This past semester I took a course on Cross-cultural counselling. Part of the coursework is a weekly journal reflecting on anything I’ve learned, thought about, or found challenging from the course material. I decided to post parts of these reflections in a weekly series called “Many Villages”.
In South Philly there are two Cheesesteak joints right across the street from one another. At Geno’s, there’s a sign that reads “This is America: WHEN ORDERING ‘PLEASE SPEAK ENGLISH’”.
The first time I saw it, I was shocked. I had just gotten back from a year of studying abroad, where strangers in Sweden and Germany and Greece patiently explained bus schedules in English, listened politely as I spoke broken German or French, and pleasantly asked me if I needed help when I was wandering about looking American and alone.
Here, in my home city of “Brotherly Love”, was a proudly displayed sign that had become iconic. (I don’t want to pick on Geno’s; I’m sure at a busy cheesesteak shop it seemed a reasonable business decision). What rubs me is the sentiment and the attitude represented by this mantra.
Ultimately, this is a question of acculturation vs. assimilation. Acculturation is the idea that when immigrants come to a new country, they can bring their ideas, foods, customs and language. In their new home, an exchange occurs. The host country begins to accept some of the practices and cultural ideals of the immigrant, and the immigrant begins to embrace some of the norms and food and language of the host country. On the other hand, assimilation is the process by which immigrants shed their own culture to adopt the culture of their host country.
In grade 7, I remember learning that the USA was like a ‘melting pot’ (assimilation) not a ‘salad bowl’ (acculturation). When new people came, they were encouraged to become American. At the time, I’m not sure I questioned that; I took it in stride. However, upon traveling, living overseas, marrying interracially and immigrating myself, I find the idea of a melting pot to be less than ideal.
My experience in Canada has been that of a ‘salad bowl’. For whatever historical or political reason, Canadians (by and large) do not have a national sentiment of fear or concern about immigration. In places where many immigrants speak a certain language, the public libraries simply offer that language on their computers as a second choice to English, in addition to hiring multilingual librarians and offering programs with interpretation. French, Mandarin and other language immersion schools abound. My Canadian friends love cooking curry and eating sushi.
I know Canada’s not perfect. Sadly, there’s racism and suspicion here too. And I don’t want to over-simplify things, as if learning a new recipe can create national peace. My point is that in my experience, acculturation is a more helpful and enjoyable attitude. It’s not easy though. It involves negotiation, exploring new ideas, navigating the murky waters of cultural relativity and tasting foods that look or smell downright strange.
The thing that gets me about Geno’s, is that he points out that this is America, therefore one must speak English. Yet America is a country built on immigration. It’s one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t have an official language.
My Grandma came to the USA at age 11 and couldn’t speak a word of English. She sat through grade 5 in English and eventually learned it, becoming a teacher as an adult. I’m not against a common language or immigrants learning the language of their host country. Rather, I’m troubled by the attitude of pride that seems to limit hospitality. I fear that strong messages of assimilation humiliate others, create a monoculture and downplay the riches that immigrants break.
The cheesesteak itself is great example of acculturation. Two Italian-American brothers living in Philadelphia took frizzled steak (that’s actually what it called), Italian hoagie buns and Italian cheese and created a legendary American culinary delight. This is the beauty of acculturation: mmigrants bringing their own food and ideas and creating something new and uniquely American.