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  • Jhumpa Lahiri talks about the Assimilative Power of American Culture Based on the Absolute Nuclear Family (But She Doesn’t Call it That)

    Posted by Lexington Green on September 27th, 2013 (All posts by )

    In recent interview in the Wall Street Journal the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri discussed growing up in Rhode Island, with Indian parents, and the experience of feeling neither Indian nor American, and about moving to Italy.

    She also made these telling comments — without of course using our terminology! — about the assimilative power of a culture based on the Absolute Nuclear Family, as we describe in America 3.0:

    “I think the thing I admire about America, and admire even more now that I don’t live here, is that it is a country that absorbs other nations, and one can become an American over time—maybe not my generation, but my kids, yes.” She has found Italy to be more homogenous and less equipped to understand “the phenomenon of otherness.”
     
    Ms. Lahiri still remains skeptical of America’s ability to fully understand the idea, too. Looking back at her childhood, she marvels at how difficult it was for her parents to keep their Bengali identities. The U.S. “just absorbs everything,” she says, sighing. “It accommodates differences but always extinguishes them in some way.”

    Ms. Lahiri is absolutely right that it is a multi-generational process to become American. But in the end, people really do become American. She is also right that other cultures that lack the individualistic culture of America have a tougher time incorporating others. As Emmanuel Todd wrote, the ANF culture expects siblings to be different, and has comparatively less difficulty accepting differences between individuals. As a result, Americans see little of interest in the “phenomenon of otherness.” It simply does not matter. Diversity is naturally occurring and expected. Further, the voluntaristic nature of American culture, where individuals form a web of personal, voluntary bonds, without relying on group solidarity, makes it easier to incorporate people from other cultures who are able to play by the American “rules of the game.” Ms. Lahiri is also correct that America “just absorbs everything” and this process “extinguishes” differences. The melting pot analogy has a basis in fact, though some groups have proven less “meltable” than others. And to be melted and be absorbed is not a wholly costless or painless process.

    In our book we make this reference to the process of assimilation:

    The story of immigrants coming to America for opportunity and freedom, but feeling they are losing their children to a culture they do not always like or understand, is an old one that has been repeated many times. There is an element of sadness to this. This process of loss of the old way of life may be felt as tragic by the parents, but it has been a triumph for Americans over the centuries. We have peacefully, though not painlessly, assimilated millions of people, one marriage and one family at a time, into a shared culture. It is part of the price, often unrecognized, that many people paid to come to America and be part of it. Assimilation to our culture is not costless, but it has hopefully been worth the price over time, to most people who came here and to their children and grandchildren.

    Ms. Lahiri mentions being raised by Indian parents who remained Indian, and that she is neither Indian nor American. I have not read any of her books, but they are apparently about the struggle of immigrants to the USA to fit in here while maintaining ties to the old country, and the process of later generations losing those ties and becoming focused on their personal and family concerns.

    This is a process that has been going on for centuries, and likely will go on for centuries to come.

    (I got a copy of her first book, a short story collection, called Interpreter of Maladies. There is no saying if or when I will get to it!)

     

    10 Responses to “Jhumpa Lahiri talks about the Assimilative Power of American Culture Based on the Absolute Nuclear Family (But She Doesn’t Call it That)”

    1. Sgt. Mom Says:

      The multi-general process of ‘becoming American’ was one of the underlying themes in my Adelsverein Trilogy – of German settlers in Texas. The first generation were enthusiastic about being in America, and participated enthusiastically in aspects of American life, but remained in some part still German. With the second and third generation … they were absorbed. I saw this in my own grandparents, three of whom were English immigrants and markedly so. My parents never considered themselves anything other than American, and when my brother and sister and I went back to England to visit, it was kind of a schizo experience. It was familiar in a weird way … but still a foreign country to us.

    2. Mrs. Davis Says:

      The melting pot analogy has a basis in fact, though some groups have proven less “meltable” than others. And to be melted and be absorbed is not a wholly costless or painless process.

      Nor is it wholly costless or painless to remain unmelted. Ask the Amish. Though the Hutterites do have better location.

      America is not an easy place in which to live. In the 19th century, there was always the frontier to seize the opportunity ANF provided. With the closing of the frontier that opportunity greatly diminished. So the 20th century turned to a search for the security that ANF does not provide. And Solons searching for votes were happy to promise it.

    3. MikeK Says:

      If people don’t want to assimilate, they have an option. Stay home. I sure wish the Somalis had chosen that one

    4. Sgt. Mom Says:

      MikeK – agreed. Rarely has such a good and charitable deed in resettling Somali refugees been rewarded so disasterously. Once upon a time, I worked with Lutheran Social Services in resettling Vietnamese refugees in SoCal … who in the main became good and patriotic citizens … but in the case of the Somalis, I am beginning to suspect that no good deed goes unpunished.

    5. Kirk Parker Says:

      Ms. Lahiri is absolutely right that it is a multi-generational process to become American. But in the end, people really do become American.

      Wouldn’t it be a bit more accurate to say is sometimes takes a multi-generational process? I have a friend, also of Indian origin–in fact a child of the Indian Diaspora like Naipaul–who came to America as a very young adult to go to college. Maybe he was just one of those born-American folks, but he’s as assimilated and as American as anyone I know.

      And now that I’ve seen MikeK’s and Sgt Mom’s comments, yes indeed to the Southeast Asians. I’ve known numerous first-generation Vietnamese and Cambodians who–apart from speaking English with more or less of an accent–are not just well on the way to assimilation, but hurrying themselves along that road.

    6. Bill Brandt Says:

      Do you all believe this is still applying to the millions of illegal immigrants? (I am not asking this rhetorically; genuinely curious).

      Most seem to have no interest in learning English.

      And I believe there is a counter force to this assimilation – with the Left wanting to celebrate – even encourage – “diversity”.

    7. Tom Holsinger Says:

      Bill,

      Jhumpa Lahiri’s feeling that she is “neither Indian nor American” has been so common among immigrant stories in the past 200 years that the answer is clearly yes, at least until America ceases to be America.

    8. Lexington Green Says:

      “Wouldn’t it be a bit more accurate to say is sometimes takes a multi-generational process?”

      Sure, Kirk. We are talking about tens of millions of people over two centuries. Some people do get to America and feel like it is the home they always wanted from the beginning. But the slower process appears to be more common.

      “Most seem to have no interest in learning English.”

      Not my observation of Mexicans in Chicago, Bill. Not even close. Where are you seeing this?

      Tom, agreed.

    9. IGotBupkis, "'Faeces Evenio', Mr. Holder?" Says:

      }}} This is a process that has been going on for centuries, and likely will go on for centuries to come.

      If America lasts, something I have less faith in. I have greater hopes for the American Ideal, but even that could be lost in the coming battles.

      New York Gov. Cuomo supports gun confiscation

      The first one to come out and openly support the action in public (Holder and many others have done so in private and/or in limited-venue speeches that are carefully ignored by the media).

      I think what happens in NY (much of which is not as liberal as NYC) over the next couple years should be interesting to say the least.

      There is a battle between two principles here which is not going to die down in the next couple years, I don’t think. And the results of who wins — the gun rights advocates or the gun control advocates — are going to define the future of this nation — a nation of free individuals or a totalitarian state that Hitler and Stalin could only dream of.

      Will the people stand up and defy them when they come to steal their rights, or will they meekly surrender them?

      This is the chief question of the current generation.

    10. T. Greer Says:

      “Most seem to have no interest in learning English.”

      This remark also strikes me as rather strange. Two thoughts:

      1) Desire does not translate to capability. It takes extreme amounts of efforts to learn a new language, even when immersed. Somebody working two minimum wage jobs really doesn’t have the time to learn a new language – but those language classes in inner city community centers fill themselves up to the brim anyways!

      2) In any case, what really matters isn’t the parents, but their children. If you go to America’s inner city you will the pattern again and again and again. Quite universally, by the time they reach 15 those who grew up in America know English much better than their parents language. They can understand when parents or relatives speak, of course, as long as they are not talking about something fancy like politics. Even so they will have a hard time translating. Their pronunciation will be perfect but their grammar will be poor. If the language in question uses a non-romanized script they will not be able to read it.

      Bilingualism is hard. It usually is the result of intense effort on part of the parents raising the child or the child themselves. Your brain really doesn’t want to learn another language, and unless forced to it takes the course of least resistance – the language most used by your peers. And for the children of immigrants going to American schools that language is unquestionably English.

      There is a wonderful article on the process of second-language acquisition I recommend to pretty anybody interested in this topic: http://www.zompist.com/whylang.html