My essay focuses on the determents of cultural assimilation as well as the ways that American life forces immigrants to leave behind the culture of their homes. I want readers to notice the critiques of the current system and begin to think about ways that we could change these things.
The choice to immigrate to another country or place is a hard decision for anyone. Having to completely change your life is a complete shock and this decision is never made lightly. People immigrate for many different reasons, it could be for safety, better job opportunities, education, family, but it is never an easy decision. One of the many challenges that immigrants face when living in a new place is the balance between the two cultures. Choosing which aspects of your native culture and the new culture to incorporate into your life is a choice that every immigrant has to make. The same goes for the children of immigrants, who in many cases are torn between the traditions that their family wants to teach them and the traditions of their friends and peers. In this essay, I will explore the sacrifices that immigrants and children of immigrants have to make to assimilate into their new culture.
“The Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahari, follows the son of two immigrants, Gogol. In Indian culture, most people have a nickname and a “good name” (one that they use on legal papers, at work and school, etc). When Gogol goes to school for the first time, his parents, Ashima and Ashoke, instruct the teachers to call him “Nikhil,” but there is some confusion and he ends up continuing to be called Gogol. When Gogol’s sister is born, their parents decide to give her only one name, “They’ve learned their lesson after Gogol. They’ve learned that schools in America will ignore parents’ instructions and register a child under his pet name. The only way to avoid such confusion, they have concluded, is to do away with the pet name altogether, as many of their Bengali friends have done.” Ashima and Ashoke were forced to give up one of the vital traditions in Indian culture to make the lives of their children easier. Gogol had to grow up with his pet name being used for everything and they didn’t want that for their second child. The entirety of “The Namesake” stresses how important names are in Indian culture, showing the level of sacrifice that giving their child only one name was for Ashoke and Ashima. One of the keywords from this quote is “Learn.” Ashima and Ashoke, like all immigrants, are forced to learn the nuances of their new culture. In American in particular, we expect immigrants to assimilate into our culture instead of celebrating and trying to understand our differences in ways of life. We can see this often in the current events in America. From crowds of people chanting “Build the Wall” to foreign language speakers being discriminated against, being told that “this is America, speak English.” The culture of America backs immigrants into a wall, where their only choices are to conform or to fail.
We see this type of behavior in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” also. While the people that live in the bathtub aren’t technically immigrants, they may as well be, as their way of life in no way resembles the culture outside of the bathtub. Once Hurricane Katrina hits, a “rescue team” comes to take the residents in the bathtub to a hospital. The only problem is that no one in the bathtub wants the help of outsiders. They created a community within themselves and distrust the outside world. In this case, the outside world wants people in the bathtub to assimilate to their culture, and leave their home for safety, because they believe that their way of life is the best one. Most of the people that live in The Bathtub are happy with their lives, even if people on the outside wouldn’t consider them ideal. America often writes a narrative of being the saviors or heroes of history, but in many cases, people are perfectly fine with their lives, and don’t want to be “saved”. This situation is reminiscent of the boarding schools that young Native American children were forced to attend, which taught them to adapt to western culture. They were taught English, forced to dress in western clothing, and converted into Christians. In the early American’s minds, they were saving and “fixing” the Native American children, but in reality, they were stripping the children of their Native culture based on extremely racist ideals. This savior complex is weaved into American history and is something we still haven’t shaken even today.
The story of immigration in the United States is a complicated one. The founders of the US were immigrants, who stole the land we live on today from Native American people. Today, that is America’s biggest fear, of having our jobs, our land, stolen from those we see as the other. Our definition of what “American” even is is shallow and weak. Instead of accepting and appreciating our mix of cultures we hold certain traits and traditions at a higher level. If we can’t realize and reconcile with these truths, we will never be able to move forward as a country.