The Post-Pilgrim Immigration Balancing Act

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This week, most people in the U.S. will take time out to celebrate the survival and first successful harvest feast of one of the earliest groups of European immigrants to reach our shores. As anyone with even a casual awareness of the story knows, it was a survival hard-won. Delayed twice in embarking and delivered to a spot on the eastern seaboard a couple of hundred miles north of their intended destination, too late in the season to build land shelter, the Pilgrims lost half their number on board the Mayflower that first winter. And making their way in an untamed, remote, and sparsely populated land was both hazardous and difficult.


But in one important respect, at least, the Pilgrims and the other "first wave" of immigrants to these shores had it far easier than the immigrants who followed them. Because those early immigrants didn't have to integrate into a formal, dominant, existing culture. (True, there were Native Americans here, but they didn't require the Pilgrims to join their tribes.) So the Pilgrims got to create their own, brand-new culture out of broad cloth, keeping the aspects of their English heritage that they liked--including their language--while changing the parts of it they considered repressive, forming the rules and social hierarchy of their new society to suit their own tastes. Few immigrants in the years since have had that luxury. 

Most immigrants have to find a place for themselves in a different but already-existing social and national culture that, on at least some level, expects them to adapt and adopt that culture as their own. Indeed, there is often little tolerance for anything less than full and uncritical acceptance and admiration of their new land. But for many immigrants--even those who become citizens and love their new country--the equation is far more complicated. 

A couple of weeks ago, I sat next to a Japanese-American man on a flight to Boston. He was returning from Japan, where he'd been clearing out his recently deceased mother's house. He told me he'd been born in Nagasaki, in 1942, but had avoided the nuclear destruction there because, worried about the progression of the war, his mother had packed her children on a train and taken them to a rural village in August 1945. They left Nagasaki four days before the city was leveled with an atomic bomb. They also traveled through Hiroshima on the way, a mere 24 hours before the atom bomb was dropped there. 

Years later, the man had gotten a PhD., gone into computer research, and emigrated to the United States. He'd lived in the Boston area for many, many years. When I asked him how he squared the two parts of his life, he shrugged. 

"Life is complicated," he said. "My wife was also born during the war, in Japan. But we've lived in the United States for over 30 years. We love the United States. And yet, we also suffered at the hands of the United States when we were small. A lot of damage was done." He shrugged again, as if describing a complicated relationship with a parent or sibling that he'd long since come to peace with. 

When I related that story to a friend, he became indignant. How dare an immigrant voice mixed feelings about the United States! If he didn't love it right or wrong, do or die, he should go back home! But the man on the plane wasn't saying he didn't love the United States. He was just saying his relationship with it was a bit complicated. And many immigrants probably feel the same way. (In truth, there are also a lot of native-born Americans who feel that way, but that's another issue.)

In some ways, the demarcation line of loyalty for naturalized citizens is clear. You have to swear loyalty to your new home over your native land, even in case of war. But it's easier to switch a passport than an identity. And while we may want immigrants to view their departure from their country of origin as a never-look-back divorce, I think the process of immigration and changing citizenship is more akin to a single person marrying into an existing family--with all the issues that come with that kind of blended family relationship. 

The established family already has its hierarchy, traditions, relationships and ideas of what is correct and not correct, in terms of behavior. Fitting into that is tough--times 10 if there's a big cultural, racial, or language difference involved. In those cases, the new spouse is likely to face all kinds of barriers to acceptance--which is an experience most immigrants know all too well. After all, most immigrants to these shores after those early settler years faced--and in some cases still face--some level of discrimination, whether they were Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish, Japanese, Vietnamese, or Hispanic. And that's without getting into the far more complex, non-voluntary immigration of the African slaves. The new spouse may love the person they married and their "adopted" family, but if there have been problems with acceptance or integration, you can bet that love is ... well, a bit complicated. Just ask any family counselor. 

What's more, a new spouse marrying into a strong family with long-established traditions and structure also has to work hard not to lose their own, individual identity in the process. After all, the person marrying into the family had a life before that moment: beliefs, traditions, and a richness of individual history and moments that may not be well understood by the new family, even if they make an effort to ask and understand. Which not all families do. 

So what do you do about those conflicting needs to join and blend in, without losing your own identity in the process? In truth, it's a question any married person struggles with, even without any blended or established family complications. And the answer is ... it's a tricky balancing act, and one not everyone accomplishes successfully. 

On the one hand, most immigrants enthusiastically embrace many American traditions, values, and freedoms. One of the displays in the new National Museum of American Jewish History (which opens to the public this coming Friday) traces the evolution of Reform Judaism in America in response to immigrants who wished to assimilate more easily into the secular culture of the country. (An interesting review of the exhibit and museum can be found here.) 

At the same time, however, few immigrants cut their ties to their native culture entirely. Hence the existence of "Jewish American," "African-American," "Japanese-American," or "Irish American" museums in the first place. We hyphenate our cultures the way many women hyphenate their married names: to retain a solid reminder of our previous identity, even in the midst of our new life. 

For new immigrants, of course, those old-world ties were and are lifelines. Many immigrants rely on relatives or relatives' friends to help them upon arriving in a new land. If the Pilgrims had had any friends or relatives to join, they would have done the same thing. Building communities with other immigrants from your home country also offers a coping mechanism for the difficulties that come with trying to live in a different culture and language. Even Americans who live overseas tend to gravitate toward "expat" communities. 

But many of those who work to maintain their links with their native origins are several generations removed from the ancestors who actually emigrated here. Why are we so concerned with our Italian/Irish/African/Polish/Japanese heritage generations down the line, even if we've never been to that native land, and possibly don't even speak the language anymore? 

I suspect a lot of it has to do with a lingering understanding of "difference." Most of the groups fighting hardest for retention of their culture are not those who descended directly from the founding fathers, on the right side of the blanket. America may be a melting pot of cultures, but the fight over what constitutes "authentic" American culture underscores that there was one particular culture that dominated at the start, that all the others had to merge into as minority, and often second-class, elements. We fight hardest to have our voices heard when we feel as if their existence is threatened. 

On one level, the lingering pride in country of origin may be a way of reminding self and others that, as the book about the tragic Maori struggle for pride and identity in post-colonial New Zealand put it, "Once [We] Were Warriors." Once, there was a place where we were the ones in power. A place and culture where we were not second-class. But on another level, it's just a way of trying to find balance in the mix of old identity and new; to keep the old from being lost in the shuffle. 

And yet, that balance can also tip too far in the other direction. As my boyfriend's 17-year-old son put it recently, "you can't really become part of a new group if you won't let go of your old group." He should know--just before his senior year of high school this year, he moved from Connecticut to Massachusetts. "If I kept wearing my Connecticut t-shirts, and kept talking about how much I missed it, and all my friends back there," he explained, "I'd never be accepted here." 

He's right, of course. So what do we do about those conflicting pulls? In an ideal melting-pot, stone soup world, we would have a culture flexible enough that no voice would feel oppressed or threatened, and each new flavor or color of culture and tradition would blend into a continually richer and more diverse whole. But we're hierarchical creatures of habit and tradition, with a hard-wired fear of the "other," and an already-existing history of discrimination that can't simply be erased. So while we may strive for that perfect, melting-pot goal, it's not likely to be realized any time soon. Which means, like any blended family, we have to keep working on it, striving for an acceptable balance and mix. 

But if it's any consolation, the Pilgrims weren't any better at it. The Pilgrims (or "separatists," as they were known then) actually emigrated from England to Holland in 1609, attracted by the Dutch guarantee of religious freedom. But they, too, struggled with how to integrate into the Dutch culture without losing their own English traditions and identity. So after 11 years of working at their blended English/Dutch marriage, the Pilgrims gave up and sailed to the New World ... where the physical challenges were far greater, but they could create their own new family and culture from scratch.
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Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. She is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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