america

The American Melting Pot

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The melting pot is an image that conjures up the ideals of American culture, of the United States as the place where people come from many nations, journeying across oceans and crossing borders to become a new kind of person: the American. You come from distant lands, leaving behind all you once were, your old ways of thinking, your old ways of eating, your oppression, your lack of opportunity, and you are given a fresh start, the much sought after “clean slate”, and the ability to make of yourself whatever you want. The idea is romantic and poetic, but isn’t representative of the immigrant experience.

 It was the French-American author Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur who most famously and deeply propagated the idea of the United States as the world’s melting pot. Crèvecoeur was a fairly well-to-do man who was born and died in France, served in the French military, and eventually obtained American citizenship in New York where he lived for some years as a farmer. Two years after leaving America he published a book in London entitled Letters from an American Farmer under the American pseudonym John Hector St. John. In this book he asks the question "What is an American?" 

 What then is the American, this new man? [...] He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our Alma Mater. Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.

 I find it interesting that this passage from an affluent French lieutenant turned farmer who never permanently lived in the United States has become the defining identity of the American ethos. Crèvecoeur’s ideas have prevailed into our modern times, but we’ve taken them a step further. The American melting pot is no longer the way things naturally occur in this country; it’s the way things must occur. It’s the new law of what is mistakenly called assimilation.

 When an immigrant comes to the United States, he is expected to speak our language, follow our trends, tend to our schedules, and try to be more like upper class American suburbia. We call it assimilation but in actuality it’s an unrealistic cultural expectation of extreme adaptation. Immigrants are expected to arrive in America as blank pages. If they cling to any strand or fiber of their roots that we don’t approve of they’re accused of not assimilating into American culture and of trying to overtake it with their own. Of course certain cultural traces and traits are acceptable, while others are not. Having an Italian accent is attractive; having a Mexican accent means you don’t speak English well. Wearing traditional African clothes is chic; wearing a hijab is threatening. If you’re from Sweden we assume you have great style; if you’re from Colombia we assume you’re a drug smuggler. The list goes on an on.

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 But why shouldn’t we assume this? Isn’t that the way immigration works? It’s only fair. They’re coming to our country, setting foot on our turf. We’re Americans, why should we adjust to accommodate the outsiders? Because that is what an American does, and has done for most of our short history. When we talk about true assimilation, we see the preexisting culture take upon itself to incorporate the entrance of a new culture. Let me give you an example. The immigrant comes speaking Spanish and eating tacos. Americans find themselves saying "gracias" and add tortillas to their shopping lists. The immigrant comes speaking Farsi and frying falafel. Next thing we know, words like shawarma, kebab, and baklava don't seem foreign but delicious. Assimilation is about an addition, not a subtraction. The dominant culture is expected to adapt to the entrance of the foreign, not exterminate it. America, the burden of assimilation is not on the immigrant entering our borders, it's on us.

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Here’s the bottom line: assimilation isn’t something an immigrant can do on their own; it’s something that we have to do together. America isn’t a place where people come to lose themselves because Lady Liberty isn’t a lunch lady tossing everything from the fridge into the pot and calling it a nation. She is a chef, and a good one. She respects the origin and history of each ingredient and attempts to bring out its best flavors, accent its unique attributes, and celebrates them on the unique menu. America isn’t a melting pot it’s a dinner party where everybody brings their favorite dish to the table. If the immigrants bringing sushi and enchiladas and pho had merely melted into the existing American culture, we would never know about their rich culinary treasures. But they didn’t merely try to “fit in,” they shared their food and culture, rejoicing when we accepted, and remaining stubborn when we refused. We in turn did the same. We assimilated. Together.

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 I'm going to end this post by contrasting Crèvecourer's words with those of Marcus Eli Ravage, a Romanian immigrant to the US. His book An American in the Making: The Life Story of an Immigrant present a very different and I believe more accurate look into the immigrant experience. Written one hundred years ago in 1917, his words are haunting and timely for 2017.

 When I hear all around me the foolish prattle about the new immigration –" the scum of Europe," as it is called— that is invading and making itself master of this country, I cannot help saying to myself that Americans have forgotten America. The native, I must conclude, has, by long familiarity with the rich blessings of his own land, grown forgetful of his high privileges and ceased to grasp the lofty message which America wafts across the seas to all the oppressed of mankind. What, I wonder, do they know of America, who know only America? [...] It is the free American who needs to be instructed by the benighted races in the uplifting word that America speaks to all the world. Only from the humble immigrant, it appears to me, can he learn just what America stands for in the family of nations. The alien must know this, for he alone seems ready to pay the heavy price for his share of America. He, unlike the older inhabitant, does not come into its inheritance by the accident of birth. Before he can become an American he must first be an immigrant [...] try to think of leave-taking –of farewells to home and kindred, in all likelihood never to be seen again; of last looks lingering affectionately on things and places; of ties broken and grown stronger in the breaking. Try to think of the deep upheaval of the human soul, pulled up by the roots from its ancient, precious soil, then slowly finding nourishment in the new soil, and once more thriving –not, indeed, as before— a novel, composite growth. If you can see this you may form some idea of the sadness and the glory of his adventure. Oh, if I could show you America as we of the oppressed peoples see it! If I could bring home to you even the smallest fraction of this sacrifice and this upheaval, the dreaming and the strife, the agony and the heartache, the endless disappointments, the yearning and the despair – all of which must be ours before we can make a home for our battered spirits in this land of yours.