Citing the failure of 'multiculturalism' — how ‘respecting difference’ and encouraging immigrants to celebrate and express their heritage only led to failed integration of immigrants, and now fearing ‘disintegration’ of the society into a series of 'ethnic islands,’ European nations returned to the ethos of assimilation: of demanding immigrants an order between their new culture and their old culture, and a choice of allegiance between their adopted nation and their home country, and for the second and third generation, between the country they grew up in and the country their parents were from. 'French first, Muslim second' echoed this sentiment.
This was the approach I had voluntarily taken up upon moving to America — namely, the assimilationist approach of adopting the new culture at the expense of shedding my heritage.
Thrown into a homogeneous setting of the New Jersey suburbs where I felt I stood out for my exterior difference, all I desired was to become 'American.' Ardently believing that becoming American came at the expense of shedding my past, I embarked on an obsessive project of stripping off any traces of foreignness in myself — including accent, dress and mannerisms — and consciously moulding myself into an 'American.'
I learned to make firm handshakes, make direct eye contact and smile even to the strangers. I learned to accept compliments by saying 'thank you' rather than denying them as considered polite in Korea. I adopted what I observed to be an 'American' voice — confident and outwardly projected, with a hint of nasal shrill, rather than a timid and withdrawn voice that barely crept out of my throat that I could hardly recognize as my own.
Korean language and culture became strictly private only to be used with my family. I even held onto a belief, bordering superstition, that speaking too much Korean would keep my English accented and therefore to be minimized. I wanted to think and dream in English. I wanted to close the gap — absolutely and precisely — between what I was trying to express and what got expressed in the new language.
Even though I had sufficiently become Americanized by the time I went to college, to the point that my classmates started assuming that I was born in America, my relationship between American culture and Korean culture had not been comfortably resolved in myself. I was becoming American at the expense of shedding my past. I was trying to hide my private identity — my Korean self — behind my public identity — my American self.
It was only when friends around me challenged me, why I would try to ‘hide’ the Korean side of me and refuse to speak Korean in public, and they showed appreciation and respect for Korean culture and language — even expressing envy that I had a strong connection with a culture that they didn’t have, I started feeling comfortable in my own skin and embracing and expressing my heritage openly, when I had an urge to hide or shed it.
Assimilation doesn’t work — even when self-imposed by immigrants themselves — because it doesn’t allow the relationship between two cultures — the culture one grows up in and one’s heritage — to be harmoniously resolved in oneself. Plus, assimilation implied a hierarchy between cultures — it implied that the culture one was adopting, willingly or unwillingly done, was superior to the culture one was shedding. Looking back, I was all for assimilation when I arrived in America and willingly shed traces of Korean culture in myself as I unconsciously harbored a hierarchy between cultures within myself — Western culture being superior to Eastern culture — which was inculcated in me growing up in Asia. It also implied, when assimilation was forced upon, there was a dominant group who assumed the position of telling what others should or should not do with their heritage. Who had the right to decide what one should or shouldn't do with one's own heritage?
America was no exception that the assimilationist forces initially prevailed. The newly arrived was expected to 'Americanize' according to the norms favored by the nation's old Protestant elite — 'the conformist impulse to melt down the peculiarities of immigrants in order to pour the resulting liquid into pre-existing molds created in the self-image of the Anglo-Protestants who claimed prior possession of America,’ as David Hollinger observed in Post-Ethnic America. I was reminded of a third generation Italian-American woman, Anita, whom I met at a cooking class while traveling in Tuscany. She said that her grandmother — the first generation Italian émigré to America — ‘unfortunately’ had shed all the traces of Italian-ness in herself in tune with the assimilationist ethos of America at the time, and here she was, the third generation Italian-American, in Italy trying to reclaim her lost heritage.
By the 1980s and 90s, at the moment of unprecedented ethno-racial diversity in America, Hollinger observes, the ‘multicultural’ discourse came to the fore, which grew against the narrowness of the prevailing culture in the US that had 'outgrown itself.' Multiculturalists upheld the 'right of immigrants to resist assimilation and maintain cohesive communities devoted to perpetuation of ancestral, religious, linguistic and social practices.' It presented a vision of America as a 'political canopy providing protection for a variety of descent defined groups.’
I wondered had I arrived in America only a few years before I did in 1993, would I have been able to arrive at a comfortable relationship with my own heritage. I could sense signs of irresolution in Asian-Americans only a few years older than me, who either exotified themselves to the point that they became the stereotype of what the society cast on them or didn’t want to have anything to do with their heritage and would rather be perceived as ‘white.’
There was a difference between a society exotifying and fetishizing those who were different — ‘othering’ AND appreciating and celebrating your heritage and background all the while assuming that your were ‘one of us’ in the ‘circle of we’. In a society where diversity is a cherished value, it appreciates and celebrates your heritage AND paradoxically sees through your exterior difference. This allowed a seamless integration of both the culture one grows up in and one’s heritage in one body without having to choose between the two.
It was through the development of internet and globalization through the 2000s that I could sense the ethos of celebrating and being proud of one’s heritage intensifying in America — that heritage was something to be celebrated and to be proud of, rather than to hide or be shed. Hadn’t such ethos embraced me, and hadn’t those around me expressed appreciation for my heritage and encouraged me to express it openly, I too would have willingly shed it uncomfortable with my own difference.
But the shift from the assimilationist ethos of shedding one’s heritage to multicultural ethos of celebrating one’s heritage was accompanied by expanding the circle of who was considered ‘we’ as ‘one of us’ — who was considered ‘American’ — which gradually widened to include people of all backgrounds regardless of one’s origin, both of which were driven by the strengthening ethos of egalitarianism, inclusion and tolerance. That singular canopy of who is considered ‘American’ was important to give solidarity to the society while embracing diversity, rather than different cultures living side by side.
With the resurgence of nativist rhetoric in America — who the ‘real Americans’ are and the attempt to contract the boundary of who is considered ‘we,’ however, America was on the verge of returning to the assimilationist ethos of the past. If any group was considered 'real Americans,’ it was the Native-Americans, which, ironically the ‘nativists' would neglect to mention. Who gets to draw the boundary of who is considered ‘we’?
Despite European societies’ claim that ‘multiculturalism’ has been tried and failed, I wondered if European societies had ever reached the point where heritage was something to be celebrated and to be proud of, rather than to hide or be shed, all the while assuming that those with exterior mark of difference were seen through their difference and considered as ‘one of us’ in the ‘circle of we’ — the point that they could BE BOTH without having to choose between the two.