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Understanding The Concepts Of Acculturation

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 4688 words Published: 18th Apr 2017

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It is very important to understand the concepts of cultural change before discussing acculturation. A bilinear model regarding the adaption to a new culture is proposed by John Berry and his colleagues . These authors theorized the following four acculturation “attitudes”: integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalization based on combining either high or low levels of acculturation and enculturation: (see Figure 3.1). The meaning of these four different attitudes is explained.

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As John Berry claims, integration involves immigrants accepting the new culture, while maintaining close ties with their original culture. These immigrants learn and follow local customs without losing their bond with their customs from their homeland. They are both highly acculturated and enculturated as shown in the diagram below . Assimilation, on the other hand, involves immigrants who totally accept the new culture, and reject their original culture. These immigrants will learn the language and follow local customs so thoroughly that no trace of their original heritage remains. People become assimilated in American society when they erased their cultural identity, unlearned their ethnic cultural practices and beliefs, and accepted the core values of mainstream American culture .

Separation occurs when immigrants reject their new culture and live according to the customs of their original culture. These immigrants move to a new culture and find people from their homeland, and live as if they are still in their original culture, only in a different place . Marginalization represents immigrants who reject the new as well as their original culture. These immigrants no longer feel comfortable with their heritage, but the new culture does not appeal to them either .

According to Berry, the attitude affects the process of acculturation. For example, as immigrants prepare to go to the U.S., they may have decided to assimilate into the culture. However, upon arrival they discover that they reject some customs of their new country. As a result they change their attitude from assimilation to integration. Thus, the attitude changes according to the various traits of the immigrants. Portes and Rumbaut argue for three major factors that can impact and change the attitude of immigrants.

According to Portes and Rumbaut three factors are vital to understanding the acculturation trajectories of contemporary migrants. The first factor is their educational background, fluency in the English language, and economic and class status in their homeland. The second factor refers to the social policies of the host government and the historical and contemporary perceptions and attitudes of the mainstream society toward a particular immigrant group. The third factor is the immigrants’ social presence and networks and their family structure. The educational background of the immigrant groups and their social class back home are the “social” and “cultural” capital that they bring with them, which has an enormous impact on their economic assimilation. Although all three factors help determine how immigrants will acculturate into the larger mainstream American society, the second factor is the most relevant to shaping the acculturation outcomes of many nonwhite immigrants, especially of those immigrant groups who have little social and cultural capital and are not white. Even though the Indian Diaspora is racially distinct from the larger American mainstream, professional Indian Americans have an abundance of human-cultural capital acquired through their advanced education, knowledge of the English language, and social class in their home country. The low political profile of the Indian Diaspora also gives them a degree of invisibility that shields them from the scrutiny of the larger mainstream culture .

The three major factors of acculturation presented by Portes and Rumbaut naturally change the course of the process for many immigrants. For example, an immigrant with poor English skills, who is determined to assimilate, may find it impossible because of the language barrier and decide instead to integrate into or even separate from the host culture. Bhatia’s work illustrates the process of how these factors affect Indian immigrants as they adapt to their new culture.

Indians after immigrating to America, inevitably undergo some type of adjustment or acculturation process. Though inside the home Indian immigrants could maintain their culture, once outside the home, the system or society itself forced Indians into the acculturation process on all levels of culture. It is necessary to understand how immigrants acculturate in the U.S. As Waters and Bhatia suggest, unlike many Caribbean immigrants, most Indian professionals are middle class, live in suburban America, and are not subject to the structural inequalities of low wages, racism, and violent neighborhoods . However, there are some parallels in how both these groups of migrants come to terms with their racial and ethnic identity. On one hand, the Indian migrants are very proud of their Indian ethnicity and heritage. On the other hand, they invoke what Bhatia calls “the discourse of sameness […] and universal humanity” to distance themselves from their racial and ethnic identity . In other words, they realize that certain costs associated with being “Indian” are painful and hurtful and that invoking the discourse of sameness is meant to establish equivalence with the white majority. For example, Indian immigrants compare their experiences in the work place with those experiences of white Americans in an attempt to show equality with the majority. In one of Bhatia’s interviews an immigrant credits his own hard work and accomplishments for his position in the company, while: “If I was a white American male, you know, maybe there would be prejudice because I’m too short. […] So being an Indian, I don’t think it put me at a different spot. Or at least, that’s how I feel” .

Sunil Bhatia’s study demonstrates that the members of the transnational Indian Diaspora are more comfortable with a cultural identity than a racial identity because their insertion in the transnational Diaspora has transformed them from being Indian to being “people of color” .

The research illustrates the complicated nature of the acculturation of Indian immigrants. As demonstrated above, the attitude of the immigrants toward their new host country is only a starting point for the process. As these immigrants experience their new culture, their own personal background reshapes their attitude, and changes the way they interact with people, regardless of nationality. Clearly Indian immigrants move through a process as they acculturate to their new surroundings.

While Berry, Portes and Rumbaut and Bahtia all approach the subject from different directions and perspectives, and though they may not agree with one another, it is clear that each body of research illustrates a complicated process of acculturation. Taken individually the research results may appear to be contradictory, however, a closer analysis shows that their research actually supports one another. The attitude of the immigrants, studied by Berry, plays a major role in the process, but these attitudes may change in response to the three major factors affecting acculturation presented by Portes and Rumbaut. This ever changing process has been documented in Bhatia’s work, which demonstrates that immigrants adapt individually to their new culture, in this case the United States. That means there is no set formula for determining what will happen to an immigrant once he or she arrives. This process takes place within any immigrant to any country, therefore it will be beneficial to demonstrate specifically some of the elements unique to Indian immigrants, and how these elements influence the process.

3.2 Influencing Elements of Acculturation

3.2.1 Family

Perhaps the most important element to consider for Indian immigrants is family. As these Indian immigrants relocate to the U.S., start a family and begin the process of finding their place in society, it is important to understand the processes which influence the impact of acculturation on their families. To first-generation Indian immigrants and their children, family plays a vital role in their lives.

Hodge agrees with this assessment, and points out the stark difference between Indian culture and western culture. Western culture emphasizes the individual, material success and secularism. The Indian culture, by contrast, places much more value on community, especially the family, and on spiritual matters .

Acculturation plays an important role in understanding about the family structure, including family conflict as well as differences between first and second-generations. For example, the process and outcomes of acculturation determine which values are important to the first-generation and therefore retained and passed on to the succeeding generations. In addition, the process of acculturation might also determine expectations for subsequent generations. For example an assimilated individual would expect the same from his or her children.

Most of the work reviewed on acculturation includes some variables related to the family structure, including family conflict, specifically intergenerational family conflict.

Some scholars dedicated their studies to South Asian families. Among them, for example, Mathews provided a more general consideration of South Asian families to explain how they function. First, she explains the relationship of the family in a social order, where the father is usually considered the head of the family, which continues to be the traditional way of Indian families in America. Furthermore, she describes the role of both father and mother in the family, in which the mother usually takes care of the household and raises the children and the father usually serves as decision maker and provider .

Bringing up the children in a new and different culture, which often conflicts with their core ethnic values, creates problems for not only the parents but also for their children. As values may be extracted from both the native culture and host culture, it is inevitable that conflicts arise. Thus, in this case both parents and children struggle to balance family values of their own culture with the family values of the mainstream culture. In addition, according to the traditional Indian family, the eldest person is considered to be a decision maker such as career decisions for family members or approving marriages. This naturally means parents, especially in the first-generation, make the important decisions .

Clearly the attitude of immigrants from India to the U.S. will be greatly influenced by the strength of their bond to their traditional family values. This attitude will steer them through their acculturation process.

3.2.2 Dress

According to Khandelwal, Indian American immigrants have a mixed type of acculturation regarding dress. It is quite different for men as compared to women. In the case of men, they adopted western dress more easily than women due to the influence of colonialism. Indian American men started wearing a western style of dress even from the first-generation. However, most of these first-generation Indian immigrants do not have a correct idea of the weather and climate system of the U.S. For example, an Indian man, who came to America in the winter of 1994, was wearing a light silk suit and shivering outside. One old man saw him and told him: “Son, this is not the time to show off your new silk suit. I told you how it is going to be cold here today. If you catch a cold or become sick, nobody will take care of you in this country. Here you have to take care of yourself. All the money your family spent on making this suit for America will go down drain in one doctor’s visit here. There will be other occasions when you can use this suit!” .

Indian women immigrants are recognized mainly by their traditional dress called sari. Accordingly many female Indian immigrants try to preserve their culture by continuing to wear this kind of traditional dress. Saris are considered works of art due to the careful design and color combinations. However, in the workplace they alternatively wear western style clothing. An Indian woman who immigrated to America during the 1990’s was forced to wear Western dress due to her job requirements as a cashier in a store. She said the following: “See, I have to wear these men’s clothes here. It’s ok because I am doing men’s job here. Our clothes do not fit in this American culture. To feel Indian, we can wear our own clothes when we are not on the job”

Before coming to America, she had never worked outside of her house and wore only traditional clothing. However, she adapted to the Western dress because American culture forced her to do so .

Khandelwal continues to suggest that US born immigrant children are unlikely to continue wearing traditional dress. For example, young female immigrants in America prefer having readily made kurta-pyjama outfits to the saris, because they do not know how to wear these saris . At the same time, weddings among Indian Americans still continue to be traditional, in which the couple wears traditional dresses either bought in America or brought from India during a visit to the home country. However, due to some specific reasons, some of the Indian American immigrants and their children mostly use western styles only. For example, Nikki Haley, a daughter of Sikh Indian immigrants and one of the current rising stars in the Republican Party, wears mostly a suit, rejecting the sari in order to gain greater public acceptance while running for governor of South Carolina in November 2010 .

There is a significant difference in clothing style between India and the U.S. Immigrants who desire to retain their cultural style of dress will have different experiences with acculturation than those who are willing to accept western standards. This plays a bigger role in the lives of women immigrants than for men.

3.2.3 Religion

Religion plays a major role in the life style of Asian Indian Americans. Religious beliefs and practices are intricately interwoven with the aspects of acculturation and cultural identity of these immigrants. So it is important to understand the influence of religion on the acculturation of Asian Indian immigrants.

India is a country of diverse religions such as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. Among these religions, 82.6 % of Indians practice the Hindu religion which makes up a clear majority of the population, while the remaining 17.4% of the population practices Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Judaism and Parsis . These percentages reflect the population of India; however, Pakistan and Bangladesh have larger percentages of population which practice Islam. The existence of many religions in India indicates that religion plays a major role for Indian people. Thus, most of the Indian people have one religious belief, whether it is Hindu, Islam, Christianity, etc.

Each immigrant community brought its own sociological traditions from its place of origin, including ethical and religious behaviors. In the same way when Indians first started to migrate to the United States, they essentially had to carry out religious practices and teachings on their own . As the population of immigrants practicing Hinduism increased, so increased the number of religious organizations. With the development of a greater Hindu population practicing religion at home and in specific religious organizations became the norm. Leonard also noted that as the number of Indian immigrants has increased, religion has naturally become more important, as it has become a part of Indian American identity. Hinduism helps Indian Americans differentiate themselves in the United States, from mainstream U.S. culture as well as from other Asian and South Asian groups .

Like earlier immigrants, the post-1965 Indian immigrants maintained their belief system, which provided an important way to keep and transmit their values to following generations .

Most of the Indian immigrants in America can practice their religion. As an Indian immigrant Rupu notes: “I think that’s what it is about America. That’s what brought everybody here. It’s that being American you can be who you want to be and still be an American. There’s a freedom of religion, a freedom of expression” .

In America, the practice of Hinduism reflects its American surroundings. For instance, most related religious activities take place on weekends in order to suit work schedules and priests explain sacred texts in English, rather than Hindi or Sanskrit .

Asian American immigrants faced lot of challenges due to strong religious beliefs which influenced their acculturation. For example, their religious beliefs may be challenged or even given up as they are exposed to the religious beliefs, practices, symbols, and rhetoric of the mainstream culture. For Asian American immigrants who are faced with prejudice, racism, and discrimination, religious conversion may provide a sense of refuge and facilitate processes of assimilation and acculturation, which may explain why the majority of Asian Americans in the United States identify themselves as Christian . But one should not assume that Asian American immigrants adopt Christianity merely as a way to be accepted by the majority culture. Indeed, for some Asian American immigrants, Christianity is their religion of choice.

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However, it is different in the case of immigrants from India. As Khandelwal claims, unlike other Asian immigrants, Indians who are mostly from Hindu religion, have displayed little questioning of their faiths and they are unlikely to convert to another religion. Moreover, Hinduism, the dominant religion in India, faces the challenge of being a minority religion in America, where Christianity is dominant . These immigrants will therefore face the challenge of maintaining their belief system in the minority, which is opposite from their homeland. This in turn, will affect their acculturation process greatly as they struggle with their religious views.

Clearly religion plays a major role in the process of adapting to a new culture. Religion is especially important for Asian Indian immigrants, who already place a high value on their own belief system. Whether holding fast to their own religion, or converting to some other religion, these immigrants will practice some kind of religion after their arrival in the U.S.

3.2.4 Food

Indians who have a vast variety of food habits have a hard time adapting easily to Western food. One of the major causes for this lies in the great number of religions practiced by Indian immigrants. As a result of religious food laws many of India’s people do not consume animal products, which include eggs. The work of Bankston and Hidalgo shows that Indian immigrants are highly unwilling to change their food consumption habits. For example, most Indian Hindus avoid beef and pork, while Pakistanis avoid pork and alcoholic beverages. Most Indians prefer meals from their own culture. However, in households with children, American style meals have become more frequent .

Indians have preferred home-cooked meals for a long time, and it has been a part of their culture. They believe that eating at home together with all members of their family is an important ritual for bonding with each other. Many Indian Americans continue to preserve their traditional food habits in America. However, most of the Indians are also adapting to Western food. One example is that pizza is the next alternative food in popularity when compared to their native foods, as well as a timesaver when cooking at home. Indian parents in America expect their children to appreciate home-cooked food more than meals eaten outside the home, although sometimes US born children have a hard time understanding why they need to eat homemade food .

Some Indians run Indian restaurants, where they serve national food for not only Indians but also other Americans. As Indian food is mainly spicy, the waiters ask American customers if they prefer their food mild, medium or spicy. One owner of an Indian restaurant had the following to say: “I have seen situations where Indian food can send them sweating all over [running to decrease their spiciness by drinking more water or juices] that is not good for our business, so we try to accommodate them” .

For many Indian immigrants food plays a major role in the acculturation process. While religion prohibits complete adaptation to American food, traditional spices and preparation of Indian cuisine varies greatly from that of Western cuisine. This also plays a role in preventing some Indians from accepting the new style of food. Naturally everyone must eat, therefore food plays a major role in the acculturation process.

3.2.5 Marriage Customs

According to Indian tradition, Indians get married based on an arranged marriage usually within their own community. This tradition has been preserved from generation to generation. The selection of a marriage partner depends on a set of persons recommended by the partners’ families (with the full approval and consent of the parents). Family or community members continue to be involved in the selection of a suitable mate. The family and educational backgrounds of the potential partner are thoroughly examined before introductions are made. Indians believe that their children will be happier if they are married to someone who shares the same history, tradition, religion, and social customs and who will be able to impart these values to their children, thus ensuring the continuity of the community. They believe that such marriages made within the community tend to be more stable and long lasting than those that cross community borders .

In fact, many American born Asian Indians encounter tremendous obstacles in dating and marriage. On the one hand, their parents warn them not to date until they marry and expect that the children get married according to an arranged marriage which is a custom brought over from India . Indian parents believe that sexual contact before the marriage is immoral and corrupt. On the other hand, the American born children have friends for whom dating is very common and normal. These immigrants desire to fit in the environment in which they find themselves. Accordingly there have been many cases where some Indian lovers are secretly married, and in the worst case, some couples have committed suicide as of result of their relationship being rejected by family. However, some Asian Indian American men and women still prefer to return to their homelands for arranged marriages. In these cases, family members at home seek out appropriate possibilities for marriage to their son or daughter. At the right time, the son or daughter returns home to choose from the candidates assembled by their family .

Even the other religion practiced by these immigrants plays a role in the process of acculturation. For example Muslim parents usually accept interfaith marriages for boys, because children customarily follow the father’s faith. However, daughters face a greater challenge because parents do not want their grandchildren to lose their Islamic affiliation .

Some Indians came after their marriage in India, whereas some came as students. Most of the students have returned to India for getting married. There are also a few instances where an Indian married an American because of the relationship between the countries and individuals. Other Indians have dated Americans. However, the fact is that dating is not a traditional Indian custom and Indian parents tend to warn their children not to date, although they are slowly yielding to their offspring’s demands to be allowed to date .

The situation of arranged marriages in India is changing too. As second-generation immigrants Sanjay and Veera observed that:

Even in India you see people pushing back and becoming more Westernized, more mainstream. I’ve seen my cousins, and [by, #184] leaps and bounds, they’ve gone past what is traditional.

[Indian American young adults] don’t drink and smoke and have lived a sheltered life. They’ve always lived at home and haven’t gone out much. My cousins in India are more advanced. A lot of my cousins married their boyfriends .

Customs surrounding marriage can have a major impact on the acculturation process. Especially for those coming from India, where marriages are still arranged by family, the concept of dating before marriage creates an obstacle for many parents and their children. While customs among Indian immigrants are changing, allowing for young people to find their own spouse, many first-generation immigrants have a hard time letting go of old habits. For these families the acculturation process will be influenced by the marriage customs of the U.S.

3.2.6 Language

Different languages are spoken in India depending on different regions. Some languages are quite independent and difficult to understand by the neighboring people who speak a different language. In spite of these language differences, most people are able to speak Hindi due to its status as a national language and English due to British colonial rule for two centuries in India. The Indian government recognized the English language as an additional official language. Language is one of the main norms that brings people together and helps them to adapt to the U.S. Proficient English knowledge is one of the reasons Indians migrate to America, and it also helps them to assimilate more easily into life in America .

After 1965 most of the Indians arrived in America from different language groups. However, they all knew English. Most immigrants join Indian communities, where they can practice not only Hindi but also their regional language.

As Khandelwal claims, first and second-generation immigrants practice different uses of language in America. As for the first-generation, they tend to speak English and at the same time they tend to maintain their native language. However, first-generation immigrants face linguistic problems to speak American English due to “their thick Indian accent.” The second-generation immigrants who are already born and brought up in the US are usually thought to speak English with an American accent and rejected their parents’ Indian accent, in turn; their parents considered their children’s English as “too American”. These second-generation Indian immigrants are involved with Indian languages through movies, songs or when they visit India. Though they understand their parents’ language, most of them are not able to speak or to write it .

According to Khandelwal, the first-generation immigrants tend to be more integrated speaking both English and their mother tongue, whereas the second-generation grows up speaking English as a mother tongue and learn their parents’ language only to satisfy their parent’s wishes.

Obviously, language plays an important role in the acculturation process for Indian immigrants. While many immigrants have already learned English before they arrived, their English proficiency affects their ability to assimilate into the new culture.


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