Ethnic Identity and Cultural Assimilation

Many people consider The United States of America as a land of opportunity. Immigrants flock to this country in search of a new beginning for themselves and their families. Leaving their homeland and much of their culture behind, the majority of immigrants come to America in hopes of a better life. However, migration and the need to feel welcome in a new nation leave no choice for immigrants except to assimilate. It’s difficult to conserve your heritage when facing the pressures of acceptance in a new land.

Some argue that as a second-generation immigrant, preserving your ethnic identity through the course of cultural assimilation is nearly impossible. It’s perplexing, however, considering that nativism within contemporary immigration is believed to be currently mild by historical standards. Personally, I believe that the loss of ethnic integrity is a result of the sensationalized glorification of western culture. Amy Lee, my co-worker and close friend, immigrated to the United States at the age of 4. Born in Shanghai, Amy has little to no memory of living in China.

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Her father moved to the United States when she was first born in order to further his post-secondary education. Upon her father acquiring his degree in engineering, Amy and her mother joined him in Ohio. Amy, who is now 25 years old, has lived in the United States for what she considers her entire life. Despite her heritage being ethnically, racially, and religiously different than mainstream America, it’s hardly recognizable in Amy. As a second-generation immigrant, Amy has sustained very little of her native culture.

Despite having visited China several times in her youth, Amy has no plan of returning to her homeland permanently as an adult. Growing up in the United States, Amy was enrolled in school just like everyone else. It wasn’t very long before Amy was speaking English better than her parents. On top of American schooling, Amy’s parents insisted for her to take Chinese language classes every Saturday. Amy was resistant, however. None of her friends were required to learn Chinese so why did she have to? “I remember the weekends when my friends would be at Magic Mountain and I would be in a classroom,” Amy recalls.

Considering Amy routinely attended American school five days a week, it is no surprise how quickly she assimilated into American culture. Apart from the rudimentary education that Amy was gaining from American school, she was learning how to conform more than anything else. Furthermore, Amy was subjected to anglo-conformity when adopting the norms of American culture versus the norms of her native culture, in order to be accepted. After all, it was made clear by her classmates that American culture was far superior to her native culture.

In hindsight, Amy realizes just how prejudice the majority of her school acted in regards to their cultural differences. Aside from looking noticeably different than her Caucasian peers, and often made fun of for it, Amy’s traditions as a Chinese-American stood out in comparison to the American traditions practiced by most of her friends. Amy became embarrassed and ashamed of her ethnic identity. More than once, Amy was ridiculed for the food her mother packed in her lunch. “They would question what I was eating and why it smelled the way it did,” Amy describes, reflecting upon her experiences in the school cafeteria. After the second or third time, I began asking my Mom to pack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches rather than the dumplings leftover from the night before,” she remembers. A victim of her classmate’s ethnocentrism, Amy went on to say that she did whatever was necessary in order to fit in. “I would even crack jokes about China and my parents,” Amy mentioned in regret, “I did what I thought I had to do. ” Soon enough, little was left of Amy’s ethnic identity. After a few years of being conditioned by American culture, Amy’s identity as a Chinese-American was nearly obsolete.

She would occasionally get dim sum with her parents on Sunday mornings; otherwise, Amy lost touch of her native heritance entirely. Like most children would do, she fully embraced the bliss that came from fitting in with her friends. Amy became disinterested with anything and everything relating to China. Rather than studying Chinese language, an obvious cultural marker that most consider valuable to their heritage, Amy preferred hanging out with her friends on the weekend. Her engrossment with western culture soon became a voluntary fascination, causing Amy to completely abandon the cultural ways of her homeland.

The result of Amy’s assimilation into our white supremacist, heteronormal, and patriarchal culture is what I find most disturbing: a lack of identity entirely. While assimilation undeniably helps immigrants acclimate to a foreign land, it comes at a hefty cost. Amy’s parents treated the assimilation process as a desperate transition so that Amy would “fit in”. By doing so, Amy was casted away from her Chinese culture entirely. When Amy began coming to terms with her loss of culture, she was struck with psychological grief and cultural bereavement. “I lived in America so I felt that I needed to be American,” Amy explains. I couldn’t express my culture comfortably so I tried to forget it completely,” she continued. As a result, Amy now has a rather distant relationship with her parents. Upon graduating high school, Amy moved to Los Angeles on her own to study fashion. Both of her parents returned to Shanghai. They seldom speak. It is clear that American schools are failing to teach our kids about the importance of diversity and cultural acceptability. As a result, most children are left to their aboriginal and often bigoted conception of what is normal and what is not. The result of such prejudice often becomes oppressive.

When an immigrant is isolated from his or her native culture, unaccepted by the ‘majority culture’, and experiencing a sense of rejection or alienation, they have no choice but to assimilate in order to meet the norms of their host nation. But why must it be that way? There is not one culture that is greater than another, yet we’re practically forcing American culture down the throats of not only everyone who sets foot on our soil, but practically the entire world through mainstream media. Interviewing Amy has been both eye opening and introspective for me.

In an attempt to understand her native culture, I have learned more about the toxicity of our own culture. In many ways, our culture is poisonous and destructive. Rather than encouraging immigrants to acculturate and “melt” into our culture, we force them to assimilate and conform to our traditions, our lifestyle, our norms. In short, rather than resorting to assimilation, immigrants should be encouraged to acculturate, and in this way add to the diversity of their new host nation; otherwise, they merely become one among an alien crowd, eliminating their true heritage altogether. As a “land of opportunity”, is this what we really want?

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