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Anti-Assimilation

August 10, 2018
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‘Diversity’ by Jens Hoffmann via Flickr.com

I’ve been thinking about the word “assimilation.” The preferred outcome for immigrants in the U.S. once was that they would “assimilate” into some (mythical) homogeneous American culture. However, assimilation has never been a force for good in my life. I was arguably raised in that “normal” culture that people want others to assimilate into. Yet, most of the decisions that have brought me happiness have been contrary to the norms of that culture: from refusing to wear shoes as a child, to moving across the country as an adult, to choosing a religion and career beyond the expectations of my culture and family of origin.

In my travels, the more I have learned about other cultures and the more I have adopted the traits of other cultures that I myself have witnessed and judged to be good and beneficial, the better my life has become. I’m not talking about cultural appropriation here, which is superficial and ultimately in service of some privileged ideal of the dominant culture. (Although I’m not claiming I’m immune from that, so please point to it where you see it and I’ll try to do better.) I’m talking about learning how to live well by benefiting from thousands of years of global trial and error from billions of living examples.

So I’m wondering, what is the opposite of “assimilation?” The thesaurus let me down here, because assimilate has other positive meanings, such as to fully comprehend information. There are antonyms for that, but no antonym for the process of learning through difference. Perhaps, “diversification” is the closest we can get to an antonym with a positive connotation.

No matter how much we try to fight diversification and enforce conformity to the mythical ideal, the dynamic forces of different ideas and different ways of doing things that arise when different cultures meet has always been one of the best things about humanity. Historically, places where this happens – trade cities and ports, immigrant communities, verges and borders – have always been hives of innovation and new thinking. They have also been point sources for conflict. Sometimes new ideas and different ways of doing things are simply not compatible with one another, but I don’t think that’s what actually sparks the conflict. The conflict happens when one group tries to impose their ideas and ways of doing things on another. We can look at the entire history of colonialism to see how poorly that worked out. Yet locations where difference was tolerated or prized, even for short periods, flourished and grew. Think of New York City, Hong Kong, or Amsterdam.

Personally,¬†whatever is the opposite of “assimilation,” I want to do that. Whatever that is, it has been a force for good in my life. Japanese manners, Korean food, Chinese subtlety, British humor, Scottish fatalism, Swiss environmentalism, French sangfroid, Latin familia, whatever of these I can integrate into my staid, repressed, pragmatic Midwestern upbringing, the better. The more different examples I have of living well to draw upon, the more opportunities I have to get it right.

I realize I’m getting it wrong. Whatever I admire in my multicultural friends and seek to learn from and adopt into my own life, I’m getting it wrong. Everybody makes lots of mistakes when they’re learning something new. I’ve only really touched the surface of these qualities. I run the risk of essentializing, fetishizing, and appropriating, but I’m trying to do better, to understand deeper, and that, too, is a force for good in my life.

I have not abandoned my culture of origin. There are many things I admire about the way I was raised. My ancestors got a lot of things right, too. I want to preserve that and pass it on. But there are two myths I will always refute. First, they got a lot right, but they also got a lot wrong. My ancestors and my culture (that is, the one I was born and raised with) are not perfect. Nor are other cultures. There are things I admire in every human society I’ve encountered, but also things I don’t understand or dislike. Adopting what is beneficial and what works for me requires critical discernment. Second, adding to who I am doesn’t subtract from who I was or who we are. Learning is not a zero sum game. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. That’s why it is that force for good in my life and the lives of so many others.

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