Assimilation vs Integration

Each generation has its own idyll year. For my great-grandparents, 1927 was a good one: Lucky Lindy crossed the Atlantic, and his baby hadn’t yet been abducted in the dark of the night by nefarious German immigrant Richard Hauptmann (who insisted on his innocence until his execution by electric chair in 1936). My grandparents reveled in the post-war boom of the Truman years, probably getting the most out of 1947’s interbellum with idk, sock hops and soda fountains or whatever. For my parents’ generation, the Summer of Love in ’67 was the apotheosis by which the nadir of the entire decade of the 1970s was contrasted. For me though, the best year of my youth was 1985. 

1985 was an uncommonly good year for American pop cinema. First Blood Part II, Back to the Future, Rocky Punches the USSR, The Broccoli Club, The Gooners, and many others (including a screen adaptation of a mediocre HP Lovecraft story) made the entire year a lovely excuse to crowd into theaters that smelled of piss and feet to forget for a little while that our duly elected government was still arming and funding terror groups around the world with money made selling narcotics produced by our intelligence agencies based in Southeast Asian thrall states.

In 1985 I was a fifth grader living on an Army base in central California. Before I’d moved there, I had met maybe a dozen Lao, Cambodian, or Vietnamese permanent residents. At the time, I was too young to put two and two together, but after an adult explained it to me, it made perfect sense that war migrants who aided Westmoreland would end up wearing an American uniform. And I got to go to school with their kids.

I’d like to be able to say that the experience was a delightful opportunity for cultural exchange, in which both parties were enriched and left with a deeper understanding of the other. That isn’t what happened. Instead, I clung stubbornly to callow parochialism and kept friends with people who were more or less like me in both appearance and temperament. Mostly temperament, I think. My social filters were chiefly music, literature, and games. I imagine that if I had attended civilian school, social class might have been foisted upon me, but that wasn’t much of a concern on a military installation. The thing that divided me from my Vietnamese classmates was mostly that few of them spoke English very well, so they all took different classes and kept to themselves. I would probably do the same thing were our circumstances reversed.

These days, when I think of the migrants’ dilemma–to assimilate or to cling fast to the home culture–I recall good ol’ Fort Ord and the migrant kids I knew there. I contrast them with my wife’s experience. She came to the United States as an adult, with a mature understanding of her culture’s legacy, her place in the world, and her heritage. She is fundamentally, profoundly Lithuanian, and should she live in the US for a thousand years, nothing will change that. She will never act as an American woman acts. She will never find American jokes funny. She will only ever tolerate American cuisine.

She will never assimilate. That ship has sailed.

What she has done, however, is integrate. As an immigrant from a former Soviet state, she has even more scorn for and fear of a totalitarian state than I do. At an abstract, philosophical level, she’s as American as apple pie. She maintains a deep skepticism of concentrated political authority, and has an almost ruthless devotion to yeoman concerns of family, home, hearth, and career. I am confident that had they ever met, Alexis de Tocqueville would recognize in her the American archetype of a hard-working, no-nonsense, honest civilized peasant. She integrated well thanks to a happy accident that aligned her adopted citizenship with her pre-existing disposition.

But I still think back to those kids I knew in fifth grade from time to time. They had the opportunity for true assimilation. For all I know, they’re like me: forty or so years old with mortgages and kids, binge-watching the latest Marvel Netflix offering, and socking a few bucks away to take the spratlings to America’s Mecca: Disneyland (or World if you’re courageous enough to suffer the indignity of visiting Orlando). I expect they eat at Applebee’s without a hint of irony on occasion, drink beer churned out by Big Brewery, file their taxes without undue rancor, and unabashedly celebrate the 4th of July just like any other red-blooded American patriot. Unfortunately, I don’t know for sure. In the thirty years since, I’ve lost track.

Happily though, we do have abundant statistics on immigrants’ social functionality. By every available metric, my old Vietnamese-born classmates are less likely to be misfits than my native-born chums. In that respect, it’s likely they’ve assimilated nicely, perhaps even better than we might have hoped. Unfortunately, they’re also about as likely* as native-born Americans to favor speech restrictions (either print or spoken), disregard procedural due processes guaranteed by Amendments 4-6, and prefer stricter household firearm ownership restrictions. So that’s unfortunate, but at least it’s no more unfortunate than the native-born public’s own dereliction of the principles of the republic, so at least we’ve got that going for us.

Perhaps I’m making a distinction without a difference here. When I think “assimilate” I imagine that the newcomer adopts the acts, the beliefs, and the values of the host. When I think “integrate”, only the values need match. Everything else is (mostly) superfluous. Rapid adoption of a common language is nice, observation of neighborhood norms is fine, and even I feel a little tickle of patriotism when I witness first-generation immigrants being sworn in a full-fledged naturalized citizens. Still, given the choice, I would gladly suffer a few nuisance trappings of alien cultures if it meant that people around the world who wish to share our shores because they share our values of liberty and self-determination would have the free opportunity to do so. In that respect, if I were offered the choice between assimilation and integration, I’d pick integration every single time.

Incidentally, if I’m right about this, diversity is a byproduct of the free association of people who share common values. In that sense, it is not an end to itself. If I’m right about this.


*Based on 2012 GSS data–I haven’t yet analyzed the latest data, my apologies.

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