The Forgotten Tale of Shikhandi
The Forgotten Tale of Shikhandi

When Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, visited America in September 2016, he made a point of remarking that he believes in “integration” and not “assimilation.” “People shouldn’t have to drop their cultures and traditions when they arrive in our cities and countries,” he stated.

Before I disagree with him, let me explain what exactly the difference is between these two ideas.

Assimilation is an immersive experience, where the immigrant’s culture is submerged within the dominant one. There is a full absorption of the host country’s culture and carries the implication of homogeneity. Integration, on the other hand, occurs when a society accepts the differences in its census and makes room for those differences. Analogically, integration is a floor of unique and separate tiles—a mosaic; assimilation is a floor of oak strips, subtly different, and remarkably uniform.

It seems pretty easy to agree, therefore, with Khan that integration is what we should base our public policies on as a society. It feels essentially abhorrent to force immigrants to conform to the cultural mores of a majority.

What is America’s culture, you ask? Not Stephen Curry or Steve Jobs, but what they embody. In big-scape it is independence, individualism, respect for the rule of law, freedom of choice, public cleanliness and a solid work ethic.

In other words, we immigrants should be allowed to practice our religions, to speak our languages, uphold our traditions, eat our foods, celebrate our festivals, wear our clothes, and watch our movies. Wearing a sari to a public place should be as accepted as wearing a pantsuit. And, too, wearing a hijab should be as accommodated as wearing a habit or a yamaka.

But I believe that there must be limits on integration. Otherwise, society can devolve from fellowship, progress, and cooperation to conflict and conspiracy. The beginnings of which we are seeing with the rise in hate rhetoric against our communities.

E pluribus unum is the motto of America—out of many, one. Assimilation is more likely to fit the American motto. Integration can result in out of many, many.

In physics when systems are left alone, they tend to move to a state of greater entropy. Society, in that sense, is just another system. Groups of people, when not regulated, tend towards extremes, not because they are evil, but because they are inclined to think in narrow ways.

That’s why folks live in America for decades and disdain the idea of citizenship. These eligible green card holders believe that life in America is “temporary” even when temporary runs into years and generations. They continue to harbor a primary allegiance to their country of origin. In the meantime, these same people fashion a decent life in suburbia and do not hesitate to take advantage of America’s public schools, libraries, parks and community centers. The argument you hear is that “but we pay taxes” and it goes towards maintaining these same public facilities. True, but it’s like having a paying guest who pays the rent and gets dinner every night for years on end, but doesn’t deign to clear the dishes ever. It is not required therefore it is never done.

Here’s a statistic to take home with you: Only 56.2% of adults of Indian origin, residing in America, were citizens in 2012.

For sure, a multicultural society is a more tolerant society. But extreme multiculturalism creates chaos. If we all spoke in different languages in the same room, it would be cacophonous and hard to understand. At some level, we must, as residents and citizens of America, speak or learn to speak the language of our country, literally and figuratively. We must uphold the traditions of America as well as we do that of the countries we left behind.

A Pew Research Study published in February 2017, found that 84% of Americans believe that for a person to be truly American, it is very important or somewhat important “that he or she share American customs and traditions.” Only 15% believe that embracing America culturally is not that important.

What is America’s culture, you ask? Not Stephen Curry or Steve Jobs, but what they embody. In big-scape it is independence, individualism, respect for the rule of law, freedom of choice, public cleanliness and a solid work ethic. In small-scape, America’s culture is knowing not to eat spaghetti bolognese with your hands at an Italian eatery, yet comfortably using your digits to dip that roti into a bowl of dal at Amber Cafe.

True, there’s also stress, loneliness and the collapse of the family unit in American society, but America is no different from other countries in this way. What America provides in spades is the possibility for success. The Indian-American community, in particular, is comfortably aware of this.

Peter D. Salins in his book Assimilation, American Style refers to how residents and native born residents of New York in the early 20th century endorsed three norms for integration. Accepting English as the national language; believing in liberal democratic and egalitarian principles; and having a strong work ethic and moral values.

I believe the norms for integration are the ability to speak in English as the language of economic necessity; becoming citizens and exercising the right to vote; and giving back to America.

I do agree that people shouldn’t have to “drop their cultures” when they arrive in America, as Khan mentioned. Additionally, too, they must absorb the culture of where they live. Accommodation must be both ways. If America can accommodate the cultures we bring with us, we must accommodate America, the country we have chosen, and its culture.

Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.

Jaya Padmanabhan is editor emeritus, contributing writer, and board member of India Currents. She is a veteran journalist, essayist, and fiction writer with over 250 published articles and short stories....