

The key here is the word citizen. I was born in the US and my parents had not yet become citizens. I was a first generation American citizen. When my parents became citizens, they became the first generation of Americans and I became the second. My generational status changed when they became citizens.

The oldest generation to become a citizen of that country is a first generation citizen, whether through naturalization or birth.

Javid November 8, 2007, 5:27pm

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Oh god, this is ridiculous.
First generation IMMIGRANT refers to the first generation in the family to immigrate.
(Well you would know this if you read any academic journals regarding immigration)
First generation AMERICAN refers to the generation first born in America.

chel April 3, 2012, 6:31pm

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Sorry Javid, I have to disagree. Certainly your parents can now consider themselves 1st generation Americans according to definition 1. As their child, you can also consider yourself a 2nd generation American. But. you can also STILL consider yourself a 1st generation American according to definition 2. You are STILL a native-born citizen of a country (the US) whose parents have immigrated into that country. Your parents' citizenship is irrelevant. They immigrated to the United States. Immigrate simply means to come to a country to live, usually, permanently. Your parents weren't born in the US, right? Becoming citizens didn't somehow cause them to actually be born in the US, right? A naturalized citizen doesn't cease being an immigrant when they become a citizen. By definition, if you live somewhere and aren't native-born, then you are an immigrant. That's what the word means. So, you can certainly feel free to consider yourself a 1st or 2nd generation American, whichever you choose.

porsche November 15, 2007, 8:27pm

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My Father was born in Portugal.He became a natualized citizen. My mother was born in Fall River Massachusetts. Both my brother and sister were born in Portugal and they also are natualized citizens. I was born in Providence, Rhode Island. How do I explain to my brother and sister what generation they are?

rjm51 April 10, 2008, 4:06am

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I finally hear something that sounds more logical than what any of the others have mentioned. I agree with what Nick (11/12/06) says...and this is how I am gathering thise:

My mother was born in Mexico and of all her 11 siblings were too. My mother was the first to have a child that was born in California (that would be me), so I am a 1st generation American.

I also was the first to have a child in California for my generation (my son SO), so he would then be the first of the 2nd generation American.

My cousin (of my generation) had a daughter (who would be of the 2nd generation) recently had a child here in California. Her child is now the first born of the 3rd generation...?


YA May 1, 2007, 11:57am

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It's been a while since I've checked in on the forum here and when I did recently, I was pretty shocked to see this thread still alive a kicking.

"Anonymous | Feb-17-08 10:56PM

crazy this thread started in dec 2005, n continued until 2008"

I say: let's see if we can make it to 2009!!

And this just shows how unwilling to compromise people can be, even over such silly issues. My sister and I were born in the US to foreign-born parents. That makes us first generation Americans. Period. In my family, that is how it works. That won't change, even if this thread goes on until 3008. You (the royal "you") and your family may take a completely different perspective on what it means to be an American (or any other nationality) and that's awesome. Quit whining.

AO April 10, 2008, 6:44am

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I meant the Webster dictionary definition. I just read your entry, Elizabeth.

Someone mentioned something interesting. He said that he was a Japanese American (without the hyphen). Does it mean something different with the hyphen?

What I mean to say is, is being an African-American different from being an African American?

tina December 30, 2006, 5:10pm

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I just read the other billion definitions and I realize that I must be blind for not noticing them before. Gosh, I'm confused all over again, and I think the only solution for me is merely to use my preference.

tina (again) December 30, 2006, 5:12pm

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If anyone is still reading this, I'm working on a project producing content for first/second generation college grads who live in big cities--those born here whose parents were born overseas. I'm interesting in talking to anyone who falls into this category. Find my Facebook profile for Tara Haelle and message me. Thanks!

thaelle June 30, 2009, 3:36pm

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William Wang: Technically (according to the Census Bureau) your father and you are both "first generation," as strange as that seems (father and son of the same generation). Perhaps, you are "1.5 generation." Obviously there is much ambiguity here and some of the distinctions presented here get blown apart by such situations. For example, for my entire childhood my father was a "resident alien" (the official term at the time for a Green Card holder). Later when I was an adult he became a naturalized citizen. So I was first generation until my father was naturalized at which time I became second generation. Interesting. According to the my interpretation of the Census Bureau definition, I was always second generation. My father was not an American (so "no generation") until he was naturalized at which time he became first generation, so during my childhood there was no first generation.

hsu_ag-member May 14, 2010, 2:51pm

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Obviously a confusing term but a long and at times amusing thread (particularly the time travel comment)...

As a "7th generation" Australian child growing up in Australia my dad would refer to some of my friends who were the children of Italian immigrants as "second generation"... given it was confusing way back then as a kid, I have been paying attention to the usage of this phrase for about 35 years :). And based on all these years of listening to the usage of this term I'd say 80% of the people who have used it used it this way (the same as the US census... immigrants are first generation, first born are second generation... so if we were to cast votes, maybe that would satisfy everyone? <grins> doubt it).

If the whole family, grandparents, parents and young kids move from their mother country... all bets are off :) But I would tend to think the foreign-born young kids would be 1st generation, and the first-born children would be "second generation" citizens of their new country. Thus cementing "second generation" as the first generation born in the new country. Just to make it completely lucid.

As for why some people don't want to be naturalized, there are many, many good reasons not to become a US citizen... such as the IRS. But ultimately I think a lot of people like to move around without giving up their cultural identity... and basically want to enjoy a life without borders, which really are artificial impediments to human exploration and freedom.

In the end it doesn't really matter, you are who you are and we are all children in the eyes of the universe.

OzMan January 5, 2012, 7:38pm

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Haha, thanks to everyone who has commented on this for years. Am doing an English-Chinese translation now and came across the phrase first-generation American; your comments helped me (well, to a certain extent-now that I know it has two different meanings, not sure how I'll translate it!)

Preston March 20, 2013, 2:15am

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WOW! This is such an interesting read. I guess I'm confused now also. But, I have to agree with someone that said that applying 1st or 2nd generation sometimes splits siblings even though the siblings acculturation experience is the same. So having said that, here's mine. I was born in MX and moved here with my parents when I was 4. Both of my brothers were born here in the US. So they're 1st generation??? Now, I married a Pakistani man who moved here in his late teens. I'm wondering what my daughter would be considered...I've always thought of myself as 1.5...
Keep it going....

anasotosiddiqi March 25, 2009, 9:54am

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I used this thread as a reference in a rewrite of the Wikipedia article on "first-generation immigrant" ( after becoming curious about the term myself, and realizing that the original Wikipedia article completely ignored the ambiguity.

There's not much use chiming in, since this is an old thread there's simply no denying that there's ambiguity on the subject; we should all just be conscious to not use generation labeling with respect to immigrants at all.

I think j.b.'s comment was rather insightful, although I'll add the complicating caveat that many times, an American-born child to immigrants may very well use the term "first-generation" in reference to himself to exaggerate their ties to their parents' culture, for any of a myriad of reasons.

VJ September 18, 2007, 9:07am

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First generation: one who immigrates after the age of 18
Generation 1.5: one who immigrates before the age of 18
Second generation: one who is born here

These definitions are provided by an immigrant friend of mine, verified by her FIRST GENERATION parents.

Lyric March 13, 2012, 2:03pm

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look you guys....... you can consider yourself 1st american "born" generation but when speaking off americans in general is the immigrant that decided to never look back and make a live in america. they might not be the first to be born here but as law writes,the immigrant is and will always be 1st generation american. I'm a history teacher and let me just say that even if your not a born citizen they are still first generation. there generation counts it is because of them that you are here,there the first to live in america before you. but.......and yes, there is a but. to become officially first generation by title. the first generation must become a naturalize citizen of america. if it makes you that angry cause you wanted to be the first. then you oviesly don't respect your family. but angry or not they are the first generation americans. you are the first generation to be born here not the first to live here. its more complicated than must go to the library and study more if you want to know why this is. of course if it makes you that angry that your mother and father are first. in that case your going to be very disappointed. you can advise and say all you wan.. but law is law and that is the law that was written in america by our founding fathers who's parents were immigrants of european decent. at least they use to have some respect for there upbringing.... bottom line is hit the library and become smatter and gain more knowledge before you put down a whole generation in public just because your felling selfish. it is what it is by law and by get over it

secretlove June 26, 2012, 10:03am

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crazy this thread started in dec 2005, n continued until 2008

Anonymous February 17, 2008, 5:56pm

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^ Oh, and not only that, but the Asian-American military brats born in Asia on a US military installation...they can move in and out of the states as well since rotations for living on a military base happen every 3-5 years. So the whole "coming to America" thing is just nuts. We were born in Asia, but moved to America when we were 3 years old (note when I'm giving these example, I mean for these rotations to apply to all, not just me since I stayed in Japan for several years before moving here to the states), then moved out a few years later...came back at 6 years old...then moved out at the age of 10...came back at 14 years old and hated how the American high school kids in the stateside were radically different from the American high school kids at the overseas US military bases...then came back to America again after our dads retired from the military and started life anew as a civilian now trying to find our way into this new life called "college" (or in the case of those that were stationed at the RAF bases..."uni").

I think I'd rather just go with being called a "1st generation military brat" since I and my brother are the first in our family to be brats.

Lt. Hawkeye October 29, 2011, 11:54am

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P.S.S. ^ All of the above would also apply the same to "missionary kids", "brats", "foreign service brats", etc. basically, any Third-Culture Kid. Right now, there is an interesting discussion going on with this here on the whole "TCK vs. 1.5 Gen-ers" here:

Lt. Hawkeye October 29, 2011, 12:02pm

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I stumbled upon this discussion thread as my sister and I came from different perspectives though we have the same parents! Our parents were born in Holland and came to the US after WWII. My sister, brother and I were born in the US when my parents were still Dutch citizens (my parents became naturalized US citizens in 1965, three years after I was born, the last of us 3 kids). I have always referred to myself as a first generation American. I found out just the other day that my sister considers herself a second generation American, so we of course had to Google the definition of "first generation" and to our delight, we are *both* right (simply look it up on Webster's

Reading through the thread a bit (certainly not all 5 years worth), I liked the person who brought in the cultural context. That helps my case, as I am very much culturally a US person while my parents retained much of their Dutch upbringing but of course adopted US customs as well.

To add a bit of a curve ball to the topic, it happens that while the 3 of us kids were born on American soil (and therefore automatically US citizens) to legally Dutch parents, we were also considered Dutch citizens according to Dutch law. It was only me who then openly declared that Dutch citizenship, well after my parents naturalized and became US citizens. Therefore, I am both of US and Dutch citizenship, while my mom (and dad now deceased) were solely US citizens, as are my brother and sister being solely US citizens.

So - am I a first generation American? I certainly do NOT feel like a second generation American, that is for sure. Also, my daughter technically is also of Dutch citizenship because of my citizenship, yet she is a second generation American i nmy thinking.

So what is it: country of origin or country of birth? (and add in cultural orientation to the mix if you wish).

Maybe Porsche will respond :-)

Karreman July 26, 2011, 3:09pm

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Great topic...this is tough for all of in this position. It brings a little more clarity...but not much ;-)! My father is from the Philippines, I was born here in the states (Oregon) I've always considered myself a 2nd generation Asian American! After reading this...I'm going to stick with that! Thanks!

justinlim11 February 4, 2009, 8:50pm

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So, if a family (Grandparents, Parents, and Children) comes to America, are they all first generation?

Anony-mous October 30, 2008, 3:44pm

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I consider myself 2nd generation but it is amusing (and irksome) when I'm corrected all the time by others who have several generations rooted here. I suspect it is partly a sociological phenomenon, especially when asked of Asians-Americans. Asians-Americans are still considered the most "foreign" of any of the ethnicities in the United States, unfortunately, so we are still "new" to the melting pot in many people's eyes. I get asked this on a frequent basis, perhaps it would be less so on the West Coast.

My parents were Chinese immigrants, naturalized citizens of the US now, and have been US citizens longer than they were citizens of their own country. I consider my parents 1st generation, and myself as 2nd generation.

rainrowan June 23, 2015, 3:36pm

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I've read most of this thread and it does a thorough job of documenting the ambiguity. So further thrashing on this not helpful.

If a term is ambiguous, simply meaning people use it in conflicting ways, the responsible thing to do is to define your terms when you speak or write. Period. Changing the culture to eliminate the ambiguity is a long term effort that may or may not be worth the trouble.

To bring in a different context, consider the political categories of liberal, conservative, progressive, etc. I find more diversity in each group of self-identified people that between them. My solution is to ask people:
- what do they want to conserve and why?
- what do they want to liberate from what and why?
- what do they consider progress vs backward and why?

In each case I want to cut through the slop and find substance.
Often I find small minded people who can't reason beyond labeling - and I walk away.

Likewise with insisting on one definition of a term when a dictionary or experience demonstrates ambiguous usage. I is our responsibility to own disambiguating the potentially ambiguous. Many words have multiple definitions in the dictionary. My job is to indicate which one I'm referring to in my use of the term - and perhaps just for this conversation and context.

Does that help get this discussion grounded?

Jay Conne May 16, 2011, 8:27am

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I came to the US 10 years ago with a 2 year old daughter. My second daughter was born after 2 years. According to one of the definitions offered, my older daughter is an immigrant generation, and my younger daughter is a first generation american. It doesn't make much sense to me.

Pogodi February 20, 2008, 5:55am

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For me, first generation is the first generation to be born in the country. We call immigrants fobs (FOB - Fresh-Off the Boat) back in y2k when we were still in high school.

@Tundra I would consider you as a 2nd generation.

SWingT November 8, 2012, 2:00am

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Pogodi, why doesn't it make sense? That's precisely the reason the terms exist, so that you can differentiate between your daughters' immigration or citizenship status (as well as yours).

Of course, there is still the ambiguity. Some would call you and your older daughter immigrants, and your younger daughter, first generation. Others would call you and your older daughter first generation, and your younger daughter, second generation. Still others might call you an immigrant (if you do not become a citizen), your first daughter, first generation (if she does), and your second daughter, second generation. The possibilites are almost endless.

Anonymous February 21, 2008, 3:24am

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generation??? i dunno...
because that's my assignment...
hehehehe... Smile!!!!

chi July 17, 2007, 12:24am

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Nice post, John.

porsche July 18, 2007, 6:49am

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Amazing thread. I admit I always thought first generation meant one thing but did occasionally see it used differently, and honestly, just thought it was a misunderstanding.

It seems to me that there is an answer that several writers touched on, but never really developed. Follow me on this:

There are situations in English where words are implied, but left out. Example: "Close the door." (Implies YOU shut the door, but YOU is implied.)

Thus, first generation American is implying something- either first generation American citizen or first generation born in America. In my family, the second one was the term meant (and often actually voiced, as in "you are third generation American" (great grandparents immigrated from Germany and my grandmother born in America).

However if you mean "citizen" then the other definition obviously applies. Interestingly, it appears that different cultures or languages may influence which implied meaning is felt to be correct. An example is the Japanese words and concepts explained early on, vs. the Greek understanding of the opposite meaning.

And yes, language is fun....

joannealexander August 17, 2010, 7:46pm

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I always considered myself first generation American, as I was born in the US and both my parents were immigrants. My father eventually naturalized, my mother did not.

I noticed that a number of the immigrants claiming to be first generation Americans mentioned that their parents brought them to this country as children. What do they call their parents? They didn't say.

Adding to the confusion of course is the fact that my parents came from the Caribbean. People in Central and South America consider themselves Americans too. They call residents of the US North Americans or Yankees. Frank Lloyd Wright coined the term Usonian. It hasn't caught on yet.

jzcurious May 30, 2007, 8:13pm

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I side with the first naturalized person being the first generation. The first people to do something would be the first-generation in my mind.

If we scooped a bunch of people to go live on another planet, they would be the first generation of people to live there.

Ahki of Emerald City, WA January 25, 2012, 9:31am

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Yes     No