The concept of immigrant generation is complex. Americans use the ordinal designations first-, second-, third-, even ‘1.5’-generation to refer to individuals' varying relationship to their family's moment of immigration. But these terms are much more fluid in practice than the rigidity of the numbers implies, and the nature of that fluidity is changing over time. Furthermore, different waves of immigration mean different experiences of generation identity; a first-generation immigrant in the 1880s entered an American community that was drastically different than the one a first-generation immigrant enters today.
One example of these shifts in the meaning of immigrant generation is among Asian Americans across the country, particularly those in California. In this paper, we discuss the relationship between language and immigrant generation with respect to Chinese Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area of Northern California, the region of the United States with the longest history of Chinese immigration and settlement. We focus in particular on the pronunciation of English, drawing on data collected in the Bay Area from 2008–2009 to argue that Chinese cultural and linguistic practices are gaining currency in the wider community. Our discussion looks at the experiences of third and higher immigrant generations, especially as they interact with more recent waves of immigrants, and the resulting dominance of Chinese and other Asian identities across the Bay Area. The layered and rapidly shifting Chinese American experience suggests potential future directions for the study of other immigrant communities in the United States.