Assimilation

Photo Credit to pixabay.com

Iris Yang, Morgan McConnell, and Emily Siegel

Assimilation: What it is, Why it helps us read texts differently, and How it affects multicultural people

Assimilation is a term used towards people of differing ethnicities and cultures as those people change themselves in order to conform to the societal norms of their place of residence. There are several definitions for the term assimilation. According to Merriam-Webster, assimilation is “the process in which individuals and groups of differing heritages acquire the basic habits, attitudes, and mode of life of an embracing culture” (“Assimilation”). To Dictionary.com, assimilation refers to “the process of adapting or adjusting to the culture of a group or nation, or the state of being so adapted”. Also from Dictionary.com, assimilation into culture refers to “a process by which a person or persons acquire the social and psychological characteristics of a group” (“Assimilation”). A word that branches off the term assimilation is the noun and adjective assimilationist; this is a person who advocates or participates in racial or cultural integration (“Assimilationist”). Both of these definitions of assimilation from Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com essentially mean the same thing but in different terms. Underneath the definition, they both use the example of immigrants assimilating into American life and culture. This can be tied into the literary works of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.

According to Etymonline.com, in the 1620s, the term assimilation was understood as the  “process of becoming alike or identical, conversion into a similar substance” (“Assimilation (n.).”). It later developed to have more figurative and psychological connotations. Today’s definition is less literal and is more about a group of people fitting into a culture. It is no longer characterized by a complete change to become an exact copy of something else. However, it can often feel this way for those who are trying to assimilate into a society. Discrimination can make minority groups feel that they need to exactly imitate mainstream culture to receive equality and justice.

Assimilation provides a lens through which we can analyze literary texts. Thinking about assimilation while reading allows one to consider the difficulties that certain individuals or groups may face while integrating into a society. It can help readers focus on the text and relate it to real-life issues.  As a result of high volumes of immigration to the United States, many literary works are designed to convey the struggles certain groups face while assimilating. Reading through a lens of assimilation allows readers to recognize these widespread difficulties in literary works. Several of the texts we read this semester critique the pressure of assimilation and therefore express the message that characters should be able to preserve their own culture and heritage. For example, considering assimilation while reading Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun can help readers understand the struggles that the African-American Younger family faces in a country of segregation. Instead of simply reading the text, thinking about assimilation can highlight specific moments, such as when white community members want to prevent the Younger family from moving into their neighborhood. A lens of assimilation can also be applied to the text Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. This can help readers better understand the narrator’s adversities as she tries to find a balance between her Chinese heritage and new American culture.

Throughout the play, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, the term assimilation is used frequently in different ways. For example, Beneatha expresses her feelings to her brother Walter by calling him an  “….assimilationist Negroe” (Hansberry 81). It is important to understand that Beneatha then tells Ruth, Walter’s wife, that this means, “…someone who is willing to give up his own culture and submerge himself completely in the dominant, and in this case oppressive culture!” (Hansberry 81). Another example of this term is when Beneatha and her friend, Asagai, are having a conversation and Asagai says, “But what does it matter? Assimilationism is so popular in your country.” (Hansberry 65); to that Beneatha responds, “I am not an assimilationist!” (Hansberry 65). Due to the fact that Asagai grew up in Nigeria and Beneatha grew up in Chicago, they each have cultural differences that separate them and their views on assimilation. Asagai uses the term assimilation in a discussion with Beneatha and explains how he believes assimilationism is popular in the United States. Beneatha took offense to that because she believes that she is not assimilating to “white culture”. This discusses how people try to fit-in and attempt to integrate into American culture, that even an outsider to the United States can see how apparent it is. Hansberry’s work prompts the reader to think about assimilation by allowing one to follow the life of an African American family and how differently they are treated. Hansberry’s point of view about assimilation is similar to the character Beneatha’s view. They both believe that people should not assimilate in order to conform to societal norms.  

In the book, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, the narrator is seen to be an assimilationist specifically in the first section of the book called, “No Name Woman”. The narrator moved from China to America when she was a young girl, and was told a story by her mother about her Aunt who killed herself and her child by jumping down the family well. This story was told by her mother to help try and impact her future life decisions as she was growing up.  The narrator is portrayed as an assimilationist because her family follows strict Chinese tradition and never speaks of her Aunt; this is because the family believes she does not have the right to be spoken about. The narrator thinks of other ways as to why her Aunt may have done this, not necessarily following her family shunning her because of getting pregnant from someone besides her husband which is frowned upon in Chinese culture.

Assimilation can help readers understand literary works by challenging them to think about diversity and blending into mainstream culture. Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Kingston’s The Woman Warrior can both be read through a lens of assimilation. They provide examples of characters who want to preserve their own culture and heritage, but feel pressured to assimilate.

Works Cited

“Assimilation.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com/browse/assimilation.

“Assimilation.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, 10 Nov. 2018, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/assimilation.

“Assimilation (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary , Online Etymology Dictionary , www.etymonline.com/word/assimilation#etymonline_v_26620.

“Assimilationist.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com/browse/assimilationist.

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun; Robert Nemiroff, New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior; Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Vintage International Edition, 1989.

Found Poem: Avenue

Note: The photograph of my found poem would not upload. Avenue

I felt like I was drunk

I remember

driving in your car

City lights

speed so fast

cruising to entertain ourselves

we were driving,

And I had a feeling I could be someone

I remember we were driving,

And I had a feeling that I belonged

You gotta make a decision

You got nothing to lose

I got nothing to prove

Maybe we’ll make something

Be someone, be someone

I’d always hoped for better

Thought maybe together you and me would find it

I want more from life than you could give

And finally see what it means to be living

For my found poem, I chose the song “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman. I chose specific words from the song to create a story of a girl driving in a car towards the city with a boy next to her. The girl feels like she belongs with him but towards the end of the poem, she realizes that there’s so much more life left to live and he can not give her that. She realizes that only she alone can find her reason to live and happiness.

While this song may not be upsetting for people, it is for me. This was a song my emotionally abusive ex would sing and play guitar to. Thinking of this song places me in a bad mindset where I felt small and helpless.

No Name Woman

In the book The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, the theme in the story of the “No Name Woman” is shame. The opening statement from the author’s mother is, “You must not tell anyone… She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born” (Kingston 8). This theme of shame/humiliation on a family is seen multiple times throughout the chapter. “Don’t humiliate us. You wouldn’t like to be forgotten as if you had never been born” (Kingston 10). In the Chinese culture, the worst thing a child can do is do something foolish that would reflect badly on their family. This can be anything from not getting good grades, affairs, and a pregnancy prior to marriage.

As an Asian-American myself, I can relate to Kingston’s story about how much your actions can reflect on your family. A female family member on my mother’s side had a child out of wedlock, she was disowned by her parents and the rest of my family pretends like she never existed. This is very similar to Kingston’s story of her aunt, they both became outcasts in their families. I was a child when my mom told me that story and I thought nothing about it. “But there is more to this silence: they want me to participate in her punishment. And I have” (Kingston 20). Kingston’s aunt was deliberately forgotten by her own family.

There is a Chinese tradition that usually takes place on Chinese New Year where fake paper money, clothes, and other material items are burned for the ancestors to spend and use in the afterlife. Food is placed out for these ancestors so they can feast with the living. “Her betrayal so maddened them, they saw to it that she would suffer forever, even after death. Always hungry, always needing, she would have to beg food from other ghosts, snatch and steal it from those whose living descendants give them gifts,” (Kingston 20). They are so ashamed, so humiliated by her having another man’s child and for committing suicide that it is easier to forget her existence.

In the United States, we still face judgments of our actions but not as drastic as Kingston’s family. People outside of the Chinese culture will think that is cruel and unusual punishment, but this is completely normal to me. But as I grew older, I’ve realized that it isn’t normal at all, that practices my family have aren’t normal. “Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?” (Kingston 10). This is a struggle a lot of Asian-Americans face, an identity crisis of not feeling completely Asian because of growing up in the U.S. and assimilating to a “white culture”.

Questions:

Is there anything in your culture or lifestyle that can be seen as “not normal” in today’s society?

In what ways have some cultures assimilated to what can be expressed as “white culture”?

Hi!

Hey guys, my name is Iris. I’m a transfer student in my junior year majoring in biology. I received an Associates Degree in Biology from SUNY Broome Community College. I’m from Binghamton, NY but I’ve also lived in Long Island and Montrose, PA. I love hockey, specifically Ottawa Senators. I’m excited to meet new people in this course as well as further my education.

Fun fact: I can speak 5 different languages.