Monday, July 03, 2006

Fourth of July weekend: assimilation at the park

I've written before (here and here) about the park near my house, where I so often walk.

Fourth of July weekend is a big holiday there, especially when the weather is lovely, as it has been this year (and, after all the rain we've had lately, it seems almost miraculous). Not only is it a beautiful vista--ocean and rocks and lighthouses and waves and boats and islands--but there are picnic tables and spots to barbecue, and the park is big enough that it never really seems very crowded, even on holidays.

Saturday I was walking there, and when I got to the picnic area I saw that there were at least seventy people there, an unusual but not-unheard-of number. I couldn't tell whether they were all part of one big group or whether they represented a series of unrelated groups. But almost every picnic table was in use, and there were fires going in the grills and the luscious smell of cooking wafted across my path as I fast-walked by, making me want to stop, sit down, and beg for a bite.

I noticed that all the people there seemed to be foreign, but not all from the same country or even area of the world. There were vaguely Mideastern-looking people, a well as some who seemed to be from Eastern Europe; others undoubtedly hailing from Africa, as well as Asians of different persuasions. I could hear language after language, none of them recognizable to me, and the smells of the grilling meat contained spices and herbs that seemed especially exotic and alluring.

And children--lots and lots of children. There were bikes and frisbees, laughter and shouting, smiling parents watching fondly, older teenagers looking standoffish and cool. As I passed the younger people, I noticed they were all speaking unaccented English, and even their body language was different than that conveyed by their parents--less constrained. You might say they seemed more free. Of course, part of that is the difference between children and adults. But part of it seemed to be something more.

Who were these people, and why were they all here at the same time? Was it a coincidence, or had they been bused in together, members of some society for immigrants? I have no idea, but it struck me that the group was an especially appropriate one for Fourth of July weekend.

We're a nation of immigrants, as it's often said. Lately, immigration has become far more controversial, but we forget that it's often been so. Each new wave encountered some antagonism, especially beginning in the latter part of the nineteenth century, when the country was getting more crowded and there was increasing arrivals from countries that seemed especially "foreign" to the predominantly Western Europeans who were the earlier settlers.

In those days, immigrants faced the dilemma of assimilation, as they do today. But back then most people who came to this country were eager to assimilate--or at least they thought they were. The process might have been difficult, and they didn't like all the changes that occurred when their children dropped the old ways and became Americans, but it's my impression that there was a certain widespread acceptance that this was almost inevitable.

The parents didn't always manage to learn English all that well--in most families, we know of tales of children translating for parents who never really did make the full transition. And the older generation had to deal--sometimes with great difficulty--with the intermarriage of the children, and their dropping of the old ways.

I remember an incident I observed many years ago. I was sitting in an Indian restaurant, waiting for my food, and noticed a family group nearby. The parents were clearly from India--I could tell by their accents--but the two children seemed to have been born in this country. There was a girl of about six and a boy of about eight. The boy was wearing his baseball mitt on one hand and throwing a ball into it with a little repetitive thwack! with the other while he waited for his food.

When the dinner finally came, he started whining. "I don't like this stuff!" he said, although I must say the restaurant was fabulous and the food especially delicious. "I want a hamburger!"--the refrain of the American-born child of immigrant parents.

And this age-old process of acculturation and assimilation continues apace. I could see it in the park the other day. But it seems to me that, for many immigrants lately, it's been arrested and stunted by programs intending to respect cultural diversity that discourage the transition to a new language by making it too easy to cling to the old.

There's another relatively new factor, as well. Although I'm not aware of any statistics on the matter, it appears that more of today's immigrants (and/or illegal aliens, who are growing in number) consider their move to this country to be either temporary or conditional or both. The goal is not necessarily assimilation at all, but sometimes the establishment of a sort of "separate but equal" enclave in which the cultural mores (and even traditional dress) are retained intact at the same time the economic benefits of being in this country are reaped.

You might say that was always the case--new immigrants would cluster in certain neighborhoods when they first arrived, and stick to their own. But it's my impression, at least, that it used to be considered more of a practical and temporary situation, and not the ultimate goal of the immigrant experience.

If I were to have taken a poll of that group on the grass and under the tall shade trees at the park the other day, I wonder what I would have found. How many of the adults were in basic acceptance that their children would become part of American culture? How many were hoping--and taking strong steps to ensure--that their children would resist? How many of the adults were determined to learn English? How many were legal, how many illegal; how many expected a temporary stay, how many a permanent one? How many were happy to be here, how many not?

I don't know the answers. What I do know is that they looked happy--but of course, it was a lovely day, and a vacation time at that--and the children were all speaking unaccented English. And I know that the vista, to me at least, was a pleasant one, and part of what I consider to be the age-old American dream, on this Fourth of July weekend.

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