Assimilation

Parents of different ethnic backgrounds each hold a child on back in the park, smiling happilyAssimilation, the process of absorbing information or experiences, can refer to the absorption of new concepts or ideas. This term is often used to describe the experience of immigrants as they adapt to a new culture or country.

Understanding Assimilation

Immigrants arriving in a new country often experience some degree of culture shock as a result of being surrounded by new customs, values, and language. In order to feel more at home in their new country, many people attempt to assimilate into the culture, adopting its ideas and values as their own. Immigrants who come to the United States, for example, may begin learning to speak English and might teach this language to their children. Many retain their native language and culture and pass this on, but some may not, out of the desire to allow their children to grow up wholly Americanized.

The degree to which an individual assimilates may be impacted by the circumstances of their immigration. Some individuals might emigrate to escape hardship or seek new economic opportunities, while others may be interested in acquiring a new national identity because their values and beliefs are at odds with those of their country of origin. Some immigrants move to an area within their new country that is heavily populated by people of their own ethnic origin, which is likely to make the preservation of language and cultural practices somewhat easier.

Assimilation vs. Multiculturalism

In the United States, the idea of assimilation is not without controversy, as it evokes issues of racism and cultural bias. There are those who argue for assimilation, claiming it is necessary to have one common national identity binding all citizens of the country. Some people believe certain practices that occur in other countries are antithetical to American values and should not be tolerated, and they may go on to point out that because immigration is voluntary, those who choose to move to the United States should be willing to uphold the values of the nation. fat_widget_right]

Some immigrant advocates take issue with the term assimilation, pointing out that it can imply a need for immigrants to give up their own identities in order to fully embrace the dominant culture of the U.S. In adherence to the idea that ethnic diversity and multiculturalism make the country better and richer, advocates typically encourage immigrants to feel welcome to maintain their own cultural identities and customs. Many advocates worry, however, that immigrants who do not assimilate may be treated as inferior to people from the dominant culture, as historically many have been subject to discrimination and prejudice.

As the United States continues to become more ethnically diverse with immigrants from many different countries and regions of the world, the issue of assimilation becomes more complicated. Some have suggested the idea of the United States as a “melting pot” in which people from different cultures come together and merge into one common national identity, largely letting go of their own unique and diverse identities in the process. Others who value multiculturalism advocate for the use of the “salad bowl” analogy: people coming together to create a new identity while still retaining the “flavor” of their old ones.

Can Assimilation Impact Emotional Well-Being?

Adjusting to a new culture can be a stressful experience, and the challenges of immigration are especially relevant in the current political climate. Immigrants may face discrimination, xenophobia, and negative stereotypes. They may also have difficulty finding employment, especially if they do not speak the primary language of their new country. Beyond this, many may find it difficult to cope with the feelings of loneliness and isolation that may result from leaving their country of origin.

In addition to dealing with the culture shock most immigrants face, people who are fleeing their own country due to war, famine, or other traumatic circumstances may also experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress (PTSD) as well as chronic pain and somatic symptoms.

Even when immigrants strive immediately to assimilate into the dominant culture, this process can be challenging. Immigrants may come to feel they lack a clear sense of identity: they no longer fully identify with their country of origin but do not yet feel like an authentic member of the nation they have chosen to become a part of.

Even when immigrants strive immediately to assimilate into the dominant culture, this process can be challenging. Immigrants may come to feel they lack a clear sense of identity: they no longer fully identify with their country of origin but do not yet feel like an authentic member of the nation they have chosen to become a part of. When people do not fully understand the norms and customs of their new country, they may experience increased discomfort and anxiety regarding social interactions. Assimilation is a process that takes time, and many people face, as a part of this process, stress, anxiety, depression, and other concerns related to culture shock, stigma, and discrimination.

Adjusting to a New Culture

While assimilating into a new country can be a stressful and often difficult process, there is support available. Community organizations and religious groups may offer services such as legal assistance and other types of support. Many immigrants also find it helpful to reach out to other people in their community who have been in the country longer and can therefore provide guidance and assistance from a similar perspective. In the United States, the government offers resources such as free English classes and other online tools and programs to those who desire help adjusting to life in the United States. Educational institutions also frequently offer resources, such as cultural centers/clubs and counseling, to students, and many also offer these resources to non-student members of the community.

Therapy can often be helpful in addressing any number of multicultural concerns, especially for individuals who are adjusting to a new culture, though a number of barriers may effectively prevent immigrants from getting mental health treatment. If a person’s culture of origin minimizes the validity of mental health issues or has a stigma around seeking help, for example, that individual may be reluctant to seek out mental health services, even in a country where these services are extremely accessible.

Therapists who are aware of these barriers and provide culturally competent treatment can therefore be of great help in providing therapy that is beneficial to people adjusting to a new culture. Culturally competent treatment, which takes into account the therapist’s own biases and also works to accommodate the need of tailoring assessment and intervention to apply to those from different cultures, is an essential aspect of the field of mental health care.

Those who do seek therapy can receive treatment for any mental health symptoms that may occur, but they might simply need a safe space to discuss the challenges they are facing. Therapy can provide an environment of safety and acceptance likely to be helpful for people who are adjusting to a new culture, and therapists can provide information and resources in addition to emotional support and social skills training.

References:

  1. American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Psychology of immigration 101. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/immigration/immigration-psychology.aspx
  2. American Psychological Association. (2013). Working with immigrant-origin clients: An update for mental health professionals. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/immigration/immigration-report-professionals.pdf
  3. Assimilation. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/assimilation
  4. Getting settled in the United States. (2016, June 28). Retrieved from https://www.uscis.gov/tools/settling-us/getting-settled-united-states
  5. Gjelten, T. (2015). Should immigration require assimilation? The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/should-immigration-require-assimilation/406759
  6. Gloor, L. B. (2006). From the melting pot to the tossed salad metaphor: Why coercive assimilation lacks the flavors Americans crave. Hohonu: A Journal of Academic Writing, 4. Retrieved from https://hilo.hawaii.edu/academics/hohonu/documents/vol04x06fromthemeltingpot.pdf
  7. Kirmayer, L. J. Narasiah, L., Munoz, M., Rashid, M., Ryder, A. G., Guzder, J., … & Pottie, K. (2011). Common mental health problems in immigrants and refugees: General approach in primary care. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 183(12). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3168672
  8. Wilkinson, A. B. (2016, October 1). U.S. multiculturalism or cultural assimilation? The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/a-b-wilkinson/us-multiculturalism-or-cultural-assimilation_b_8218490.html

Last Updated: 03-22-2017

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