Saturday, September 15, 2007

Everybody into the Melting Pot

Is the melting pot a good thing or a bad thing? Should immigrants to this country be pushed to assimilate, to “Americanize” themselves? When I was younger I would have answered “bad” and “no” to those questions. I felt strongly about the subject because I was working on a book of oral histories of immigrants. It seemed to me that the men and women who had come to this country in the great tide of immigration around the turn of the last century had been robbed of their cultural identity.

I’ve been thinking about these issues again lately, along with everybody else, and I find I no longer agree with my younger self. I’m now on the side of assimilation. It can be carried too far, perhaps, as with my mother-in-law, who prepared traditional Italian dishes, while omitting the garlic. But too fierce an insistence on hyphenated identities undermines the common good. Take bilingual education. It’s fine for native English speakers; deadly unfair for immigrant children. Speaking fluent English is a passport to the larger society and it’s wrong to deprive children of that ability. Yes, you can live somewhere such as Miami and never have to even hear a word of English. But what if you want to leave Miami?

Cultural relativism, the idea that all cultures are equally valid, is one of those concepts that work better in theory than in practice. Especially if you’re a woman. I learn from this morning’s paper that clandestine polygamy has taken hold among Africans immigrants a few miles from my apartment. If this becomes tolerated, where might it lead? Here’s a cautionary tale from Germany, also in this morning’s paper. A German Muslim woman’s request for a speedy divorce on the grounds that her husband beat her was rejected by a judge, who noted that the couple came from a cultural background “in which it is not unusual that the husband uses physical punishment against the wife.”

Recently I spent several hours hanging around the international terminal at JFK airport. I marveled at the diverse throng of arriving passengers, happy that my city was the entry point for such a multiplicity of cultures. Then a frightening apparition emerged from passport control. A woman (one assumes) cloaked in black head to toe, with only the tiniest viewing slit. She wasn’t just veiled, she was enshrouded. She looked like an inky thumbprint, the kind that illiterates affix to documents. Seeing her chilled me in a way I couldn’t have imagined when I was working on my oral history book all those years ago. The world has changed since then and so have I. The sanctity of cultural identity is no longer my paramount concern. I found myself hoping the shrouded one would forsake her veil. Or that she was only here for a visit, and on a short-stay visa.

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