Immigration and the challenge of identity

By Tania Bagan

Can immigrants maintain their identities and traditions in their new homes? Or should they assimilate fully to ensure peaceful co-existence with their hosts, speaking only the local language and abiding by local customs?

These questions have taken on new importance as large numbers of immigrants — drawn to economic opportunities or driven from their homes by conflict and human rights abuses — ebb and flow across the globe, stirring resentment and a nationalist backlash in some countries.

Four university students, including three living in countries far from their birthplaces, addressed immigration, assimilation and identity in a recent News-Decoder webinar.

Arjun Balasundarum, from India, and Christine Fernando, whose parents were born in Sri Lanka, spoke from Indiana University, while Kit Keene, an American studying in London, and Arsentiy Novak, born in Ukraine, represented King’s College London.

“The fear among immigrants in the U.S. is something very real.”

Each of the News-Decoder student panelists is living in a country that in the past year has voted in favor of policies that are radically at odds with the liberal economic and social orthodoxy that has prevailed in Western society since World War Two.

Balasundarum and Fernando are in the United States, where President Donald Trump presides over a nation more divided than ever, where a large gap has opened up between right-wing nationalists favoring curbs in immigrants, and politically-correct urban dwellers.

Keene and Novak are in Britain, which is struggling to come to terms with its surprise vote last year to leave the European Union and the implications of that decision on the free movement of labor and immigration.

Balasundarum spoke to the political climate under Trump. “Though the current administration is just focusing on undocumented immigrants, the ones who are here legally still feel threatened. The fear among immigrants in the United States is something very real.”

Assimilation is a two-way street.

Fernando addressed the fraught question of whether an immigrant should assimilate the host country’s culture and practices, increasing their chances of being accepted but risking the loss of identity.

She underscored the contributions that immigrants can make to the diversity and creativity of the local culture — quite evident, ironically, in both the United States and Britain, where cuisines, shops and traditions from all around the world flourish.

“People assume that people come here and want to fade into monolithic American culture,” Fernando said. “The U.S. was built on immigrants. If you focus too much on assimilation, you forget how much immigrants contribute and change and create culture.”

Keene, too, felt the responsibility to adapt should not have to fall entirely on the newcomer. “It’s on both the ‘natives’ and the ‘migrants’ to integrate a little,” she said. “People living in a country should accept that their country is changing and that there are new values being brought in that they may need to adapt to.”

Born in Ukraine, Novak decried the atmosphere of political correctness at university that can impede some students from asking questions of others and which can deepen misconceptions by prioritizing safety over confrontation.

“With this notion of tolerance, and being presumed to have an understanding of cultures, we are disallowed to critique or speak out against that which we don’t like,” Novak said.

For these four students, immigration is a process both of assimilation on the part of the newcomer and of acceptance on the part of the hosts. Ideally, they agreed, it should be a balanced, reciprocal process and not a one-way street.


Immigration

Tania Bagan is News-Decoder’s summer intern. She grew up in Venice, Italy, and now attends Haverford College in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. Later this year she will be entering her final year, studying Comparative Literature. She is a staff writer at Haverford’s Communications Department.

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