It is no exaggeration to say that the United States always was, is now and always will be a nation of immigrants. From the first migrants who crossed the Bering Strait to Alaska and migrated down the West coast, possibly as early as around 20,000 years ago, to today’s immigrants coming from all the four corners of the earth, America was built by immigrants. In a sense, America is like a huge puzzle, completely finished on one end, but continually growing as new pieces are added to the other, representing newly arriving immigrants.
These new immigrants are continually changing America’s identity. It is often said that America is a melting pot in which newly arrived immigrants merge with those already here to produce a new breed of Americans. To draw an analogy, the idea is that integrating new immigrants is like baking a cake. The ingredients of flour, shortening, eggs and sugar are mixed together to bake the American cake. Contrast that view, with say that of Canada’s, that sees itself as a cultural mosaic of brightly colored bits of ethnicity, culture, racial identity and language embedded side by side. These visual metaphors attempt to portray each country’s policies and how they incorporate new immigrants into their societies. Critics of these older formulations advance the notions of diversity and inclusion as better views on how immigration and cultural policies should deal immigrants to their societies.
Just as immigrants are changing the identity of America, however, the country is also changing the identity of immigrants. Consider that on the first day of arrival on American soil, immigrants bring with them their identities forged back home. These identities may include a different language, culture, religion, dress and values – differences that are not ‘normal’ in North America. In time, many immigrants adapt and take on the ways of the majority in America. An example is that male Sikhs sometimes abandon their turbans and clothes and cut their hair. Externally they may look more like other typical Americans, but inside they may still identify with the Sikh faith and customs. By and large, such immigrants love America and are glad they were allowed to come here. Yet many also love their former homeland as well. There is nothing strange or wrong here: just as one can love her mother and father at the same time, she can also love America as well as Italy, for example, if that is where she is from.
What’s In A Name?
An interesting portrayal of how America influences personal identity is in former President Barack Obama’s book A Promised Land. While he was native born, as he grew up he was called Barry Obama. It was only later in life, as he came to grips with his identity that he changed his name to Barack Obama. This is a common identity experience – many Chinese immigrants adopt English first names to better cope with life in English-speaking America. I myself vacillate between Andy in everyday settings, and my native Andriy, related to my Ukrainian origins.
Being True To Yourself
The underlying question is can you live in America as your true self and still be an American? Or is America the kind of country that expects you to change your identity to ‘fit in?’ In other words, do you have to surrender your cultural identity to become an American? More importantly, is America welcoming when it comes to speaking other languages, or does America expect you to effectively forget your native tongue and just speak English? There are Americans with very different answers to these questions and different expectations related to newcomers to this country. This is what needs to be settled for America to find her way in these troubled times.
A Different View of America
Never was this difference in views about America more evident than in the presidency of Donald Trump. His evident hostility to Mexican and Muslim immigrants, and his apparent empathy, or at least tolerance, for those who want a White America, resulted in clashes on the streets of many cities and in Washington D.C. that seriously tarnished America’s image abroad. The efforts of historic figures like Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant to eradicate white supremacists, not to mention the American civil war fought in part to put the legacy of slavery behind it, appeared to be forgotten. Even the efforts of more modern political leaders, like those of President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, President Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were all set back by the recent policies of the Trump administration. It may take years for America to heal and return to honoring its founding creed.
A Return To America’s Founding Creed
But return it must. The days of a country with a single race, single religion and a single culture are gone. They disappeared with the end of World War I and the collapse of the great empires that dominated world politics back then: Tsarist Russia, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottoman and German empires. Today America has no choice but to transform itself into the multi-ethnic, multiracial and diverse country it needs to be to play a leading role in the modern, multinational, multilingual and secular world. It is time for Americans to return to their founding principles in that regard.