The Immigrant Mind: Immigration and Identity (Part Four)Monday, June 26, 2017
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, Demitri has been unjustly convicted of murdering his father. His brothers plot to help him escape while en route to exile in Siberia. The plan is to escape to America with the woman he loves. But Demitri tells his brother,
I hate this America even now! And maybe every last one of them is some sort of boundless machinist or whatever – but, devil take them, they’re not my people, not of my soul! I love Russia, Alexei, I love the Russian God, though I myself am a scoundrel! But there I’ll just croak! (Emphasis mine)
Demitri goes on to inform Alexei (nickname Alyosha) about his desire to eventually return from America and die in his native land of Russia.
Dostoevsky’s fictional character Demitri is only one example of the ontological drive for personal and national identity. People flourish when they know who they are – they need to know who they are; they are dehumanized when it is taken away from them. Only in today’s culture – in which identity is constructed out of plastic so that it can be reshaped – do I have to persuade people of such a thing.
I do not use Demitri as an example out of an anti-American sentiment, but because we learn about humanity (among other things) from Dostoevsky; he teaches us that identity lies at the essence of a person and nation.
The Immigrant’s Struggle
The culture shock – the impact of migrating from an Eastern civilization and worldview to the West – was like a collision in my very being. I knew four English phrases when I arrived in America: “Yes,” “No,” “Please,” and “Thank you.” I knew that “OK” meant “Yes,” but that you don’t use it all the time.
My life has embodied the identity crisis of our time. I’ve lived in America for 38 1/2 years; long, hard years spent trying to understand the world around me and who I am within that world. There is an Arab proverb my mother often repeated: “He who renounces his origins renounces himself.” It was a cause of strife between us as I struggled against my Iraqi heritage. The more she embedded herself within the Middle Eastern subculture here, the harder I struggled against my roots. I pulled and pulled until I became rootless. I spent years in that state, testing and probing the world around me for answers. In the end, I had to go back to my origins to understand myself.
The reason I spent so much time on selfhood and identity earlier in this series is so that when it came time to discuss immigrants like me, we would be equipped with the ideas necessary to understand this complex world. Recall that identity is made up of many elements: family, household, religion, language, culture, and state. As a person, I am connected to these communal spheres and my identity relies on how well I keep these attachments.
I have said before that immigration interrupts these shared spheres. It severed, to one degree or another, the cords that bound me to my family, household, religion, culture, language, and state. When we lived in Greece, I found myself almost automatically assimilating – but leaving Greece disrupted yet another set of communal spheres that had developed while I was living there. So was I Iraqi, Greek, or American? What does being any of those things mean? I knew I couldn’t be any of these things on my own, because I knew that an individual by him or her self untethered from people and institutions is not a good or natural state.
So now we are in America, therefore I have to be American. In order to be American, I have to change what I do and what I think. But that is not enough, I have to even change how I think about what I think, and how I think about what I do.
I asked: What does it mean to be American? Well the first thing I needed in order to be American was to speak American English. What else does it mean to be American? It means having American friends and attaching myself to American institutions. It also means dressing and acting like an American girl, listening to American music and watching American movies. But all that can be mimicked with no true internal change, and there were plenty of immigrants mimicking. But to be required absorbing the cultus, the heart of culture.
So what is the American cultus? What does America worship and believe in? This is a religious question – this is why a person’s religion shapes how and to what extent an individual assimilates. Each religion carries with it a particular way of knowing about God, man, and the world; religion gives man an epistemology. Hence, if I am to become internally American I have to undergo an epistemological shift.
Here is a simple example of what I mean: In the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Founders wrote,
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
This statement tells us something about how the Founding Fathers of our country thought. You have to think about God, man, and the world in a particular way in order to believe these statements. If your understanding of God, man and the world are orthogonal to this or in any way contentious with this world view, well, you will have a difficult time fully assimilating unless you undergo an epistemological shift.
But wait. Mom and dad said this is not who we are: We don’t dress like them (meaning girls are not to wear immodest clothing); we don’t wear makeup when we are in the fourth grade; we don’t shave our legs when we’re in grammar school; we don’t have boyfriends, hold hands and kiss in elementary school; we don’t attach ourselves to American churches whose “worship” is so different than our own; we don’t get too involved with institutions whose values are contrary to ours. We don’t espouse the American version of freedom and separation from parents.
The looser the American culture became, the more intense my parents pressed into their Middle Eastern subculture. The harder I tried to fit in into the American world around me, the tighter the restrictions became. I remember when my parents came home after the swearing-in ceremony in which they became naturalized citizens. My mother was quick to tell me that the man who swore in all of the immigrants instructed them to keep their languages and traditions and to not lose their native identities. I was confused; that didn’t square with what I was learning in U.S. history at school. The American Founders had certain ideas, and those ideas created a particular country – our country, America – and if America was going to continue to be America, then we needed to think as they did.
I argued with my parents until I was blue in the face, but they were immovable: “We are not Americans! We are Christian Iraqis.” Sure we live in America, we work hard, we do not take government money, we pay taxes, we vote, we obey the law and become good citizens – but we are not Americans.
This is metaphysical warfare of the Middle Eastern Christian variety: We abide, but we do not assimilate.
But unlike my parents, I didn’t have a strong Iraqi Christian identity because I was not formed in that country, within the community my parents were part of. So if I’m not Iraqi, and I’m not supposed to be American, then who am I?
America can go only so long with immigrants who are working hard, paying taxes, voting, abiding by the law, but who are not Americans. At some point, we will reach a cultural tipping point, and I believe we have.
The problem is, that “strangers in a strange land” feeling is not only true for immigrants, but for all people living in America who find themselves on the opposite side of the metaphysical war. Because while the immigrants have been undergoing their own identity crisis and assimilation difficulties, America has lost her national identity – her culture corrupted. What identity and epistemology can she offer to those who have fled to her for shelter?
If it is getting harder to abide, and we can’t assimilate, what can we do? Well, what we don’t do is build even more subcultures to burrow ourselves in. We must instead do two things: Regain our identities and live faithfully and unapologetically by those identities until we reawaken our culture.
We started out this series by asking why immigrants aren’t “melting in” like before. I’ve given only a partial answer. Every single installment so far deserves a deeper dive, and I hope to do that one day. This is our first pass across this landscape; let us keep going.