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My Assimilation

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The tale of my assimilation to the culture of the West is evident, yet not as stark as that of others. It is a common tale, disturbingly common, one might say, so common that it has become repetitively second-nature to the lives of immigrants in America, whether they are categorized as first or second generation. At three years, I did not understand the other children of my preschool, children who spoke rapid English and played with blond, blue-eyed Barbie dolls, for I had neither been taught English nor been raised in a stereotypically American environment. As my birthdays passed, I became increasingly aware of the differences between the two cultures that constructed my life, and devised a theory that in order to fully fit in, I would have to master English and abandon my former language. And so, at the mere age of four, my rebellion began, word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase. Whenever I was spoken to in Spanish, I would respond with a “Don’t speak to me in that!” as if the language was too lowly, too shameful, too inferior, to deserve a name. I refused to speak Spanish while in the company of English speakers; however, in private, I spoke it reluctantly. Ultimately, I stopped speaking it altogether.

As I reminisce my childhood, I have reflected on my not uncommon abandonment of a language that was as much a part of me as my heritage, the color of my skin: I seemed to have an incessant craving for conformity, to blend in with those around me—at the time, this meant sacrificing my mother tongue. E.M. Cioran notes, “A man who repudiates his language for another changes his identity.” The latter is true—native language is always a large part of one’s identity, something that—no matter how hard one tries to assimilate him/herself—will forever remain. The human race communicates through language, and denying one’s language is synonymous to denying oneself as a person, cutting off all communication from those that speak the language. Losing one’s initial cultural values to those of a strange, foreign country is a nightmarish scenario, a scenario that ultimately leads to the utter loss of an entire people’s traditional values.

It seems that assimilation, as a whole, is often triggered by the stereotypic attitudes of American citizens, the Western ideas of imperialism and the scorn towards countries of less material worth, less economic worth. Immigrants, immersed in their rich cultural traditions and beliefs, arrive in the country with an idealized portrait of the better life, a better education for their children, an opportunity to send money back home, to support impoverished extended family. Yet, years later, when, or, rather, if, immigrants choose to return to their home countries, they have lost key chunks of their native values: family members look at them as “foreigners.” Because, more often than not, immigrants are poor, they struggle to survive in the rush of the North American economy. Thus, they feel similar to the way I did, yet in a different way—because they are less economically stable, and therefore stereotypically “inferior” to Caucasian, middle-class, and wealthy racists, immigrants may feel a drive to blend in with the rest of the population, to prove that they are not merely the “scum,” the underprivileged, non-English speaking fraction of the population. In many cases, immigrants, living in dilapidated areas, are first introduced to the harsh part of our culture: the excess of drugs, alcohol, and violence, all counterproductive ways of dealing with hardship. In rough neighborhoods, the only way to get by may be to fight for the protection of family members, punching to prevent teasing. Perhaps, due to the anti-immigration environments of many places, immigrants may want to shed their native culture, as if the loss of their “alien” traditions will gain them some respect, bringing them closer to being looked upon as a human being, closer to becoming an “American,” a person that is respected without fail.

What is the genuine definition of an “American?” Can it be defined? Are only those with fair skin truly looked upon as “Americans?” Or is it more than that? Can the term “American” be applied to any tax-paying individual that wants to be classified as such? Although immigrants who apply for their citizenship must swear on the Bible that they are willing to risk their lives, go to war as “American” soldiers, are they ever actually treated as “Americans, ” equally to those who appear to be born in the country? Perhaps this will one day become clear to me, but for now, I must continue to wonder. And I will. I will continue to wonder when the Border Patrol stops me, year after year, skipping all other passengers that seem “American,” yet questioning me, questioning me because I do not “look as if I come from here,” do not “look as if I speak the language.” Officials tend to disregard completely the fact that I was born in the United States, that I have always lived in America, that I speak English much better than I do Spanish; instead, I must be subject to repetitive rounds of distrustful, probing, armed officials, criminal search dogs by their side.
Many immigrants strive to retain the culture they have loved, to hold on to their histories. They care about their homeland, yet are forced to leave their countries due to political, social, and/or economic turmoil. Countless inhabitants of war-torn countries, in fact, refuse to leave, no matter the dangers of their precarious circumstances, for they cannot face an estrangement from their homeland. They know the dangers of losing their roots, the importance of preserving their culture.

I wish I had accepted my culture, found a balance between the American way of life and that of my early years, rather than desert it altogether. It is the one thing that I greatly regret, as do many other first and second generation immigrants that I have talked to over the years, immigrants who have had time to reflect on their past choices. Even so, it is never too late salvage one’s culture, to discover it once again—word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase.





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