Assimilation in the US

Before I get too far into my discussion/new category of Assimilation, I think it only fair to talk about what assimilation is perceived to be in the US.  I’m going to make broad generalizations, and am not saying that I specifically, nor any of my American readers hold these specific beliefs. This is one blog post, and this is a topic that can and does fill books.

I have a BA in US History and a special interest in the history of race and ethnicity.  One of my professors, Laura Prieto, taught a course on Race and Ethnicity in the US that discussed (among other topics) the changing racial lines in US History.  An example-the Irish weren’t considered “white” until the “swarthy” Italians began to immigrate to the US in large numbers.  This wikipedia article does an okay job of discussing some of that, if you’re interested in the academic side of things (and here’s a bookshelf of books on the topic).

Before I get started I’m going to acknowledge that I have white and American privilege.  Whether I want to or not, I benefit from being perceived as a member of the majority from which the “other” is defined.

It is an ugly truth, but in the US, you are not assimilated until you’re white (or as white as you can be perceived to be).  Unless you are white, you can be native born and still get asked where you’re from.

He’s like, ‘Hey, man, where are you from?’ So I told him, ‘I’m from Queens, New York.’ And then he’s like, ‘No, I mean where are you really from?’ Which, for those of you who don’t know, that’s code for, ‘No, I mean, why aren’t you white?’—Hari Kondabolu (0:23 in the video above-the whole set is very good-he’s a great comic).

Ravi has had the exact same question asked of him.  I’ve been asked where I “got” Elanor-wondering what country she were adopted from. (I generally respond “my uterus/vagina.”)  Just a few months ago, I recounted the story of being asked “what does she look like” (meaning ethnicity, and I could only pick one) when I was describing Ellie for a police report after my purse was stolen.

But what does assimilating into American culture look like, especially if your skin color means that you will never be mistaken as white?

Speaking accentless English.

You might be interested to know that there is NO official language of the United States (from a government perspective) although some states have adopted English as their official language.  However, it’s clear that American English is the defacto language of the US, as all education and government business is conducted in American English.  According to the census, 80% of Americans 5 years and older speak American English as their primary language at home (top PDF on this page).  (I highlight American English, as it is it’s own dialect of English when compared to British English, Australian English, Singaporean English and so forth.)

If you listen to the prologue of this episode of This American Life, you hear the story of a 17 year old girl in Tuscon who is ordering a cup of tea, in English, for the first time.  She’s been in the US a few months, but her biggest fear is that when she goes to order her tea, the only thing she’ll get in response is “what?”  That they won’t understand her.

It’s not exactly easy to lose your accent.  My in-laws learned English in India starting from 5th grade (prior to that instruction was in Gujarati and Hindi…and in 8th grade they also had to add either Persian or Sanskrit for a grand total of 4 languages).  They have lived in the US for 40+ years, but they have a very slight accent.  It is extremely difficult to learn a language to a fluency and diction/accent equal that of a native speaker if you are not bilingual from a very young age.

Non-ethnic dress

My mother-in-law talks about ironing her saris when they first moved to the US.  They didn’t have a lot of money and buying jeans and sweaters was fairly low on the list of priorities.  After the first few years, she started wearing US style clothes for work, as saris weren’t really practical.  Today, when we go to Indian functions, she hires someone to pin her (and my, and now Ellie’s) saris properly.

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Ethnic dress is seen as a costume in the US.  In point of fact, at Halloween we see the chance to wear a sarong or a cheongsam or a sari as an exciting costume.  See the “we’re a culture, not a costume” campaign here (see the uber racist meme it spawned here).  So when a person is going about their life in their ethnic dress (or religious-Mennonite/Orthodox Jews/Amish/etc face the same discrimination) it is seen as an abberation.

You can be a different religion as long as it’s mainstream Christian

Catholic, Prostestant, Evangelical Christian–all perfectly acceptable religions.  Everything else?  You’re suspect.

Don’t agree with me?  Explain how the murders committed at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek by a criminal with white supremacist links got almost no media coverage.  Explain why Park51 was nicknamed the “Ground Zero Mosque” and ingnited a firestorm of controversy for existing.  Even Mitt Romney, who is as white and bland as they come (I say this as a former constituent) ignited some controversy when Glenn Beck (a conservative media darling) asked if his “Mormonism made him too scary or weird to be elected president.”

Embracing American Food

When we were in Las Vegas, we went to a giant buffet at the Wynn Hotel.  There were all sorts of types of food, and when I saw that there was an “Asian” corner, I got excited by the idea of rounding out my meal with a papadam or a bit of naan.  I walked over and was sadly disappointed.  I’d forgotten that for Americans, when it comes to food, Asian means pseudo Chinese and occasionally sushi.

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The American palate has expanded over the past 15 years.  However, I can tell you from years in the classroom and overseeing the lunchroom, that sending your child to school with non-mainstream food is a recipe for disaster and teasing (more in the younger years, when children have a less strong sense of self).

Embracing American Culture

When I meet up with another person my age in the US, I assume they’ve seen (among other) A Christmas Story, He-Man or She-Ra, the Smurfs, The Princess Bride, Full House, Saved by the Bell, and Double Dare.  I assume they’ve owned or seen/heard of a Popple, a Pound Puppy, American Girl Dolls, Rainbow Brite, and a caboodle (if they identify as femme/girly).  Music-Debbie Gibson, Guns N Roses, Nirvana, New Kids on the Block, Tiffany, Garth Brooks, and Vanilla Ice among others.

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American culture is rife with self-referential humor. Not knowing your pop culture means you miss out on a lot of humor. See this tumblr of Gilmore Girls pop culture references for an example (source for photo above).  My friends who grew up outside the US or who grew up in the US but in strict houses without tv conspiciously do not get these jokes or wonder what the hell is wrong with us at times.

The problem, of course, is that American pop culture is also overwhelming white.

That lack of diversity was glaring at TV’s Emmy Awards two weeks ago (2012). Of the 25 performers nominated for leading roles in a drama or comedy, only one was a minority actor, Don Cheadle, for “House of Lies.” source

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source xkcd referencing the show Firefly

Even one of my favorite Disney movies, Mulan, falls prey to stereotype and awkward American interpretations of what “chinese” is supposed to mean.  Thanks for deconstructing this, Lindsay.

Hari Kondabolu on the Mindy Project and the portrayal of Indians in American culture.

Deeper Irony-You’re also supposed to fit in with the Americanized version of your ethnic stereotype

The overall expectation to fit in is that you “act white,” but I’ve also seen a peculiar expectation that you fit in with your perceived ethnic group.  I saw this firsthand in Boston.  I had a student who was from the Sudan.  He was African.  He was not African American.  But while White America pushed on him to pick up English and lose his accent and integrate, his fellow black students were pushing him to identify as African American.  They had zero interest in learning anything about Africa/being African, and instead wanted to push him into conforming to their norms.  So he was being asked to assimilate twice over.

Stereotypes regarding physical appearance and numerous other sweeping statements have been made about Asians. And at one point or another Chinese adoptees may feel the sting of these broad and sometimes untrue statements. When I was younger I didn’t feel “smart” enough to be Asian, just because I did not excel at mathematics. Kids would come up to me and ask for homework help just because I looked as if I would be “good at math”. I was ashamed and embarrassed that I couldn’t help them. I felt inadequate and quite stupid. This was detrimental to my self esteem,  for years I never felt that I was smart enough. Things have changed as I have matured. I have learned to not listen to other kids and the silly things that they sometimes say. -Jessie source

Where you live

Where you land in the US will definitely impact your experience.  Larger, urban centers tend to be more open to a wider variety of “normal,” whereas the middle of “flyover country” is going to be a very different experience.  By virtue of my atheism, bisexuality, overt feminism and strong Democratic devotion, I wouldn’t be a good candidate for assimilation in Kansas, for example.

Individuals, not stereotypes

I’ve made some really huge monolithic statements in this post, but the thing to remember is that the US is made up of individuals and not stereotypes.  If you move to the US, you will encounter nice people and you will encounter asshats.  This is true no matter where you go.

I think the thing that is most difficult to swallow when admitting these truths about the US is how much of the American mythology is a lie.  We *are* a nation of immigrants (Native Americans make up only about 1-2% of the population these days). But we are also xenophobic, scared of “them” and how “their” coming to the US will affect us.  We have changed over time, but change is slow.  We hold onto useless stereotypes.

However, as the US changes, so too will our definition of American-ness and hopefully that of what it means to become American.  With luck, we’ll be able to realize that adaptation is better than assimilation, and that it can and should be a two way street.

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