Putting The ‘I’ In Immigrant: Assimilation pressures pose undermining expectations for immigrant Americans

The intention of being inclusive is different from the act of being inclusive and that distinction is where we, as a nation and as a community, have drawn lines in the sand. 

For me, the earliest form of discrimination I experienced was on the playground. In a comical demonstration of how children mindlessly repeat what they hear at home, my first brush with subtle racism happened in my small town elementary school at recess. At midday near the plastic blue slides, I had — in my challenger’s mind — overstepped in using the section of the playground he had commandeered. Shaking with rage, he raised a pointed finger at me and bellowed with his whole chest, “You white girl!”

Though my dad had grown up here all his life, I was new to the United States, and I lived in a predominantly white community. I didn’t speak much English, and I cried from the tone of the accusation, despite the fact that he was fairly off in his profiling of me. 

I was a small girl from the Pacific Islands with a heavy accent and suntanned skin. It had to be explained to me that what was hurled at me as an insult was actually just a show of prejudice. 

Growing up with two cultures was just as confusing as this run-in with a bigoted 5 year old. I was the only one out of my siblings, cousins and family friends who was born in the Philippines and spoke fluent Tagalog. My mom, my only tie to what was more Pilipino than American, struggled with me through the assimilation pressures. 

The tangibility of microaggressions against foreigners was a subtle part of my childhood, but it was present nonetheless. Against the warm glow of a normal childhood experience, there was a quiet thread of tension. 

I remember being ashamed to bring my rice meals and Pilipino food to school. The natural desire to be affirmed by my peers was a battle waged day-in and day-out. To say the least, my formative years were a struggle of learning English, settling into life without the comforts of my homeland and learning to find my stride in this new Americanized setting. 

Later in life, I clung to the stories of author Amy Tan, finding uncanny similarities between her stories and my own. It felt like some aspects of myself were being welcomed with open arms while others were not. 

Without being told, I found cues within society that signaled there was a specific part of me that was favored over others. It never needed to be said aloud that the part of me that was Western and spoke with the trademark Californian drawl was that part.

Perhaps it’s human nature to discriminate between what is foreign and what is familiar, but I don’t believe that we should be content with calling ourselves inclusive if this inclusivity is merely nominal. 

While our politicians and media preach about the inclusivity of U.S. society, microaggressions toward immigrant Americans run rampant, rendering assimilation a prerequisite to claiming the label “American.” These are harmful not only in their encouragement of blind nationalism but also for the confusion they cause immigrants when choosing how to culturally identify. 

In my case and many others, immigrant children are encouraged to adopt U.S. mannerisms and forego their existing ones. It was a gradual decline in my Tagalog speaking ability that supported this notion for me, and I was surprised to find studies solidifying the idea that bilingualism is very poorly encouraged in the U.S. education system. Our classes are taught in English by English-speaking teachers and slowly, but surely, bilingual speakers often become English speakers with varied second-language comprehension. 

Food and culture were things I lost for a period and later rediscovered. I refused to bring the aforementioned Pilipino cuisine to school and I adopted more Western trends of fashion. 

Before long, I had my favorite burger spots and I was a girl who owned more Roxy and less Lacoste — a brand name particularly beloved by the Filipino people. Without any intention of it, my likes and dislikes shifted to exhibit the effect of having U.S. friends and the role of that socialization. 

The difficulty was in discerning which of my interests were genuine and which stemmed from what I thought was expected of me. These two ways of thinking were difficult to reconcile with for a long period of time. 

With maturity came more awareness, and I was able to rediscover those parts of myself that I tried so earnestly to bury in my formative years. From sharing stories with those around me, I know I am not alone in this experience. 

Collectively, we should be striving to do better. For immigrant youth, it should not have to be a question of either-or. U.S. culture should not be characterized by the negation of a pre-existing one. 

In any case, prejudices might begin on playgrounds, but they shouldn’t continue into our adult lives. On both sides, a willingness to learn is imperative to fostering a healthier, non-divisive environment — this should be what defines the cultural narrative in America. 

Noelle Natividad is a sophomore writing about the immigrant experience in America. Her column, “Putting The “I” In Immigrant”, runs every other Friday.