When we entered the restaurant in Houston’s Chinatown neighborhood, we crossed an invisible language barrier where we left English behind and suddenly found ourselves and everyone around us speaking Mandarin. It began with the hostess who greeted us and continued with the waitress who took our order. When we left, the staff said ‘Thank you and goodbye’ in Mandarin. As a person from the Western culture, I felt like a foreigner in Houston.
During lunch, we discussed how easy it could be for someone to remain strictly associated with their original culture and avoid assimilation into Western culture. We talked about how easy (or difficult) it is for a foreigner to learn about the new world they are in and what path people take to assimilate into their new culture. It made me wonder what I would do if I were to move to a new country where everything is so very different. Would I seek others who were ‘like me,’ who had similar language, cuisine, dress, religion and beliefs, or would I try to blend in and learn all I could about my new homeland? I thought this might be a fun topic to explore, so I developed the premise of “How do foreigners assimilate into Western Culture?”
I asked my lunch partner, Shubin, “Do you consider yourself a ‘Chinese-American’ or an ‘American of Chinese descent’?” After a long discussion, I realized that this was a perplexing question to her, and that the process of becoming ‘Westernized’ is more about desire and can range greatly. She told me that at first she was a Chinese-American, but after having two sons, being involved with school, sports, school activities, friends and neighbors, she feels like she has transitioned to more of an American of Chinese descent.
I then wondered if people from other countries absorbed the Western culture the same way, so I started questioning my circle of foreign friends. I interviewed people from 16 countries including: Korea, Venezuela, Lebanon, Vietnam, Australia, China, Mexico City, Iran, Colombia, Thailand, Brazil, the U.K., Russia, Nigeria, India and Canada, and included people ranging from recent arrivals to 25-year transplants.
The interviewing process created two camps of people:
- Group 1: Those who actively sought the company of people from ‘back home.’
- Group 2: Those who tried to assimilate quickly into Western culture.
The people in Group 1 tended to stay very close to their native language, food, religion, customs, clothing and holidays. They told me that most of their friends were from their native country and that they regularly met to go food and clothing shopping from their culture. They enjoyed speaking in their original language and would share in their original holidays and cultural activities.
The people in Group 2 tended to actively learn the language and customs in the U.S. and would have a more diverse group of friends. This group sought out those activities associated with the Houston scene, as I was told they went to baseball, football, basketball and hockey events, float down the Guadalupe River, would dress in a more ‘Westernized’ fashion and would eat more American-style food. They listened to local music, would go to concerts and would travel about Texas.
I was told that the process can be lengthy for some and almost overnight for others. I found people who primarily spoke their native language and felt most comfortable in the company of friends of similar background. I also found people who almost refused to speak their native language and refused to do many things associated with their motherland. Some of those interviewed said they still think in their original language and had trouble translating to English even after 25 years of living in Katy, while one person became fluent in English after just three months.
What I discovered was people arrive in the U.S. for a wide variety of reasons, but stay because they enjoy their new home. Many discussed what the ‘perception of the U.S. was’ and had to explore America to see if the perception was a possible reality. Some came for work, school or with spouses. Some arrived without any of their own money and were in debt to relatives funding their journey. I heard impressive stories about having to leave because of war to the search for outstanding opportunities in the U.S.
What was perhaps the most interesting part of this project was watching the reaction to those supplying the answers to the questions on assimilation. Most of them seemed to never really have given it much thought and appeared reminiscent of their journey.
Members of both groups had a common bond: They were glad they came to the U.S., they missed parts of their original country and they liked the freedoms and opportunities found within the U.S. They also enjoyed the diversity of the Melting Pot.
Michael A. Knowles, REALTOR®
2013 HAR International Advisory Group member