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US Immigrants Learn to Bridge Two Worlds - 2003-07-09


The metaphor sociologists use to describe the US assimilation of immigrants is no longer "a melting pot", but "a salad bowl" or "a mosaic". This suggests that the one million or so immigrants who enter the United States each year, while adapting to life in the new country, retain some of the customs and values of their native land, creating a mosiac of cultures within American society.

Kay Kim was not quite thirteen years old when she immigrated to the United States from South Korea with her parents. She found the difference between her old world and her new surroundings to be substantial and basic. "When I came over here I was in seventh grade. At that time there weren't any Asians around, in my school anyway. So whoever I saw every day would be, you know, what you would label "white people'. And then I would go into the bathroom and see my reflection and I'd get a shock, I really did. I looked different, you know, and I'm thinking, 'My goodness, what's wrong with me."

Asian faces are no longer a rarity in American schools, vast numbers of immigrants from the countries of Asia having entered the United States in the years since Kay Kim was a teenager. Yet Mrs. Kim is concerned that her own daughter, who is now a teenager, might have similar identity problems. So each Saturday morning Mrs. Kim drives her daughter to Korean school, to make sure she learns the language, customs and history of her ancestors. "What I do worry about is that she would feel inferior because she looks different. Totally she's American. Totally. She was born here, raised here. She is fed American food, fed American culture. But she looks different. So other people view her differently. They expect something different from her, whereas she feels like every one of you all, with blue eyes, green eyes, blond hair, whatever. I just want her to know that she has and that she can be proud of the diverse cultural background that she brings with her."

Shayan Pasha, a Kurdish immigrant and a widow, has a different concern about raising her two sons in American society. Her children, Mrs. Pasha says, have adapted very quickly to American ways, which she feels are more permissive than those of the Kurdish society she comes from and values. "For them, because they were kids when they came here, it was much easier to get into the society. And so they try to adopt most of the behaviors, manners, feeling very free to talk, to go wherever they want to go, this kind of stuff. It's hard for me to adjust to it, because in our culture kids are more restricted from doing things. They have to ask their families more and their opinions to do things. Here kids are more open to do things on their own."

Rebeen Pasha, Mrs. Pasha's older son and a student at the University of Virginia, agrees with his mother that young people in America who come from a different culture face particular challenges. "There's a lot of pressure on the teenage sector of the population, I think, and I've undergone a lot of it. Let's say drinking pressure, just for an example. Like it doesn't go with my culture, and I've stood up against it, but there's a lot of peer pressure going on."

But Mrs. Pasha's sons accept the fact that their mother, as a single parent from the Middle East, has different expectations her than their American friends' parents. "As far as being more restrictive than other American parents, yes, I can say that, but I understand where their coming from, and I understand where I'm coming from, and I also understand that I have to put a balance between the two cultures."

In some cases, balancing the two cultures is easier when immigrants settle in ethnic enclaves with others of the same background and values. About 50,000 Bukharan Jews from what used to be Soviet Central Asia now live in bustling neighborhoods in the Queens section of New York. Twenty-six-year-old Potar Pinkhasov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, says that while Bukharan Jews have become fully involved in New York's professional and business life, the focus of the community remains on the old Bukharan religious customs. "In America we have freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of organizing a political party. And the Bukharan Jews use this freedom and especially freedom of religion. In Uzbekistan in Soviet times there were only a few synagogues. And in America right now, only in New York, you have dozens of Bukharan synagogues open. Life in America made big changes in our community."

Mr. Pinkhasov says the community is very close-knit with many organizations, professional groups, women's clubs, a Russian-language newspaper and five journals. He admits, however, that even in such a homogeneous community there can be tensions between the generations, particularly between Bukharan Jews who immigrated to this country as adults and their raised-in-America children. "For example, young people who were born here, or who came to America when they were very young, become very much American. They think like Americans, and it creates many problems and differences between them and their parents, who still think like they were thinking in the Soviet Union. But right now we are trying to address such differences. We are trying to create Bukharan Jewish youth organizations which would unite young people with different ideas, and we would like to save our culture this way, because young people will take our culture into the future."

Some immigrants are able to transform the culture of their native land into a bridge between the two societies, the old and the new. Baba Wague Diakite, an artist and a storyteller who grew up on the grasslands of Mali in West Africa, has published brightly illustrated books of African stories for American readers. He feels these stories can serve an important bonding function in today's busy America. "People seem to be so disconnected. Everyone seems to be running to places where they don't really want to be, and they seem to isolate themselves more and more from themselves, their children, their family, their friends. So it's a place really that is desperate to find, you know, a way of learning the skill of social life."

Not infrequently, immigrant culture enters the mainstream of American life virtually unchanged. The Harmonia band of Cleveland, Ohio, brings East European music to American audiences. The six-member band, with roots in the Carpathian mountains, originally played at Croatian, Ukrainian, Slovak or Hungarian events in the Cleveland area. But Marko Dreher, the band's violinist, says he is amazed at how American audiences respond to this ethnic music, whether in dance halls or concert halls. "We played in El Paso, Texas, and we played on a stage, and the total attendance at the concert was six thousand one hundred and fifty. And I guarantee you that maybe those last one hundred and fifty knew something about this music, and I guarantee that the other six thousand had never heard anything about it. And to see six thousand people -- they loved it, and to see them dancing to it was kind of a rush."

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