A conversation that I had with a friend while traveling back from NYC to school in Ithaca really struck me. We talked about assimilation, the process that immigrants go through when they come to America. Assimilation is a word that I’m sure that most have heard of. It refers to the slow but inevitable homogenization that mainstream American culture imposes on immigrants. My friend and I are both Asian-American, stuck between the culture of America and the culture of our parents, but we have very different views on that five-syllable word.
To her, assimilation is inherently “unfair” because immigrants must change their culture, their language and to an unquantifiable extent, their very identity to assimilate to America. This change does grant them access into higher levels of socio-economic status, because in America (at least in theory) judge individuals based on character and capability rather than such immutable characteristics like skin color. I imagine that most people who take the big arduous step of leaving their countries recognize the possibility that such a change would be impossible to avoid anyway. I told her these factors, but even while taking them into account, she still thought that it was unfair for them. So, I pressed her to better understanding her perspective.
She said something along the lines of “No one should ever have to change themselves or their identity to fit in with the dominant culture”. There’s the whitewashing of Asian-Americans, for example, and their easy and almost smooth transition into corporate America and their ubiquitous presence in STEM and higher education. Yes, she admitted, certain ethnicities may have above-average household incomes and it often goes hand-in-hand with having higher educational attainment, and yes, they’re given greater educational and economic opportunities than in their homelands, but, to her, all those things aren’t worth the transition from being Americanized.
That was interesting because to me, assimilation was what binds American society together, be it a sticky mess at times. It’s a fact that our country is diverse and has roots from all over the world, but what holds us together is the very thing that my friend thought was injustice. In my opinion, while foreigners bring their culture, entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to work, America offers them a place of opportunity to assert oneself as an individual. That opportunity could be through the arts, the humanities, entrepreneurship, or scientific and academic inquiry. Without that unspoken exchange, all those different ethnic groups would likely not be able to peacefully live in the same space, I told her.
Furthermore, I don’t think it’s unfair that immigrants do have to assimilate, because I believe that the exchange is voluntary. It’s a price that most immigrants are willing to pay. In fact, most have, including my own parents when they left China. Since America is not racially homogenous, cultural homogeneity is the next best thing that can keep a gargantuan nation of more than 300 million together. That’s not to say America isn’t without flaws. Historically, cultural assimilation has worked in waves, often resulting in an initial hostility towards a new immigrant group, but a slow and eventual acceptance into the mainstream culture. That’s how it works. I mentioned the Irish-Americans to my friend as an example. The Irish were once treated here as second-class citizens and had whatever prejudice against them justified by White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) because the WASPs felt superior to the Celtic ancestors along with the prestige that Protestantism was better than Catholicism. Today though? The Irish are American as apple pie.
So, what makes an American?
To me, an American is a person that holds beliefs in certain principles. One such principle states that the individual should be protected against the tyranny of an authoritarian government. The founding of America was centered around the British mistreatment of the American colonial citizens. The colonists were subject to laws that they had no hand in crafting. After breaking apart from the British, the Constitution was drafted to guarantee protection from similar injustices being repeated on American soil. Then came the Bill of Rights, the 13th, the 15th and the 19th amendments and so forth. These documents grant us such liberties to criticize the government or any person or organization that we choose to without fear of government backlash, including the most powerful individual in the free world – the President of the United States. These are the documents give us the right to bear arms, assemble, trial by due process, the right to vote and so on. They’re what constitute the foundation of our society and what’s offered to those who enters America’s doors.
An American should also have command of the English language. Why? Because it’s the lingua franca of the United States and knowing English is a prerequisite to enter most industries and sectors of American public life. Not surprisingly, the children of immigrants, like myself, tend to have a better grasp of English than most local Americans and as a result, are given more of an opportunity to thrive in America. However, that experience is not without its drawback; as my friend noted, assimilation tends to erase cultural and linguistic differences between people by offering a shared one. This implies that the language brought to America won’t always stay here and may even die. But beyond sharing the language and sharing ideas about the fundamental rights of an individual, I don’t believe there’s much that divides Americans who’re WASPs and Americans who’re immigrants or children of immigrants.
I’d also say that full assimilation, i.e. when the members of the foreign group become indistinguishable from the dominant group, is virtually impossible in America. It’s unlikely that every single citizen will inter-marry and their children become racially-mixed to the point where everyone will look alike. I say this because no matter how Westernized I may believe myself to be, no matter the ideas I hold, or my mastery of English, there’ll always be a tendency for other Americans (including non-WASPs), as well as people from other countries, to label me as “Chinese” (Or more generously, “Chinese-American”). I’ll never be simply “American” here. I’ve accepted this. America was historically a white majority nation and in no near future will it ever become the norm for an average citizen to look like me.
That’s not to say that anyone who sees me as “Chinese” is racist, because it doesn’t follow the definition that I’m put at a disadvantage for my label. Besides, the label of otherness is applied not only by members of the dominant culture, but also by members of the minority too. The further along an individual is into assimilation, the farther from the culture they become. It’s a spectrum where entrance to one means losing acceptance from the other. So, although I’m Chinese by blood, my family members who’re still in China don’t see me as a fellow Chinese. They see me as an American occupying the body of someone who just looks like them. Colloquially, Chinese-Americans like myself are known as “bananas” (a.k.a. yellow on the outside, white on the inside).
Therefore, despite cultural homogenization, the reality is, those who’re ethnic minorities in America will always be subconsciously labeled as “foreign” by the dominant culture due to their skin color. They’re stuck between an identity limbo because despite the preservation of the minority culture embodied in those individuals, they’ll also be seen as foreign by the culture that fostered them too. In my case, I love this country more than I’d like to admit. I believe in its principles of freedom, democracy and justice, even if some Americans will still see me for what I look like, rather than what I stand. It’s better than how I feel when I’m outcast by the Chinese, because despite sharing my background in culture and language with them, I’ll never be Chinese enough for the native Chinese. Instead, I’m just another American, indoctrinated in the Western school of thought. Even for the second-generation Asian-Americans that fully understand my background and principles, they may also see my assimilation into the dominant culture as a betrayal of the culture I left behind. They give me labels like “race-traitor”.
To be honest, there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution to my being labeled as “other” by both cultures dominant and minority, but I’ve come to believe that the best way to escape is to assert myself as an individual. Both sides of the spectrum seek to make Asian-Americans like me conform, but I believe that conformity to the national identity opens an opportunity for an individual to stop identifying with their own tribe. I want people to start identifying as an American, a country of many colors. In the separation from one’s tribe, it’s then possible to assert a unique identity to both cultures, often a strange concoction of both values.
In creating an identity for me, specifically one based on values that place the individual as the primary and most important unit of society, I take ownership of my identity. I’m no longer subject to those who seek to put me in a box by placing labels, whose actions and thoughts I’m unable to control. In doing so, I craft an identity that’s not subject to the external world. I know it’s impossible to ever be entirely separate from the influence of the world, but by reclaiming my identity so that it’s fully mine, I choose to take steps toward that. I’m no longer defined by those who seek to define my identity for me. I want to forge one for myself, free from labels. I’m me, an American by birth and by self-identification. Nobody can take that away from me.
Felix is a Chinese-American who grew up in Brooklyn, NY, attending public school there until college. Although he's currently studying Environmental Engineering in Cornell University, Felix has a penchant for reading and writing, especially on contentious topics in Western society. If you're interested in reading more, check out his personal website @flexthought.co and some sparse topics on medium @https://medium.com/@felixyang_9988