The Problem Of Complete Immigrant Assimilation

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When immigrating to a new country, is there a middle ground between complete abandonment of one’s culture and acclimating to a new environment? Migrants and refugees coming to America already have to face countless challenges. Why should sacrificing their own culture be another one of these many challenges? Complete acclimatization or assimilation of immigrants to a new culture is damaging to one’s identity communally, mentally, and physically.

Firstly, why do people migrate? Migration can be voluntary or forced. Reasons why people will migrate voluntarily include, the pursuit of education, economic gain, or simply to be closer to loved ones. However, forced migrants or refugees are usually escaping some sort of political persecution from their native country: such as war. However, a damaging problem many refugees and migrants face similarly is assimilation. Assimilation can be defined as “A process by which cultural differences disappear as immigrant communities adapt to the majority or host culture and value system” (Bhugra). A lone person migrating to the United States may feel a disconnect from their family in their native country. They may not be able to practice the same traditions, religion, or speak the same language as they did in their native country, therefore, inherently losing a sense of culture. This loss of culture, or identity can cause many various mental health impacts.

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The negative mental health impacts of absolute assimilation to a new culture are vast. Immigrants moving to a new country already constantly have to face countless challenges such as unemployment, homelessness, financial challenges, and stereotypes. These are 4 of a multitude of reasons why an immigrant may feel isolated and/or feelings of depression. “Refugees are about ten times more likely than the age-matched general population to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 9% of refugees in general and 11% of children and adolescents have PTSD” (Giacco and Priebe). A solution to this ongoing problem of immigrant assimilation is acculturation.

Acculturation can be defined as the modifying of a particular culture as a result of exposure to other cultures (Bhugra). Think of assimilation as the forgetting of one’s culture instead of another. Acculturation is a sort of middle ground of two cultures meeting and both adapting to each other. Acculturation is tolerance. Acculturation is far superior.

In the graphic novel Persepolis, the main character Marjane doesn't migrate to a new country until the very end of the book. However, she experiences ongoing cultural assimilation of the people around her as the Shah takes over Iran. Marjane’s country changes before her very eyes. The modern woman changes from someone who could express themselves to “You showed your opposition to the regime by letting a few strands of hair show.” (Satrapi 75). Marjane instead acculturates herself only by the most necessary means. Such as wearing “The Veil.” If she didn’t wear the veil, she would get arrested. It was for her safety that she wore it. Though she got in trouble for opposing the regime, she stayed true to herself, her own identity, and her own culture in every other way possible. Staying true to yourself is very important in times of change because if you were to fully assimilate yourself into a new culture, what will be left of your identity will be a hollow shell of what you once were.

Assimilation has never affected me personally. I have never been a migrant or a refugee fleeing from political persecution. The closest I’ve known to assimilation is when my Grandmother moved my father moved from Italy to Canada when he was a 7-year-old child. He nor any of his family spoke English or French. They had to assimilate very quickly to their new surroundings to be able to get anything done. They couldn’t speak their native language without getting made fun of. My father has told me stories of kids picking on him because he spoke English and French with an Italian accent. My father, having to drop his native language as a child to learn both English and French was a necessity for him. However, he never forgot his heritage. His family would only cook traditional Italian food as well as celebrate holidays how they traditionally would back in Italy. Much like Marjane in Persepolis, my father only assimilated his culture when it was necessary to survive. Assimilating language for my father was a necessity, but for his reluctance to assimilate his Italian culture, I am thankful. Because now he has carried on those same traditions to me as I will carry on to my children.

In times of change, altering oneself to match a different culture will damage connections with your own culture, family, and personal identity. This damage can lead to mental health problems and estrangement from one’s identity. If society contemplated the everyday challenges migrants and refugees go through, we would be more inclined to sympathize with them.   

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