Cultural assimilation in America and two interesting Somali boys

Recently comments by a mayor in Maine, dubbed “one of the whitest states in the Union” caused a controversy, when he stated: Somalis ‘should leave culture at door’. Following protests, the mayor has since retracted his statements and toned down the racist implications in those statements by stating he meant immigrants should try to assimilate into “American culture,” not give up their language or traditions. Yeah. Right.

I am not sure really what makes up “American culture”. What exactly is American culture? What I see is a nation shared by many people, all whom are immigrants one way or another, except the Native Americans. Each group has a unique history/”culture” which they brought into this country and all have the commonality by being governed by the ethos/laws of the land.

Have Somalis and other recent immigrants broken the law of the land? Is there something in their culture, which makes them not law abiding citizens or unproductive members of society? Because if I was a mayor or a public figure this would be of a greater concern to me, if immigrants were breaking the law and thus endangering the fabric of society. Don’t you think?

But of course this is not what unsettles the mayor and assimilation enthusiasts. Those Somali families, who have gone to Maine have gone to seek a better environment to raise their children. Years ago as the wave to Maine was underway, I met parents, who felt their children were losing their way in Ohio so they sought a nurturing and family oriented environment. I don’t know who the first person was to lead the way, but many more families followed other families to seek a better life in Maine. I believe now the number is around 6,000 Somalis live in Maine.

You see that has always been at the core of every immigrant story since the beginning of time, to seek a better life. People risk their precious lives and that of their families for the dream of creating a better life. That to me is so remarkable and courageous and deserves support, compassion, and kindness. If the tables were turned, those from richer environments would be embarking on the same journeys we have seen throughout history. I’ll get off my soapbox.

Somalis are no different than the immigrants that came before them. Well, except of course they happen to be black and their women tend to wear a lot of bright clothes from head to toe on top of that. And that ladies and gentlemen is what unsettles the mayor of Maine and assimilation enthusiasts.

To me, that is what makes America or Canada for example, great and beautiful, our diversity. Our diversity of race, of language, of attire, of poetry, of song, and dance. I love for example when I go to a big city like NYC (I’m from Indiana) and I see much of humanity represented. That is beautiful. I want to see Latin cultures, Indian, Nigerian, Indonesian, or Haitian and so forth all around me. I don’t want to live in a world where we are clones of each other, speak the same language, dress in the same attire or believe in the same things. That is boring and quite frankly limits our human growth.

But you know what, behind those words of the Mayor of Maine and those like him, “assimilate into “American culture,” means hey look more like me, think more like me, and dress more like me. It is not politically correct to say that, thus hiding behind those words of “assimilate into American culture.” Because let’s face it, which “American culture” does the Mayor wish Somalis and recent immigrants to assimilate into? Yeah I thought so.

Here is the thing. Somali’s are very new immigrants. As an immigrant community, they haven’t even reached their 20 year milestone. The first Somali born American generation is just coming of age. And Mr. Mayor don’t you worry, history is on your side. Be patient. Be a man of vision. Think about every immigrant story before the Somali’s you are now fixated on, wishing they’d change their ways immediately. Remember change doesn’t occur overnight. You’re in politics man, you should know that already. And the change you’d wish would magically happen to the Somalis, well that kind of change takes generations. Think of the Germans, the Irish, the Italians, the Puerto Ricans and so forth. But as I’ve said, history is on your side.

What you are seeing now is our mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, and grandparents, who haven’t been away for long from the land of their youth. They are very unlikely to give up “their ways”, you know how old folks are, they are very stubborn, but our children and their children’s children will dress, eat, speak, and honor your “American heritage” better than you sir. Now doesn’t that make you smile and put you more at ease? I thought it would.

And oh no, I am not making this up. Of course there is nothing scientific about my theories, only personal observations over the years. You see even today, I met two very bright Somali boys. Both under 12. They have an older sister, who is 16. Both of their parents are Somali. The father drives a cab, the mother stays home, I believe. Both of their parents hardly speak English and they are very gung-ho about their Somaliness. You know, they are the type of folks who follow more what is going on in that God-forsaken country of theirs, instead of immersing themselves in the Great US of A. We are having an important National election for goodness sake and they are more interested in the local politics of a “failed state.” What gives? Beats me too.

Well here is the kicker. I had a long and interesting conversation with the two boys, in English, as they and their older sister speak not a word of Somali. That must make you proud, Mr. Mayor. But this will make you even more proud. The boys went on to tell me about the world in a perspective of “us and them.”

They were bright you see and we discussed various topics including important world events like WW1, WW2, Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam war, Africa, and even “the financial threat of China.” I sat there fascinated as these two young boys of Somali descendent, whose parents spoke very little English, told me how “we won WW2 against the Japanese”, how “we put Japanese in camps, because of Pearl Harbor”, how “we are greater than the Chinese and Africans, and they need us to survive economically.” Fascinated I tell you, fascinated.

So I asked the boys if they considered themselves, “Somali-American, just Somali, or just American.” They replied, “American.” They didn’t even pause to think of the answer. And I tell you, identities for immigrant children and I am one can get very complicated. Anyways, I asked them why they answered just American, and they said, “because we were born here and have no connection with Somalia.” Fair enough. Even I, who wasn’t born here, but raised here identify more with the land I grew up in more so than the one my dear mother gave birth in.

But here is what troubled me and not because I am a proud, hardcore and diehard Somali culture, afrocentric adherent. It was the total disconnect, almost disregard of their Somali/African heritage. These two boys saw the world as us and them. And what was foreign to them were their ancestors, the fathers and mothers of their father and their mother. Somalia and Africa to them was a place unthinkable, undesirable, and alien so far removed from what they could possible find any value in. It went as far as looking down on their parents, because their parents had accents and can hardly speak English. It was very scary actually and very sad to me. Now I understand they are just children and children grow and learn. I just hope they don’t grow up to be like the Ivy League educated Somali guy I met a couple of years ago, who thought the less he identified with being Somali or African the more sophisticated and awesome he was. Or the Nigerian guy in my class, who got angry every-time someone didn’t identify him as an American and asked him where in Africa he was from.

So Mr. Mayor, chill and just wait a generation or two. If the pattern continues as I have observed, it is the cultural enthusiasts who wish to maintain their rich cultural heritage and language in a very westernized world, who have more to fear than you do.

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