What "Assimilation" Means to Me

As I took shelter from the rain at the PVTA bus stop in front of Converse Hall on my way from town, a damp piece of paper taped to the glass caught my eye. The page asserted the following in bleeding ink:

“ASSIMILATION: Distancing or dropping of one’s culture, language, values, politics and/or traditions in order to advance and seek to assume the culture and characteristics of the dominant group. This often happens as a response to forms of oppression including but not limited to: xenophobia, racism, cis-heteronormativity and religious oppression, among other types of oppression.”

At this point, I was somewhat aware of the Common Language Document that proposed this definition. Both proponents and opponents of the document had vocalized their views rather audibly over the course of the week. The reason I was particularly drawn to this term “assimilation” was that it applied to me. As I reflected on the word, a host of different feelings and thoughts flooded my mind.

My family immigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia in 2009. At the time, I spoke no English, but was eager to learn. I even wanted us to speak English at home. Though somewhat confused by the blunt patriotism preached by my school, I was indeed excited about American history, so I memorized the preamble to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I quickly picked up pronunciations and idioms (who would have known that the way I said the word “bread” could be wrong, but go figure). I was so deeply immersed in a new lingua-cultural environment that, at some point, as I was penning a handwritten letter to a friend in Russia, I mistakenly wrote an English “P” instead of a Russian “П.” The word looked off. My mother looked over my shoulder and lovingly exclaimed, “You’re Americanizing!”

Yet the process of assimilation ran deeper than language and culture — it was, in fact, political as well. For the first time, we felt proud of our president. Whenever President Barack Obama gave an interview on the news, my mother and I would sit in front of the TV and admire his crisp, laconic rhetoric. Comparatively, we had nothing more than contempt and disgust for the corrupt, authoritarian government in our home country. We saw (and still see) Russian President Vladimir Putin as a criminal and a slimy, vile human being. Being able to feel proud of the government was part of our assimilation, a value we could not — morally and logically — access at home.

We also embraced the notions of human rights and progress. In Russia, two men cannot walk down the street holding hands because they will get attacked; the “n-word” is just the standard way to address black people. Generally, disabled and elderly people cannot count on the compassion and support of the general populace. The idea that diversity among human beings deserves to be embraced was wild to us. Of course, as our time in the U.S. passed, we discovered that this country is also responsible for some of the most horrific abuses of human rights. But at the very least, many American people have a vision of progress and work tirelessly toward a better society fueled by the existence of democracy, unlike the Russians. The relative optimism that comes with living in a democratic country was, in essence, another aspect of our assimilation.

Assimilation has given me many good things. It has made me bilingual, proud (until more recently) of the government under which I reside and faithful in the use of legal and legislative institutions for good. It has been challenging to learn to be American and adopt the mannerisms of Americans around me, but this process has ultimately made me resilient and open-minded. I recognize that, for other people, assimilation is not all rainbows and sunshine. I can only imagine the difficulty of coming from a culture you love into a society that rejects that culture in favor of its own. This experience is not one that I can empathize with, but it is one I have great sympathy for. As much as I admire American society for its belief in progress, I remain vastly critical of significant aspects that reinforce exclusion and oppression.

What troubles me about the definition of “assimilation” I encountered is the second sentence. It does not trouble me because I find it discreditable — in fact, I agree with the idea that sometimes, assimilation takes place under the pressure of institutional forms of oppression. I am uncomfortable with the thought that people might assume I am a victim of “xenophobia, racism, cis-heteronormativity and religious oppression” when I say that I have experienced assimilation. In reality, assimilation was the process by which I learned about different forms of oppression and became aware of the ways I am complicit in them. This makes me hesitant to identify with a struggle I have never had, making me rethink what assimilation means for me.