In this week’s blog, I will cover the idea of assimilation and answer the questions such as; to what extent are immigrants expected to assimilate (culturally, linguistically, socially)? To what extent should they be expected to? How have questions of immigration and American identity played out in the past?
I read an article from the Encyclopedia of Immigration History entitled “Assimilation” by Dr. Utku Sezgin. In the article, he quotes a historian of immigration Oscar Handlin as saying “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered immigrants were American history.” This country was built off of people coming from all over for many different reasons, whether it be for religious freedom, to escape starvation, to explore, or to create a better life for their families. America is a country of immigrants, but were the immigrants of the past expected to assimilate any more than they are now? How much are they expected to assimilate in the present day?
Although America has long been a country of immigrants, there has always been a shift in and out of skepticism toward immigrants. There are several approaches that are commonly taken, one that diversity brings a unity to our nation and the other that immigrants are not assimilating and should be kept out. Another viewpoint is that immigrants should retain their cultures when they go to other countries, so they can preserve their cultures rather then stripping themselves of it.
It was interesting in a point brought up in the article how assimilation in the past seemed to be practiced only one way. Immigrants are expected to change their ways to adapt to the supposedly superior American culture and shed all other qualities of their original cultures, while Americans on the other hand do not have to change their ways. I had never thought about assimilation from the host country side of the spectrum, and indeed realized that often the host country does not think it’s necessary to change, because they just expect the immigrants to do the changing in order to adapt to American culture.
The idea of a “superior” American culture, probably came about due to the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 when eugenics was being used to raise the standards of America culture and immigrants were being turned away at Ellis Island if they were not able to pass an intelligence test. In that time period there was a lot of skepticism toward immigrants because of the different languages they spoke and traditions they held. Americans were not as open to change as they are now. Immigrants were often seen as a lower race and were often discriminated against and ostracized leading them farther and farther away from assimilation. Many immigrants were only able to learn English through the workplace or their children; classes were expensive and there was often not enough time in the day to take them for a busy working immigrant trying to provide for their family.
In today’s society, Americans have been much more accustomed to change and legal immigration has come to be accepted. Assimilation has become a two way street as both Americans and immigrants have adapted to this constantly changing culture. Signs of this change can be seen in daily life, in the clothes we wear, products we buy, and amusement parks we visit. Directions on the back of shampoo products are now provided in three different languages; clothing comes with several different tags, each in a different language instructing how to wash it; “Please keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle” will be heard in both English and Spanish while getting on a ride at an amusement park. Furthermore, students are now encouraged to take foreign language courses so we are able to communicate better with the world that exists outside of our own country.
Society has come a long way in it’s acceptance of new ideas, although sometimes we can still be skeptical, it is usually for the good of the majority of America. Because of all the accommodations that have been put forth for immigrants, I think that it is makes it harder for immigrants to assimilate because there is seen as being no need. On one hand, the American culture is one that is commonly shared, but a common language is not. This often makes it hard to communicate with each other. My own lab partner this year cannot speak English and it has been a frustrating process for both him and I trying to get through lab working together. From this experience and some from my own family, I think both language and culture should be an expected part of being assimilated. This does not mean shedding the original culture where they are from, but rather embracing and respecting both.