Hyeyoung Kwon is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society and a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Indiana University. Her research areas include race, migration, and social inequalities. She is currently working on a book titled Translating Race, Class, and Immigrant Lives: The Language Brokering Work of Bilingual Youth, which examines the experiences of Mexican- and Korean-Americans who grew up translating for their non-English speaking parents and explores how migration and racialization processes impact the lives of working-class immigrant families. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. Her works have been published in Social Problems, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, and Childhood.
Ann Beutel (CY Publications Committee Member) asked Hyeyoung the following questions:
Ann: How did you first become interested in studying children in immigrant families?
Hyeyoung: My inspiration for studying the lives of children in immigrant families developed from my own personal experiences. Growing up, I shouldered significant responsibilities of helping my Korean monolingual, working-class parents navigate institutions and social inequality by serving as their “language broker.” My parents relied on my bilingual skills when speaking with doctors, teachers, social workers, landlords, and other English-speaking adults. From this, I wanted to use my personal experiences as a starting point to examine how migration impacts the daily lives of children in immigrant families and how race, class, and gender shape the types of work that these children perform for their families and within the larger society.
Ann: Can you tell us a little about your current book manuscript, Translating Race, Class, and Immigrant Lives: The Language Brokering Work of Bilingual Youth?
Hyeyoung: Drawing from in-depth interviews and ethnography, Translating Class, Race, and Immigrant Lives takes readers into the daily lives of Mexican- and Korean-American “language brokers” who use their bilingual knowledge to navigate English-speaking institutions on behalf of their parents. Today, nearly a quarter of U.S. children have at least one immigrant parent, and nearly two-thirds of these children’s parents have difficulty speaking English. Among children with a parent from Korea or Mexico, a respective 76 and 81 percent of such children have a parent with limited English proficiency. Although many children grow up mediating a variety of interactions and serve as liaisons of communication, their brokering work remains understudied and undertheorized in the field of sociology. Addressing this gap, my book traces racialized and classed encounters, ranging from interactions with landlords to life-threatening situations involving health care access and police protection. I find that translating encapsulates far more than verbal exchanges. For working-class immigrant youth, whose lives are marginalized by multiple forms of inequality, translating means using a simultaneously elevated and subordinated status as a bilingual speaker to challenge the imposed categories of class, race, and gender in an effort to ensure family survival. It is also about creatively blurring the boundary between “adulthood” and “childhood” in an attempt to present their working-class, non-English speaking parents—who are often stereotyped as inassimilable and undeserving free-riders of social welfare systems—as “normal” Americans deserving of full citizenship rights. Based on my findings, I move beyond the long standing assimilation paradigm, which overlooks children’s agency and the impact of everyday interactions in reproducing social inequality. Instead, I synthesize the theories of intersectionality, symbolic interactionism, and sociology of childhood, demonstrating how marginalized immigrant youth enact and contest normative understandings of “Americanness” in everyday life. In a socio-historical moment where immigrants of color are depicted as threats to the economic stability of “true” Americans, my book will offer a much needed critique of American culture, exposing the contradictions between the ideal of equality and the actual practices of race, class, and language-based exclusion.
Ann: What advice do you have for others who are interested in studying children in immigrant families?
Hyeyoung: I have three pieces of advice. First, I suggest extending the analysis beyond the dominant theory of assimilation. Scholars studying immigrant children largely focus on how they assimilate into the U.S. mainstream and become “American.” But while this is an important sociological question, assimilation theory overlooks the way in which children, as active social agents, resist social inequality daily and how these children’s actions reproduce and challenge existing social hierarchies. In other words, scholars should ask different research questions and develop new theories to highlight the precarious status of many immigrant youths in a so-called nation of immigrants. For working-class immigrant youth, whose lives are marginalized by multiple forms of inequality, translating means using a simultaneously elevated and subordinated status as a bilingual speaker to challenge the imposed categories of class, race, and gender in an effort to ensure family survival.
Second, although sociologists of childhood such as William Corsaro, Berry Thorne, and Allison Pugh, among others, have argued that children are not passive recipients of adult values, immigrant scholarship tends to take an adult-centric view and undermine the critical role children and young people play in changing the harsh realities in their own households and the broader society. Although parents influence their children’s lives significantly, children and youths also shoulder important responsibilities and often change the intergenerational dynamics of their families. This is especially true of children of immigrants, who often learn English faster than their parents and navigate multiple inequalities in the name of “family.” Accordingly, I encourage scholars of immigrant children to focus on those children’s work, with particular attention to how their struggles are interconnected with multiple social inequalities.
Finally, I suggest that scholars take competing dominant ideologies seriously and move away from essentializing ethnic culture. As cultural sociologists remind us, there are many forms of cultures in the U.S. For example, there are multiple youth cultures, which vary greatly by social class, gender, and race. Likewise, immigrant youths do not draw on a singular and static “ethnic culture”; rather, they use multiple and competing cultural scripts to make sense of their lives. In short, there are many theoretical lenses scholars studying children of immigrants can use to develop innovative questions; sociology of childhood, intersectionality, social and cultural citizenship, emotion work, and symbolic interactionalism are important theories that I’ve found useful in analyzing the struggles that children of immigrants endure in their daily lives and highlighting these children’s agency. Children of immigrants, like any children, are resilient; they respond to exclusion every day, resist social inequalities in creative ways, and contest the dominant meaning of “American.” We need new theories, creative methods, and empirical findings to document this process.
Ann: What has your experience as a postdoctoral fellow been like? What advice do you have for Children and Youth (CY) section graduate students who are interested in postdoctoral fellowships?
Hyeyoung: A postdoctoral fellowship is a great way to start a career in academia, especially if you need time to revise your dissertation project into a monograph. The postdoc at Indiana University’s Center for Research in Race and Ethnicity in Society (CRRES) and sociology department gave me the opportunity to connect with colleagues both inside and outside the university who were conducting innovative research on inequality and social justice; it also provided me with the time to develop my book manuscript further.
I’d give this advice to graduate students interested in postdoctoral fellowships. First, identify your fellowship opportunities early in your graduate career. Next, foster relationships with potential postdoctoral mentors who can provide information about their programs. Some postdoctoral fellowships explicitly ask applicants to identify sponsors, so it’s important to connect with people who are affiliated with the programs. Third, give yourself ample time to develop your proposals; postdoctoral fellowship applications often look different from tenure-track position applications. And as with any good writing intended to convince the readers—in this case the fellowship committee—it takes time. Starting on the application materials early also lets you solicit feedback from colleagues and mentors. As we all know, nobody writes alone, and it’s critical for all of us to a foster supportive intellectual community and develop relationships with colleagues who can provide honest and critical feedback on our postdoctoral applications (and any other writings). It’s a lot of work, but the payoff is invaluable.
Ann: What projects are you looking forward to working on in the future?
Hyeyoung: In addition to my book, I am looking forward to developing articles that will examine how race, class, and gender intersect when shaping the emotion work performed by Mexican- and Korean-American language brokers. The goal is to highlight how the cultural image of the “good” immigrant reverberates in the family lives of working-class young people. I am also looking forward to co-authoring an article with Michela Musto and proposing a new methodological strategy to enable scholars to reveal the impact of unmarked categories such as whiteness and masculinity when conducting interviews with children. Finally, my next big project will examine the connection between micro interactions to larger economic forces of globalization through a multi-sited ethnographic study of transnational families.
Section on Children and Youth