Applied Psychology OPUS

Ethnic Identification of Asian American Urban Youth: The Role of Generational Status in Predicting Psychological Well-Being

Donna Poon

Abstract

In the United States, Asian Americans are seen as the “model minority,” or an unproblematic minority group with low mental health rates (Leong & Lau, 2001). Similar to other ethnic minority groups, highly self-identified Asian Americans are less likely to report psychological distress than those who do not identify themselves as highly Asian American because of ethnic identification, or positive regard towards one’s native culture, buffers against psychological maladjustment (Shelton et al., 2005). However, the mean level of ethnic identification varies between generational groups, such that each generation that is further removed from the immigrant generation is less likely to exhibit cultural characteristics (Makabe, 1979). Therefore, considering that Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S. (US Census Bureau, 2012), investigating the protective factors of ethnic identification among generational groups is of utmost importance to achieve a more advanced understanding of Asian American mental health. This study explored the relation between ethnic identification and internalizing symptoms as well as the moderating role of generational status for Asian American urban adolescents.

Keywords: ethnic identity, internalizing symptoms, generational status

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asian Americans are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States, with more than 60 percent of that growth coming from international migration (2012). Owing to their low mental health and report rates, Asian Americans are stereotyped as the “model minority,” or an unproblematic minority group with seemingly little to no psychological maladjustment in their acculturation process to the American host culture (Leong & Lau, 2001). However, contrary to the model minority stereotype, suicide was the 8th leading cause of death for Asian Americans, as opposed to the 11th leading cause for all racial groups collectively (Heron, 2011), indicating that a source of psychological discontent for Asian Americans may be rooted in cultural or racial domains.

While the low reports of mental health issues of Asian Americans might be attributed to collectivistic values, such as family honor and saving face (Chao & Tseng, 2002), they might also be attributed to the protective factors of ethnic identification (Shelton et al., 2005). Highly self-identified Asian Americans are less likely to report psychological distress because of the buffering effects of ethnic identification, or positive regard towards one’s native culture, where ethnic identification protects Asian Americans from psychological maladjustment (Kiang, Gonzales-Backen, Fuligini, Yip, & Witkow, 2006; Rivas-Drake, Hughes, & Way, 2008; Shelton et al., 2005). Rivas-Drake et al. (2008) suggest that the buffering effect of ethnic identification for Asian Americans may be derived from the parental influence of reinforcing strong, positive ethnic identity views. Other research suggests that the social support that Asian Americans receive from their parents and peers helps reduce the psychological distress that typically derives from acculturative and discriminative stress (Grossman & Liang, 2008; Qin, 2008).  Research has shown that understanding and practicing cultural values are separate but related factors that comprise the internal process of identifying with one’s ethnic identity (Phinney, 1993). Therefore, ethnic identification level is predicted to vary across generational levels, such that each generation that is further removed from the immigrant generation is less likely to exhibit cultural characteristics (Makabe, 1979). Considering the need for more mental health research on the Asian American population, investigating the protective factors of ethnic identification among generational groups is of utmost importance to achieve a more nuanced understanding of Asian American mental health.

The current study explored the relation between ethnic identification and internalizing symptoms as well as the moderating role of generational status for Asian American urban adolescents. More specifically, the study considered the following research questions: (1) Does level of ethnic identification significantly differ according to varying generational statuses?, (2) Does level of ethnic identification significantly predict (a) all internalizing symptoms, (b) anxious-depressed symptoms, (c) withdrawn-depressed symptoms, or (d) somatic complaints?, and (3) Does generational status moderate the relation between ethnic identification level and the four aforementioned internalizing symptoms subscales? Prior research analyses, first-generation Asian Americans were hypothesized to demonstrate greater ethnic identification and therefore are less likely to report internalizing symptoms of psychological maladjustment than their second-generation counterparts.

Method

Participants
The participants were drawn from a larger 3-year longitudinal study, New York City Academic and Social Engagement Study (NYCASES; PI: Selçuk Sirin), which originally sampled 517 ethnically diverse adolescents.  The proposed study will use a sample of 70 students who self-identified as Asian or South Asian and whose average age of the sample at the third wave of data collection was 18.26 years (SD = .82). Of the 70 Asian students in the sample, 48.6% were male (n = 34) and 51.4% were female (n = 36). Of the sample, 68.6% identified as being born outside of the U.S. as first-generation immigrants (n=48) and 30% identified with having a parent who was born outside of the U.S. as second-generation immigrants (n=21). One participant did not report their generational status, thus was dropped from the final analytic sample.

Measures
Collective Self-Esteem. Ethnic identification was measured using the Collective Self-Esteem Scale (Luhtanen & Crocker, 1992), which assesses individuals’ ethnic identity based on how they see themselves as a member of their ethnic group (e.g., “I often regret that I belong to my racial/ethnic group”; Cronbach’s α = 0.82). A 7-point Likert scale was used ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).

Generational Status. Generational status was self-reported by participants via a demographic survey as part of the original study. Participants identified as either being born outside of the U.S. (first-generation) or being born in the U.S. and having a parent who was born outside of the U.S. (second-generation).

Internalizing Symptoms. Internalizing symptoms were measured using a shortened version of the Youth Self-Report (YSR; Achenbach, 1991), which assesses the behavioral and emotional functioning of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 (Cronbach’s α = 0.79). Thirty-three questions were selected from the original 112 questions that comprised the internalizing symptoms subscale of the measure. The internalizing symptoms subscale consisted of three further defined subscales, which measured anxious-depressed (e.g., “I am afraid of going to school”; Cronbach’s α = 0.87), withdrawn-depressed (e.g., “I would rather be alone than with others”; Cronbach’s α = 0.85) and somatic symptoms (e.g., “I feel overtired without good reason”; Cronbach’s α = 0.72). A 3-point Likert scale was used ranging from 0 (not true) to 2 (very true or often true).

Results

Prior to testing the study’s hypotheses, descriptive statistics were run to ensure that all study variables met basic statistical assumptions. To observe the difference in ethnic identification between generational statuses for research question 1, an independent samples t-test was conducted to compare ethnic identification levels between first- and second-generation Asian Americans. Results show that ethnic identification significantly differs according to generational status, where second-generation Asian Americans (M = 4.65, SD = 1.03) have higher mean scores of ethnic identification than first-generation Asian Americans (M = 4.09, SD = 0.98); t (67) = -2.15, p = 0.03.

With regard to research question 2, a hierarchical regression analysis revealed that ethnic identification negatively predicted internalizing symptoms in general (β = -0.08, b= -0.27, p < 0.05). More specifically, ethnic identification significantly negatively predicted withdrawn-depressed (β = -.12, b= -0.32, p < 0.05) and somatic symptoms (β = -0.09, b = -0.35, p < 0.01), but not anxious-depressed symptoms, for Asian American adolescents (see Table 1).

Finally, with regard to research question 3, the relation between ethnic identification and internalizing symptoms was tested for moderation of generational status using Baron and Kenny’s method for moderation (see Figure 1). Results show that, after controlling for gender and maternal education (which was used as a proxy for socioeconomic status), generational status significantly moderated the negative relation between ethnic identification and withdrawn-depressed symptoms (R2 = 0.07, F (1, 63) = 0.07, p < 0.05) (see Table 2). Specifically, the negative relation between ethnic identification and withdrawn-depressed symptoms was significantly stronger for first-generation Asian American adolescents relative to their second-generation counterparts (see Figure 2).

Discussion

The results of the independent samples t-test showed that second-generation Asian Americans reported significantly higher levels of ethnic identification than their first-generation counterparts. This difference may be due in part to variations in acculturative stress and racial socialization experienced by the two groups. Whereas first-generation Asian Americans experience greater acculturative stress as they assimilate into the mainstream American culture, second-generation Asian Americans experience racial socialization, or the process of gaining positive ethnocultural attitudes as well as an understanding of the  racial-discriminatory practices that pertain to their ethnic group (Benner & Kim, 2009). Said differently, as first-generation Asian Americans might feel pressure to report lower levels of ethnic identification as a by-product of their experiences with acculturative stress. Second-generation Asian Americans, on the other hand, have experienced racial socialization from learning about their immigrant parents’ discriminatory and prejudicial experiences as a minority group member. As a result, second-generation Asian Americans are more likely to report stronger ethnic identification for their native culture in comparison to their first-generation counterparts.

The results of the hierarchical regression analyses support prior research findings that ethnic identification buffers against psychological maladjustment for Asian Americans (e.g., Shelton et al., 2005), where Asian Americans who reported higher levels ethnic identification also reported lower measures of internalizing symptoms, specifically withdrawn-depressed and somatic symptoms. However, the results also showed that the protective role of ethnic identification against withdrawn-depressed symptoms was more salient for second-generation Asian Americans. This finding has important clinical implications because utilizing ethnic identification as a buffer against withdrawn-depressed symptoms might be an effective strategy for U.S.-born, but not foreign-born adolescents.

A limitation of the current study includes having a small sample size from an urban setting. Age at time of immigration was also not taken into account, in which an earlier immigration age presumes having a greater amount of time to assimilate to American culture and lose native cultural values (Bhugra & Becker, 2005).
Future studies may use mixed methods to explore the potential factors that might affect withdrawn-depressed behavior in first-generation Asian Americans, such as disengagement and isolation from one’s ethnic community, among others. Potential research may seek to explore the effect of urban and suburban environments in fostering the ethnic identification of Asian Americans. Results might find that urban environments allows for greater retention of one’s ethnic identity, due to the ethnic diversity present in urban areas.

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