The Paradox of Assimilation
This one goes in the “not particularly novel, just interesting to me” file.
I was born and raised in the 1980s. This was a period of considerable immigration from Asia into the United States, as well as cultural influence. Chinese immigration continued at a significant clip, Japanese culture had exploded into the American mainstream, and the continuing fallout of the Vietnam War and related conflicts in Southeast Asia resulted in waves of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian migrants and refugees. (We’re all just living in Henry Kissinger’s world.) At the same time, the Asian American population remained very small overall, and popular culture like the film Sixteen Candles still treated Asian people as racist caricatures at worst and as curios at best. Still, there was a sufficient number of Asian people in my suburban Connecticut town (in part because of the university there) that I grew up alongside a cohort of Asian Americans who had to reckon with what it meant to be American-born Asians rather than immigrants from Asia. This necessarily included the question of assimilation and Americanization. Specifically, I’ve had the interesting experience of interacting with American-born Asian American friends near my age who are naturally assimilated into American culture but who politically question assimilation, who were raised by immigrant parents who are less assimilated and Americanized but who unapologetically pursued assimilation for their children.
For example, I grew up knowing a Chinese-American peer who was raised to be assimilated and given a conventionally American name at birth, with the parents avoiding speaking their native Cantonese dialect around the children in an effort to assist in their social and academic integration. This was common of a lot of the Asian American students I grew up alongside. He then had a kind of cultural awakening during college, one which prompted him to feel angry that he had not been raised with his home language or deeper knowledge of culture and customs. This was an explicitly political process, and he credited it as being the driving force behind a much broader evolution into the politics he still holds today. In time, he mellowed out a bit, and came to see his previous fervor as a little misplaced. For a time, he took a Chinese first name for himself, feeling that he had been denied one by his parents. He told me that his liberal friends of various races all embraced the new name and praised him for the change, but the people who he simply could not get to accept his new Chinese name were his parents, who were the most culturally and socially Chinese/least assimilated people around him. The last time I talked to him, when we were in our late twenties, he told me the amusing story of confronting his parents about these things during college, telling them that he wanted to learn Cantonese and live in China for a year, and having them react with mystification. When he said that he wanted to feel more Chinese, his mother had replied with genuine confusion, “…why?”
To underline the point: it’s common for assimilated/Westernized first-generation children of immigrants, from anywhere, to want to be more like those immigrant parents - except when it comes to the value of assimilation. In the above situation, he had wanted to embrace the Chinese language and customs of his parents, except for their readiness to direct their children away from Chinese language and customs. And this is something like the paradox of assimilation: those who critique assimilation and Westernization often do so from a set of political values that are, fundamentally, Western. They may become radicalized as Asian Studies minors at college, but they’re Western colleges, staffed mostly by white people, and the framework of ethnic philosophy that disdains the Western influence is often quite foreign to cultures that are… foreign. It’s an odd dynamic of having a cosmopolitan group of people around you that typically the most passionate valorization of the Other comes not from the Other but from consummately Western insiders, while the Other finds the whole practice of critiquing Western chauvinism quite inscrutable. It’s a classic example of the liberal habit of lionizing the ideal of a type of person while paying little attention to the actual people.
I find all of this interesting, but it’s important to define what I’m not saying here. It would be easy to turn this into a narrative of “those Chinese parents were wise, and the son foolish, because the United States is superior,” or something similar. But that’s not at all what I’m saying. For one thing, I’m opposed to patriotism in principle, for citizens of any country. For another, criticizing the United States and its role in the world has been core to my politics for my entire life. I’m not an America rah-rah kind of guy. Also, while I don’t want to put words into the mouth of someone I haven’t seen in a decade and a half, I want to be clear that the last time I talked to him he wasn’t saying that he had abandoned his interest in his Chinese identity or saw his efforts to deepen his cultural education as a mistake. He had simply grown a little rueful about his earlier passion, especially after he had lived in China for some months and found the experience to be somewhat alienating. Like a lot of people, I think he was left to wrestle with the fact that being descended from a culture didn’t mean he was fully or uncomplicatedly part of that culture and the fact that living in America didn’t mean people would see him fully or uncomplicatedly as American.
My point here is just that this stuff is complicated; the urge of immigrant parents to push their children to assimilate is entirely understandable, and so is the desire of those children to reconnect with their heritage. And this particularly interfaces with the burdens of identity that fall on people of color. I’ve always had zero desire to “reconnect” with my Scandinavian roots, given that I just don’t care about that. I mean, what’s in it for me, really? I already feel comfortable here. But were I non-white, and felt in some sense alienated from mainstream American culture, I would likely find more appeal in such a thing, especially given that others around me would likely expect me to somehow represent my cultural group. And, sure, I also think that there’s a form of identity politics that seeks to bulldoze over all of this complexity, to treat all immigrant or ethnic minority experience as the same, and to ignore the fact that a lot of people in the United States are here because their parents or grandparents willfully and knowingly decided that life here would be better. But that doesn’t undermine the many valid criticisms of America, its ideology, and the double bind Asian people are so often put in. As in all things, I think the only righteous urge in this conversation is to complicate where others would simplify.
Incidentally, if you’re interested in these topics, you should check out Jay Caspian Kang’s book The Loneliest Americans.