When thinking about immigration, most individuals imagine all different types of ethnic groups traveling to a separate land away from their own. Most imagine America. Immigration, throughout history, has occurred within all types of ethnicities. When taking a closer look at the individuals living in America, it is apparent that everyone is not exactly like one another.
Assimilation becomes a popular word used when discussing migration, and both positives and negatives come along with it. Two theorists that discuss the meaning of assimilation in their writings are Stephen Steinberg in his book, Ethnic Myth, and Milton Gordon in his book Assimilation in American Life. They discuss issues regarding assimilation and how they affect the nation as a whole. A novel written by Chang-Rae Lee titled, Native Speaker, gives specific examples as to how the assimilation process affects others and the migrants themselves, as also described in both Steinberg and Gordon’s books.
In Steinberg’s book, Ethnic Myth, he discusses with his readers the issues regarding ethnic identity and assimilation. This is presented and explained in the chapter titled, The Atrophy of Ethnic Cultures. He first talks about the idea of the “melting pot” and how it should not be analyzed lightly. He gives a quote from John Higham that says, “Loud assertions of pluralism almost invariably betray fears of assimilation” (Steinberg, 59).
This means that minority groups that try to maintain their cultural traditions may, in fact, risk assimilation by doing so. Another point he brings to the surface is that when looking back at second or third generations of a specific minority group, these people still can relate back to their original traditions and culture identity. He then says, “But can the same be said of the new generation which has known only the Americanized version of the original culture?” (Steinberg, 60). This is an obvious prevailing issue when it comes to preserving ones culture.
An example within the novel, Native Speaker, would be when Henry, the main character described as a Korean immigrant, explains the history with his father. His father, living in America, would gather with friends and participate in ggeh’s, or “money clubs.” Here they would win money and eventually, that is all that mattered to the Korean group. The shift from typical Korean traditions to owning all this land and money in American became a vast transformation. Henry says about his father, “In America, he said, it’s even hard to stay Korean.” These alterations from one ethnic experience and tradition to another can be lost very quickly and potentially never be replenished.
Throughout both Steinberg and Gordon’s writing, they both have similarities and differences when regarding assimilation. Gordon talks about these “ethnic meetings” which refer to assimilation. Throughout Gordon’s chapter titled, The Nature of Assimilation, he gives a numerous amount of definitions from theorists and writers that differ in various ways.
In an essay that Gordon leaves the author anonymous in this chapter defines assimilation as “the process by which different cultures, or individuals or groups representing different cultures, are merged into a homogenous unit. Here Gordon talks about assimilation as positive, whereas Steinberg takes a different approach. Steinberg suggests that assimilation is not always a positive aspect simply because it can result in the loss of a cultural identity. This is present in Native Speaker because Henry continuously tries indulging himself into American culture. He cannot fully accomplish this, which essentially results in his wife, Lelia, leaving him in the beginning of the novel.
As there are differences within Steinberg and Gordon’s readings, they do agree upon their understanding of the nature within assimilation. Gordon says that cultural behavior changes “may take place in the cultures of either one of the two groups, or there may be a reciprocal influence whereby the cultures of both groups are modified” (Gordon, 62). Steinberg agrees with this statement because he suggests that the changing of one’s culture is at high risk when incorporated into a different culture. He says, “The ethnic crisis only begins with the fact that the core elements of traditional culture have been modified, diluted, compromised, and finally relinquished” (Steinberg, 62). Both writers describe this lack of identity in one way or another.
Assimilation is apparent in any society, especially America. People of different backgrounds continuously trying to come together to create one nation is a crucial aspect in society today. Steinberg, Gordon, and Lee all discuss how assimilation has issues when it comes to preserving ones ethnic traditions and identity. What they all convey to readers however, is the fact that the merging of cultures will forever be essential and inevitable.
Steinberg, Steven. The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978. Print. Lee, Chang-Rae. Native Speaker. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995. Print.
Gordon, Milton. The Nature of Assimilation. Oxford University Press, 1964. eBook.
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