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Identity and the Immigrant ExperienceEssay

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¶ … controversial issue of immigration has been whether assimilation or multiculturalism is preferable. On the one hand, some people argue that assimilation helps to create a more harmonious society. On the other hand, some people argue that multiculturalism allows immigrants to preserve their heritage and culture. For example, in "Dear Friend, From My Life, I Write to You in Your Life," Yiyun Li muses on multiple issues related to time, emptiness, suicide, and a range of other topics that do not seem to be related directly to immigrant experiences but which together create the whole of the author's identity. According to this view, identity has to do with a lot more than just ethnicity, language, or culture, even though these elements do come together to create the whole self. In sum, then, the issue in question is whether one can retain a distinct identity as an immigrant with two different cultures or whether the culture of origin is going to be erased as one assimilates. My own view is that both things are possible, and that we can retain our cultural heritage, language, and identity and still be part of the new society. Though I concede that clinging to the past can prevent us from participating fully in the life of the dominant culture, I still maintain that diversity is a strength and not a weakness in society. For example, America has remained a land of immigrants for many generations and is therefore one of the most diverse and open-minded nations on the planet. Although some might object that it is possible to have two different identities, I would reply that we all have complex identities comprised not only of our nation of origin but also our sexual orientation, gender, and political beliefs. The issue is important because it relates to personal psychological development as well as social and public health.

The exhibit I discuss when addressing this issue is my personal experience as an immigrant. Specifically, the exhibit I will discuss is language. I am an immigrant who has struggled many times with learning English. Because there are a large number of Chinese immigrants already living in the United States, it is possible for a new immigrant like me to put off learning how to speak English. Many stores have signs in Chinese, and we have a strong community. I believe that my experiences as an immigrant mirror those of Richard Rodriguez, who speaks about the ways language becomes a powerful way of defining who we are and our social status. However, I would like to extend Rodriguez's argument to talk about how it can prevent harmony when new immigrants remain in their comfort zone instead of learning English. As it is with Rodriguez's assessment of learning English, it is my claim that learning English empowers us but also allows us to retain our mother tongue.

One of the issues new immigrants struggle with most is identity. I would know -- I am a first generation immigrant to the United States from China. Although I had some bilingual education growing up, the adaptation to the new country has not always been easy. We immigrants need to retain our culture, heritage, and values, or we risk losing ourselves as we attempt to fit in or assimilate in the new country. I have greatly appreciated hearing the perspectives and points-of-view from other immigrants, including those who are also from China like Yiyun Li, as well as immigrants from other countries and cultures such as Richard Rodriguez. Our respective experiences illustrate that immigration and the immigrant experience is far from being monolithic. Because we are all discussing immigration to a diverse society like the United States, our experiences will reflect our personalities, backgrounds, and the communities that welcomed us to our new home. One of the ways we can feel more welcome is to learn the new language.

Language is important to identity, as mastering a new language provides a sense of confidence. I have felt more confident in America the better my English becomes. As a result, I gradually feel less like an immigrant and more and more like an "American." When I first considered the concept of immigrant identity, I forgot to recognize that immigrants might all share certain feelings in common with one another. Now I see that there are things that I can share in common with immigrants from other countries. When I first arrived to the United States and before learning English well, I felt that I was alone.

For example, we often have different lives at home with our families versus when we are in public speaking our new language or interacting with people from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds. I know what it is like to hide in the comfort of my own community instead of risking the embarrassment of speaking the wrong English words. Much of it comes down to pride -- I feel like people are judging me or feel that I am stupid because I cannot speak as freely as a native English speaker. The only way to overcome these fears, though, is to keep speaking and practice the language even when we have "broken" English. It is just like Rodriguez discusses in "Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood." He reflects on the sounds of his mother speaking English and he was embarrassed at first. The memoir resonates with me because I have also experienced these feelings. I viewed English as the language that we speak when we need to conduct business or interact with people outside of our community. Now I see that mastering the English language helps us to preserve our identities as being Chinese but also feel welcome as Americans who participate in public life.

Immigrant identity is not a fresh or new subject, but it remains a relevant subject because we live in an immigrant society. Many of the people I meet in America are either first or second-generation. Moreover, globalization and population migration have made it so that the entire world is filled with people who exist in two or more societies at the same time. This is bound to have an effect on personal identity construction. For example, in "Dear Friend, From My Life, I Write to You in Your Life," Yiyun Li muses on multiple issues related to time, emptiness, suicide, and a range of other topics that do not seem to be related directly to immigrant experiences but which together create the whole of the author's identity. Unfortunately, many people have traumatic experiences that lead them to contemplate or commit suicide. These types of negative emotions are sometimes linked to feeling like one's life is worthless or like one does not belong or have a community. A new immigrant especially needs to feel bonded with a community in order to feel like their life has meaning or purpose.

Rodriguez focuses on language as being critical to social bonding, identity formation, and psychological wholeness. Language influences the way we view the world, each other, and ourselves. The way I speak to my parents is different from the way I speak to my instructors, not just because we speak different languages together but also because those languages symbolize different things. Chinese and English have different contexts for me, because they occur in different geographic and social spaces. Although Yiyun Li does not overtly discuss language as a major theme in the immigrant experience, she is a writer by trade and therefore language is critical to her existence and her self-concept. She has always used language to express herself and her emotions. As a result, her existential meditation highlights the struggles and confusion with bridging two worlds, as immigrants must do.

Both Yiyun Li and Richard Rodriguez address the issues associated with immigrant identity construction, which is a topic that all immigrants can relate to even when they come from countries where English might be the first language. Language is only one potential social obstacle when immigrating. The diversity of the immigrant experience means that no two people will adapt to the new country the same way. Even if Rodriguez, Li, and I were from the same village, we would have different experiences as immigrants and feelings about what being an immigrant means. We would also think differently about assimilation versus multiculturalism and other critical concerns. Our common ground is the desire to create and participate in a mutually beneficial society.

Nevertheless, I have seen how people who did not know much English before moving to the United States struggled considerably. There are two different paths that a person might follow. One is to "hide" or take solace in an immigrant enclave instead of assimilating into the dominant culture. This option is very helpful for some people, especially when they do not have friends or family in the new country and do not speak any English. An immigrant community can help the person to find employment and eventually take language lessons, although admittedly some immigrants… [END OF PREVIEW]

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