The Melting Pot vs. Cultural Competency: The Crisis of Identity for Immigrants in America
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When I first met my friend Steven, he asked me where I was from. When I told him I was from Toronto, Canada, he inquired again but added this time asking, “where I was really from.” My answer clearly was not satisfactory; he thought my accent was “funny.” Surprisingly, his question was much more difficult to answer. I did not know what to say—why could he not accept that some Canadians have a “funny” accent? Did he want me to say that I am from China? Why did my accent matter? When he first asked me where I was from, I felt obligated to answer Toronto even though I was mostly raised in Hong Kong. I was reluctant to answer his question with Hong Kong; I feared that he might label me as a newly immigrated alien, often referred to colloquially as FOB (fresh off the boat). This short anecdote is typical of many immigrants in America, and raises important questions for exploration. First, in what ways do America’s dominant cultural and social expectations implicitly shape immigrants’ self-identities and ultimately force them to behave a certain way? Second, and arguably more importantly, how can immigrants face the dilemma of cultural competency; how, if at all, can immigrants be true to their own heritage while still remaining open enough to adapt to new cultural milieus?
Maxine Hong Kingston offers one answer. Kingston herself grew up in a different culture and also recounts first-hand stories from her Chinese family. In her famous autobiography The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Kingston recalls the “talk-stories” that her mother once told her, ranging from ancient Chinese tales to real life experiences. Kingston illustrates an important theme about the importance of acting a certain way as an Asian-American, especially in the last two chapters, “At a Western Place” and “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.” “At a Western Place” is the chapter where Kingston shows the comparison between the extreme Chinese and Western cultures. Kingston tells the story of her aunt Moon Orchid’s transition from Hong Kong to America. Kingston describes the cultural conflict through Moon Orchid, a symbol for China, the children of Brave Orchid, the symbol for America, and Brave Orchid herself, the arbitrator. Brave Orchid balances the two poles harmoniously; when Moon Orchid arrives in America, she is so excited to give Brave Orchid’s children the gifts she brought from Hong Kong. However, the American children consider the Chinese gifts worthless as they do not follow the casual American model of gift giving. Nevertheless, Moon Orchid disregards their attitude and stays true to Chinese tradition. Eventually, Brave Orchid’s children grow tired of their aunt: the apparent “cultural gap” is unbearable. Even when Moon Orchid shows love when she affectionately smoothens their hair during the evening, they immediately order her to leave them alone (131). Moon Orchid’s numerous failed attempts to connect with Brave Orchid’s children drives her crazy (141). Her attempts to connect not only fail, but rather exacerbate the situation as the children become intent on keeping interactions with her as brief as possible. Thus, Moon Orchid’s inability to develop cultural competency and adapt to American culture resulted in failed relations with Brave Orchid’s children.
Julian Hill, an African American law student from Harvard University, faced similar challenges in developing cultural competency while trying to learn of his Ugandan heritage through interacting with local Ugandans. In “In Search of Black Identity in Uganda,” Hill calls Uganda his second home but has yet to travel there. He eventually goes to Uganda, discovering that calling a place “home” is not easy because there is more to home than merely having the same skin color. Hill felt it was impossible to “meld” both American and black identities: “it just seemed like I couldn’t have it both ways” (59). Hill recounts one phone conversation: “ ‘Yo, what’s good? I’m chillin.’ I’m mad on my way. I’ll see you like in like four-five. Fa sho. Word. Yuh.’ As I ended the call, I looked around. Great. Four sets of eyes were on me—each pair screaming ‘Muzungu’ (foreigner)” (57). Hill’s use of colloquial American language in his phone call likely confused others around him. More importantly, however, is that these people are distinguishing themselves from him; their looks imply that “You’re not one of us, you’re one of them” (57). Hill, in an attempt to change these peoples’ views, learns local Lugandan phrases: “Throw in a few of my patented Lugandan phrases with a local, and I felt less like the alien that I really was among Ugandans” (59). But if Hill is to be “accepted” by the new society, he must change and adopt the new culture. Hill changes his behavior to behave more like the Ugandans. The Ugandans seem more accepting as he adopts their mannerisms and traditions: Hill admits that he “[does] not feel like a tourist” after learning the phrases (59). His Ugandan friend Frank even recognizes him as a “brother” (60). Hill, unlike Moon Orchid, was able to build positive and meaningful relationships with people from foreign cultures precisely because he possessed greater flexibility and open-mindedness in adapting to new socio-cultural expectations.
Kingston further reinforces this idea in another chapter called “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” where she describes her own experiences with generational and cultural clashes. Despite her American education, Kingston still feels shame from her traditional Chinese. “[The emigrants] turn the radio up full blast. . . . they yell over the singers that wail over the drums, everybody talking at once, big arm gestures, spit flying. You can see the disgust on American faces looking at women like that. It isn’t just the loudness. It is the way Chinese sounds, chingchong ugly, to American ears, not beautiful like Japanese sayonara words with the consonants and vowels as regular as Italian” (171). Kingston decides to retract her voice to make herself more appealing to Americans: “We American-Chinese girls had to whisper to make ourselves American-feminine” (172). This adaptation is reinforced when Kingston bullies another Asian girl who refused to talk. On the one hand, this incident shows that as a Chinese American, Kingston judges the Chinese girl indifferent for not learning to speak English. Kingston calls her “sissy-girl,” squeezes her cheeks, and yanks her hair in frustration of her difficulty to interact with this “FOB” (175). But more importantly, Kingston despised the girl’s stereotypical fragility. Kingston’s self-racism goes further: she even generalizes FOBs as people who “wear high-riding grey slacks and white shirts with the sleeves rolled up. Their eyes do not focus correctly—shifty-eyed—and they hold their mouths slack, not tight jawed masculine” (194). FOBs, according to Kingston, do not adapt to other cultures, essentially isolating themselves. This isolation is illustrated in the television series Fresh Off the Boat based on Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir by Asian American author Eddie Huang. Eddie’s mother, Jessica, resembles Kingston’s mother. Not only is Jessica a stereotypical “Asian Tiger Mom” who requires excellence in everything her children do (like Brave Orchid), she also lacks cultural competency, fiercely guarding Chinese traditions considering all Americans foreigners.
Some might argue one should stay true to one’s culture and heritage and that one should not change to adapt to others’ expectations. However, people likely will need to change to adapt to new cultures when living in a foreign country for one’s own flexibility and self-respect, not to impress. Examples include the way we talk, the way we dress and the way we behave. In fact, learning English is already the first step to adopting American culture. Leila Ahmed’s “Reinventing the Veil” illustrates how dynamic culture is. Ahmed reflects on her childhood experiences to explore how the cultural implications and symbols associated with the veil have drastically changed. Egyptian women nowadays wear veils not as a way to obey patriarchal traditions, but as an alternative way of raising awareness and consciousness about the sexist messages in Egypt (307). According to Ahmed, embracing change can be “bracing” and “exciting” and can create a new identity (308). Ahmed’s example illustrates how embracing change, though it may be difficult initially, can even catalyze positive social change.
Overall, balance and flexibility are key for immigrants to have positive experiences in foreign lands. Although different societies may maintain and promote different norms, values, and beliefs, I believe it is important to maintain balance and still stay true to one’s own heritage, which would ideally be respected by those around them. The concept of cultural competency, as epitomized in the example of Hill, is one possible answer to the questions originally proposed. Although this concept is neither foolproof nor without exception, it provides for immigrants all over the world a unique conceptual framework with which to leave their lives in new lands, wherever their destinations.
Ahmed, Leila. “Reinventing the Veil.” Globalization. New York: Oxford, 2014: 304–308. Print.
Fresh Off the Boat. ABC. WCVB, Orlando. 15 April. 2015. Television.
Hill, Julian. “In Search of Black Identity in Uganda.” Globalization. New York: Oxford, 2014: 53–62. Print.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.
In 1908, British writer Israel Zangwill wrote a stage play, the title of which popularized a term that came to be used as a metaphor for America itself: The Melting Pot. Debuting before U.S. audiences in 1909, Zangwill’s play told the story of David Quixano, a fictional Russian-Jewish immigrant who is intent on moving to the United States after his family dies in a violent anti-Semitic riot in Russia. For Quixano (and many actual immigrants at the time), America, in all of its culturally “blended” glory, stood as a beacon of light visible from the darkest and most oppressed corners of the world, offering promise, possibility, and maybe even acceptance.
Well before Zangwill put the “melting pot” label into the global lexicon, the United States had already earned a reputation as an immigrant haven. New England’s first immigrant settlers, the Puritans and the Pilgrims, left their native England in the early 1600s in order to practice their respective religions more freely, without antagonistic meddling from the Church of England. In the early 1800s, the French Revolution saw thousands of rural Europeans flee to America, to escape the war-torn countryside and a government in shambles. As a result of the great famine that struck Ireland in the first half of the nineteenth century, millions of Irish Catholic immigrants crossed the Atlantic, settling into various pockets of the East Coast. The next wave came from Asia, with Chinese and Japanese immigrants arriving to California in droves, working throughout the West as the Gold Rush and the railroad stirred dreams of vast riches.
The arrival of these immigrants, and with them their varied cultural backgrounds, was essential in molding America’s public identity. And it fed into America’s self-history, enshrining the United States as a refuge for all those suffering persecution for political or personal beliefs; a shelter that accepts a wide variety of faiths and ideologies.
This widely publicized version of America as a wholly inclusive land was not in touch with reality, with a widespread desire to strip immigrants of their individual customs, and force them into a version of whiteness that permeates society to this, lurking right beneath the surface. There is a rich American tradition of rejecting immigrants and refugees, and those who do make it through often face calls to assimilate and deny their cultural roots.
There is a rich American tradition of rejecting immigrants and refugees.
Prior to the late 1800s, the federal government did little to control the flow of immigration. Naturalization guidelines were put in place in the late eighteenth century, and starting in 1819, immigrants were required to report their arrival to the U.S. government. The weak enforcement of this provision allowed for a high number of undocumented immigrants. State governments attempted to pass their own immigration laws, and the chaos that ensued across state borders finally led the federal government to take control of the issue in the late 1800s. With anti-immigration heightening throughout the native-born public, immigration laws were introduced as a means of placating an upset public.
Nativist partisans have a long history in America, but began to emerge as a major national political force in the 1850s, becoming major opponents to immigration as they stressed the importance of pure “American values.” Though Irish immigrants adapted easily to many facets of American life, for example, nativists denounced their Catholic religion as un-American, put up store-window signs reading “No Irish Need Apply” blocking them from prospective jobs, and tried to stem the flow of immigration from Ireland. Many immigrants — especially those with Italian and Irish roots — were plainly seen as inferior, and depicted as ape-like in media from the era. For these immigrants, gaining acceptance often required them to ostracize the next wave of immigrants; you became white by opposing those who weren’t.
This dynamic contributed to the demonization of Asian immigrants in the 1870s and 1880s. The Page Act of 1875 specifically targeted Asian laborers, convicts, and prostitutes by denying them entry to the United States, though its primary mission was to make immigration harder for all Asians. The Chinese Exclusion Act followed in 1882, and effectively banned Chinese immigrants from entry into the United States. Though these laws were specific to Asian immigrants, broader immigration laws soon succeeded them, enacted with the intention of tightening border security and making it harder for immigrants to enter legally.
Despite these new laws and bouts of anti-immigrant fervor, foreigners continued to flock to America. The third major wave of immigration in the United States occurred around the turn of the twentieth century, and brought with it immigrants from previously unrepresented regions (Eastern Europe and Russia, among others). The cycle — immigrate, and then turn against those who come after — began anew, and a new assimilation movement arose.
For many immigrants, gaining acceptance often required them to ostracize the next wave of immigrants; you became white by opposing those who weren’t.
The government and the public encouraged newly minted American citizens to absorb a new culture almost immediately upon arrival, a process dubbed “Americanization.” In an oft-quoted passage, President Teddy Roosevelt called for assimilation, exclaiming, “We have room for but one language here [in America], and that is the English language.” Citizenship programs were established across the country, and free English lessons were available in most major cities and towns. The Ford Motor Company, among other major businesses, kept immigrant laborers after working hours for mandatory courses to teach them English and instill American values. The Young Men’s Christian Association also offered classes that taught immigrants the “American way,” educating them on American hobbies, hygiene practices, family life, and more.
Zangwill’s play debuted just as the Americanization movement took off, receiving mixed reviews from both the public and critics. In his article, “How The Melting Pot Stirred America,” author Joe Kraus notes that fans of the play saw it as a “powerful articulation of the promise of America.” Those who disliked the production, however, saw it as a representation of the mounting cultural hierarchy in America. “The Melting Pot, which celebrated America’s capacity to accommodate difference,” writes Kraus, “appeared on the scene at a moment when the American theater world ceased to accept heterogeneity in its productions and, more subtly, ceased to accommodate difference in its audience.” Thus, The Melting Pot, for all of its insistence that America was a joyful marriage of diverse cultures, actually symbolized the end of cultural acceptance in the United States.
Even so, many immigrants continued viewing America in something like the spirit of Zangwill’s Quixano: “America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming … Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians — into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”
Despite its shortcomings, the great melting pot was the face of America for decades after Zangwill’s play. Even as Asian immigrants were forced into Chinatowns (the first of which was formed in response to rising racial tensions), Japanese-Americans were interned, and Jim Crow reigned, America proudly viewed itself as a cornucopia of ideas and ethnicities. In the mid-twentieth century, however, the melting pot concept began receiving more critical examination, just as a fourth wave of immigration crested in the United States.
Unlike the episodes of major immigration that came before it, the fourth wave was comprised predominantly of Spanish-speaking immigrants from Central and South America. Like many of their predecessors, they were met with distrust and dislike by the American public. Though many tried to assimilate into American daily life, they were seen as cultural and economic threats. Nonetheless, aspects of Hispanic culture leaked into American life.
With so many ethnic groups a part of twentieth century America, calls for assimilation began to see opposition in the form of multiculturalism, a school of thought that stresses the importance of recognizing individual ethnicities. It’s in direct contrast to the concept of a melting pot, and has earned catchphrase metaphors of its own, like “salad bowl” and “cultural mosaic.” With the introduction of this ideology, Zangwill’s grand melting pot theory was aggressively called into question.
Even now, multiculturalism is but one of the terms used in an ongoing debate of how best to describe America’s diverse and growing population. Though Zangwill’s play advocated for America as the great equalizer, the melting pot was no more than a myth, albeit one cherished by many Americans. The great number of ethnic backgrounds that dwell in the United States make it difficult to assign but one name to the country, and one that adequately describes the mixture of many at that.
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Bruce Thornton, “Melting Pots and Salad Bowls,” Hoover Institution, October 26, 2012.
Daniel Griswold, “Immigrants have enriched American culture and enhanced our influence in the world,”Insight, February 8, 2002.