Lois M. Collins: Immigrants, refugees can choose which aspects of culture to assimilate

Published: Thursday, June 28 2012 11:21 p.m. MDT

Fitting in is an issue so volatile and yet so critical that different groups offer cultural orientation classes. In sessions taught by lawyers and teachers and volunteers, refugees learn about legal immigration and rules, and what they can and can't do by American standards and cultural norms to punish a child, for example. What's considered abuse here may have been daily practice back home. There are also discussions about naturalization, how to keep track of legal documents and how to find a job. For many, language will prove the toughest challenge to fitting in their new country.

Ngendakuriyo wants his American-born toddler to grow up knowing her responsibility to her family and others and have a firm grasp of their family's values, which includes avoiding anything that would bring disrespect to the family. He wants her to know the family's native language, Kirundi. He wants her to keep the culture and understand the traditional dress.

The drums are significant, like a heartbeat for Burundians. They open ceremonies and breathe life into birthdays and weddings. The words that accompany them are often a prayer for peace, for unity and progress, he says.

"She needs to have that heart and passion."

And here is the bottom line he learned over the course of long years of unrest and turmoil on his native continent: "If you do good things, the outcomes are good," he says softly. "Do bad things and the outcomes are bad. Take ownership of what you do."

Family togetherness

Romina Munoz came to America from Argentina when she was 13; she's now 32. Recently, she moved to Midvale from Florida, settling near her brother Claudio and his wife.

Her daughter Ella is the same age as Annie Nikiza, but she will learn different things, courtesy of a vastly different cultural heritage.

The thing Munoz misses most is family dinners back home on Sundays with everyone there. Her family is scattered now, some back in Argentina, others peppered across America. Those who are together are "tight" socially, doing many things in tandem.

She quickly slots items into the keep or toss category: Food doesn't matter to her much, though some cultures care deeply about passing down a love of and familiarity with traditional foods. The Quinceañera, though, a celebration of a girl's transition into womanhood when she reaches 15, is huge. So is time with grandparents.

Opportunity is on Munoz' short list of what matters. She will make sure that little Ella knows, always, that while back home girls are more traditional and stay home to raise families, she has a choice. "My mom stayed home and took care of us. But my daughter can have the option to be a mother and have a career."

Poulin sees patterns in what people keep and let go. He has worked with diverse populations in crisis over the years. He says first-generation refugees tend to keep their religion, their food and their clothing. When they impose culture on children, though, the kids are quite likely to let it go as soon as they get a chance.

Parents also tend to adopt any opportunity to have their children educated.

Beyond that, he points out that the different cultures have varied traits, although there are always exceptions. Bhutanese, while not abrasive, are willing to speak up for themselves. People from Burma seldom complain. Iraqis are anxious, a trait that the Bhutanese are beginning to adopt over time.

Capturing culture

Chicago is one of America's most culturally diverse cities, and members of the Chicago Cultural Alliance have noted and celebrated many ethnic and racial differences.

The organization works with 27 different groups and cultural centers in the Chicago area, "all at different points in terms of their immigration history," says Rebeccah Sanders, executive director.

Polish museums, for instance, are 75 years old in that area, while the Southeast Asian community only arrived in the 1960s to 1980s.

Nothing bears witness to a desire to preserve culture more than museums and cultural centers, she notes. "It's a way to create a sense of home. And that makes assimilation and acculturation a bit easier. People are so afraid of letting go and losing who they have been."

Museums in many American cities host "Saturday schools" offering language and culture classes.

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