America For Beginners

Bringing American culture closer to new immigrants

The Opportunity Cost of Assimilation

In a perfect world people can adapt to a new culture remaining true to their original cultural values. They maintain that perfect balance between old and new, and, in a way, assimilation is painless and enriching for those people. In real world, however, there is always a trade-off. There are a limited number of non-contradictory values and behavior codes for one person to encompass, no matter how open and flexible that person is. If you’re, a as product of assimilation, a strong believer in individual freedom, for example, you can’t at the same time make your children study computer science just because you think it will be right for them.

So, speaking in economic terms, what’s the opportunity cost of assimilation?

Have you ever heard that immigrants of the same origin tend to hate each other? I’ve seen it numerous times and I’m still wondering why. My friend from El Salvador told me that many Spanish-speaking immigrants are very alienated. In his opinion, the switch from collaboration to completion is what makes Spanish speaking communities in the US less successful than they could otherwise be.

Russian immigrants are even more illustrative in this respect. It’s hard to find a group of immigrants that can be so extreme in its ethnic self-denial. I would divide Russian immigrants into two major categories:

  1. People, who display zero assimilation, live among Russians, work with Russians, go to Russian restaurants, speak Russian and generally view themselves as Russians who have nothing to do with America and its culture.
  2. People, who are so eager to assimilate that they completely deny their background. It manifests in staying away from other immigrants, feeling uncomfortable about their former fellow citizens and doing everything to hide their “Russianness”.

Clearly, there are more types and subgroups, but the mere existence of those pro- and anti -Russian attitudes within Russian communities is fascinating.

Same tendency can be traced in many other immigrant cultures. How come representatives of traditionally collectivist cultures come to the USA and walk away from each other? Is that a stressful adjustment process and a simple survival technique? Or is it the influence of American culture? I believe it is both.

An immigrant from an X collectivist country is trying to assimilate. He/she wants to be accepted in the society and succeed professionally. Most Americans that the person knows are self-reliant, independent, etc. It sounds reasonable to follow their example, because for a new immigrant that might seem the key to success in the US. Here comes the trade-off, because a part of his/her native culture has to be sacrificed. Saying in other words, you cannot remain the same, when you adjust to a very different culture.


3 comments on “The Opportunity Cost of Assimilation

  1. gfsimons
    October 2, 2011

    Very interesting post, Anna.

    There seems to be a dynamic also where succeeding waves of immigrants have resented each other.

    I once lived in a neighborhood in the Midwest where the Hungarian Americans who came in the large Central European migrations earlier in the 20th century were at odds with the refugees from the 1956 Hungarian revolution I though this was a matter of the fact that the earlier arrivals tended to be more agrarian and the latter more urban. However, you make me think that there may be other factors involved that relate to the assimilation of US values that newcomers attempt to make in different ways.

    I hope more people pitch into this conversation as I think it fascinating. Also, we are working on creating a diversophy game for issues of immigration both in US and Europe and these perspectives seem to be good starters for discussion.

  2. America For Beginners
    October 3, 2011

    Thank you, George. There is so much to discuss here! A few more possible scenarios:
    People immigrate for a reason, and so maybe they just don’t want to be constantly reminded of the past they have left behind.
    Or, they might want to start over and intentionally cut all bonds.
    Or, immigrants exaggerate negative traits of their native culture in order to justify their decision to immigrate. Consequently, they cultivate the resentment towards fellow immigrants.

  3. Anna, you’ve raised a complex question here! We should take every chance we get to encourage immigrants that there is a healthy “middle position” to work toward: you retain core elements of your cultural and ethnic identity while at the same time learning to become a part of your new community. Enjoy your heritage, and pass it along to your kids! But don’t live an isolated life: engage the community around you; become a part of it; build friendships and a broad network of local contacts. Sure, you’ll have to leave behind SOME of what you’d be in your homeland, but you’ll be able to enrich yourself in your NEW homeland.

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