2013-09-13

I was talking tonight with a friend about why immigrant parents in America often strive to Americanize their children. We were at a loud crowded bar and I honestly don't expect her to have heard everything I said, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to summarize my thoughts and observations here. After all I'm the son of immigrant parents myself, and while perhaps not as thoroughly Americanized (after all, I am a native bilingual) as some of my peers, I unabashedly identify myself as American and don't really identify much with Japanese culture at all.

Oh by the way in this post I'll be talking mainly about Asian immigrants, since (a) I'm personally part of this group, and (b) we tend to conform to American culture much more than Latin or European immigrants.

Okay, to begin, we should to recognize the fact that parent, no matter who they are or where they are, want the best future for their kids. This may sound trivial, but it's the foundation on which the rest of their decisions are built upon.

Now, when these parents come to the United States, they are some kind of professional: engineer, doctor, lawyer, accountant, researcher, etc. As such, they're thrown into the grindstone that it American corporate (or academic) buracracy and politics. Whether it be kissing up to a teacher, begging a professor for an extension, schmoozing with the boss or navigating thorny blame games in a meeting, life demands more than merit, hard work, and expertise in any society. It asks for political savvy and negotiating skills, whether it be to get a higher salary, nab a promotion, or avoid blame for that product that blew up in the field. We like to believe that merit conquers all, but honestly, that's hardly the case.

So these immigrants (Chinese, Thai, Indian, the whose gamut) come to the States and are thrust into a situation where they need to employ all the social savvy and in-between-the-lines-reading and mind games, and are horribly equipped to do so. It's not just the language barrier, but the stark difference in social and workplace culture, modes of communiction, styles of management and types of organizations, and so on. They produce great work, yet are passed up for promotions and raises while the smooth talker who can put up the appearance of producing results moves on ahead. They struggle to forge many deep, trusting relationships with others in and outside the office, and tend to congregate with fellow immigrants. They establish a good life, and most likely a better life than what they could have had in their home countries, but they know that they could have done so much more had they just been, yes, "American".

And so the last thing they want their kids to have to go through is the same struggles and challenges that they faced and succumbed to. They don't want their kids to suffer unnecessarily, if they can easily avoid such a scenario by thoroughly Americanizing them. It's a rational and understandable choice.

The assimilation effort starts early. Many kids are given Western first or middle names (Indians are a curious exception, as I have never met a single Indian American with a Western name). Parents use broken English at home instead of their native tongue to help their kids pick up English without a hiccup. Efforts are rarely made to have the kids become fluent in their parents' native tongue, and kids develop conversational ability at best but are often illiterate (the vast majority of Chinese and Taiwanese Americans fall into this category).

The parents' strategy is optimized to eliminate the problems that they encountered as immigrants. As a second generation Asian American, I must admit that the strategy is effective. After all, my speaking Japanese at home and becoming bilingual definitely held me back in developing my English vocabulary and writing skills. In every phase of my life that I have reduced my exposure to Japanese, the time spent consuming and creating English content has increased, and my abilities have improved in kind.

Individual families will fall along a spectrum, with some outright shunning all customs, language, and heritage to fully immerse their children in their adopted country, while others may make a strong effort to make sure that their kids maintain a connection to their roots while adapting well to the Western way. It's a choice that each family has to make, and no matter where we fall on the gradient, there are benefits and drawbacks. Many years of my life would have been much more pleasant (particularly in my younger years) had I been more fully Westernized, but on the other hand that would have precluded me from consuming the enormous amount of Japanese entertainment and media that I have chewed through over the years, and would have denied me from realizing the sort of culture-gap issues that I think about often these days.

Some friends of mine with a newborn child have said that they hope that their child grows up to be like me: I guess they mean well educated, somewhat conservative, and bilingual and pseudo-bicultural. But having struggled with English early on in my life, I shudder a bit to imagine their child having the same difficulties I went through. But I see why they'd want this too...

I guess I should be glad that I don't have to worry about this conundrum just yet.

(Thanks to aforementioned friend whose inquiries inspired this post.)