I get it. For many people, their true identity, their sense of self, and their greatest comfort are all found in their culture, their religion, their ethnic background, and their tribal affiliations. They exist because they are part of this something that is greater than themselves.
But, at the same time, that thing they belong to—their tribe, their gang, their political party—is smaller than the world around it. They are the self-nominated—if not actually inducted by hierarchical vetting, testing, and ceremony—members of an exclusive, select club. They are unique because they and their group are different from the whole, from the larger society, from the seething mass of people that surrounds them. Within the folds of their chosen group, they are safe. The people and things held close around them are familiar. The language, word choices, innuendoes, references, jokes, and antipathies of their group are all known and understood. Within those confines, a person cannot go wrong by accident, only by intention.
Yes, a member of a close-knit group—especially one that is known by its accents, its clothing choices, or its skin color or other phenotypic features—may feel strange, isolated, and defensive when venturing out into the wider world. But the person will also feel … special. The hairstyle, the tattoo, the distinctive dress will mark him or her as a member of the elect, something above with the hoi polloi, partaking of a secret—or not so secret—identity which has depths of meaning unknown to the other people on the bus or in line for the next bank teller. And if the person is part of a group that actually does have secret knowledge—such as who is really going to heaven when they die, or up against the wall in the next revolution—so much the better.
For such a person, assimilating into the surrounding culture is not just an act of surrendering to a superior force. It can be a loss of that comfort, that familiarity, and that secret power. In the first stages of assimilation, in the first generation that is trying to become members of the greater society, engaging in the larger society is to risk becoming painfully visible. The assimilatee’s tongue is not yet familiar with all the new words and concepts. He or she does not know all the norms, the jokes, the transactional processes. Her dress and demeanor may not be quite right in all social situations. He expects others will laugh at him for trying to put on a show of assimilation, just as he quietly laughed at others who were not members of his in-group.
Assimilation is not only painful in the transition process, but also in the long-term effects. To become a member of the greater whole is to become virtually invisible, indistinguishable from the people on all sides. That is, the assimilatee no longer stands out for his or her obvious differences of dress, language, skin color or other physical features, religious preference, and so on. If a person bases his or her sense of self on these differences, then to assimilate, to become just like everyone else, is a kind of personal or cultural death.
This is not a problem in most of the world’s countries and societies. In Japan, a gaijin, a foreigner, will be forever foreign, different, an outsider. Learn Japanese, adopt the culture in every detail, become an honored master in one of the country’s traditional arts like swordmaking or ceramics, even change your name to a Japanese form—and you will still be an foreigner. Even if you are of Asian descent, so that your face and body look the part, you will still not be Japanese. Ask the Koreans who have lived there for generations.
The same is true of China and most of Asia. Most of Europe, too. Even if your ancestors originally came from France or Germany, Sweden or Poland, to live for a few generations in North America, you cannot go back again and be accepted. Maybe, after a generation or two of reverse-assimilation, the locals will forget that your heritage is really American and that you are trying to live in disguise. Maybe, in the big cities, you can blend in through the anonymity of urban, cosmopolitan life. But, at the village and town level, memories—and tongues—are long and sometimes spiteful. The locals will know who you are and from whence you came.
In the Middle East, it is not impossible to assimilate if you are a Muslim or wholeheartedly willing to convert to Islam. The religious-political system of Islam makes generous allowances for adherents of all national and ethnic types. But the power structure of Saudi Arabia will still question your Arabness, even if you have the right look and adopt the keffiyeh and agal cords. The people of Iran will know in a few minutes that you are not really Persian. They might even think you are funny—or despise you—for trying to be what you are not.
This kind of cultural and ethnic disdain has never really been a problem in the United States. Or rather, it has been a problem only for the first generation of new-wave assimilatees, but not in succeeding generations so long as they can “walk the walk and talk the talk.” This country was put together from thirteen separate colonies that by the late 18th century had all come under the control of the British crown. But they started as enclaves of religious and ethnic refugees conscious of their differences: New England Puritans, New York Dutch Protestants, Pennsylvania English Quakers, Maryland English Catholics, Virginia, Carolina, and Georgia planters and slaveholders. They had their differences, but the Revolutionary War and the hardships of fighting and being fought over drew them together.
In the century that followed, the country absorbed the British and Hessian soldiers who came to fight and decided to stay on after independence,1 as well as people willing to emigrate in search of a better life: Irish and Scottish peasants, German and Swedish peasants, Italian and Eastern European peasants, mostly solid Catholics, and then Russian peasants, mostly Ashkenazi Jews. They landed on the East Coast looking for those streets of gold and, after a generation crowded into their Germantowns and Little Italies, enduring some measure of pain and strife, they moved outside those protective regions. In a generation or two, they became indistinguishable from the rest of the Americans, except for some ethnic foods and traditional dress which they trotted out and celebrated on holidays, rather more as an art form than an identity.
On the West Coast the situation was both easier and harder. Easier because, during the California Gold Rush, all those European refugees came overland or by boat into San Francisco and melted fast in working the placer deposits and mines of the gold fields. Harder, too, because Chinese refugees came to trade and work on the railroad, and they were more difficult to assimilate, both because their culture was harder to forget and because their faces and bodies were harder to ignore.
That has been the trouble with the most recent wave of assimilation in this country: the Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodians, the Middle Easterners, and of course, anyone from Africa—even if his or her ancestors have lived here and been citizens for half a dozen generations. They wear on their faces the marks of difference in the shape of their eyes, noses, lips, and the color of their skins. They have been a more difficult set of groups to assimilate. But I have seen in academia, in the biotech world where I worked, and in other places of business—and not always with government prodding—that people can be accepted, valued, and sought out for the quality of their skills, knowledge, and character. And then it is easy to dismiss superficial differences like skin color. They walk the walk, talk the talk, and everyone has come to trust their opinions and actions.2
Of all countries, though, America has made it the easiest for people of other places and other cultures to assimilate. Learn a skill, find a way to add value to the economy or to society, and you will find a place in this country.
But still, assimilation will be psychologically hard for you. You will no longer be distinguished by the easy marks of difference—your faith, your accent, or your skin color—and now you will have to distinguish yourself by the harder marks of thought, effort, and achievement—“the content of your character.” For many people, this is not only harder but simply impossible. If you are not particularly talented, have no particular interests, have no desire to learn particular skills, then you will become Joe Average, the Invisible Man or Woman, and fade into the background of an assimilated society. For many people, that can be a kind of personal death.
1. My own great-great-who’s-counting?-great-grandfather on the Thomas side was a soldier in the British Army and carried a Brown Bess on the streets of Buffalo in the War of 1812. After the war he was demobilized, or simply deserted, and lit out for Michigan, at the other end of Lake Erie. My brother still has, as a treasured relic, the musket he carried.
2. I learned an important lesson working at two different biotech companies. We had many people of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and other heritages working at either site, and one plant claimed thirty-seven different ethnicities among its employees. Some were full citizens, spoke fluent English, and had become fully assimilated into American culture. Some were recent arrivals, both holders of H1-B visas and green cards, as well as newly sworn citizens. Sometimes, though, the person with the thickest accent and least talent for telling a joke was the most serious and dedicated technician—and you could take his or her judgment to the bank. And sometimes the person with the most fluent English and the best jokes, even native-born persons of European stock, had terrible judgment and lousy lab skills—and you always had to double-check their work. In such an environment, you quickly learn to look beyond surface differences when saleable product hangs in the balance.