“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
– Marcus Garvey
What is cultural assimilation? Well, if culture shock is the first step on the affective ‘scale of living abroad’, then cultural assimilation is the final destination. It is the result of the process of trying to fit into your new culture. But is that really what every emigrant and expat have in mind before moving? Does cultural assimilation include the loss of completely losing touch with your own history and culture? Should it? Let’s find out.
What is Cultural Assimilation?
For a comprehensive description of cultural assimilation I have consulted the Britannica Encyclopaedia. In sociology, assimilation can be described as “the process whereby individuals or groups of differing ethnic heritage are absorbed into the dominant culture of a society. The process of assimilating involves taking on the traits of the dominant culture to such a degree that the assimilating group becomes socially indistinguishable from other members of the society.” Furthermore, assimilation is compared to the most extreme form of acculturation. (Pauls, Elizabeth P., 2015)
Cultural Assimilation in Sociology
Although a lot of research I found on cultural assimilation has been written with the immigrant group in mind, many elements are applicable to the individual as well. Classic assimilation theories state that assimilation is a “straight-line” convergence that can vary in the time it takes for an immigrant or ethnic group to become similar over time in norms, values, behaviours and characteristics (Brown & Bean, 2006). It can happen very quickly or it can happen very gradually over years and years. It really all depends on the characteristics that make up a person or a group and also the circumstances they find themselves in. These characteristics and circumstances can be measured through socioeconomic status, spatial concentration, intermarriage and language. (Waters & Jimenez, 2005) For example, a German expat in the Netherlands might attain cultural assimilation in a short period of time because German and Dutch people share many attributes and a relatively comparable language. Whereas a Chinese family that has immigrated to the United States might only attain cultural assimilation after the third generation of living there. This might be attributed to the vast difference in language and the endogamous attitude to intermarriage.
My Journey to Assimilation
As I’ve mentioned before I emigrated from South Africa to the Netherlands in 2010, so I’ve lived here now for just over 5 years. In those five years I have changed remarkably. I know this because when I look at photos of when I had just arrived in Holland I realise that I am a different person in the way I think and the way I look. I also know this because of my friends and family in South Africa. Every time someone comes to visit me, or I go back for a holiday, I am bombarded with comments on how different I am. Of course I have grown up a bit as well but I don’t think that that is my most apparent transformation. So what things have changed?
South Africa vs. the Netherlands
I speak Dutch fluently now whereas upon my arrival I could hardly understand a word. My appearance and style have changed. In South Africa it is quite acceptable for girls to put on heaps of make-up and wear short skirts and décolletés. In Holland I don’t feel this is the case and I adapted (I have to admit that this is partly due to the general Dutch temperature as well). Furthermore, my habits and attitudes have changed. I eat bread with chocolate sprinkles for breakfast now for Pete’s sake. In South Africa this is unheard of. Lastly, my taste has changed enormously. I know one’s taste can change with time but there have been some drastic modifications in the development of my taste buds since my arrival in Holland. Another factor that enables me to measure my development into the Dutch cultures are the Dutch people. When I had just moved to Holland, Dutch people could identify me as a tourist from a mile away. Nowadays the same people are surprised when I tell them I am actually a foreigner. Why has my assimilation into the Dutch culture developed so quickly? I think this is due to the fact that I hauled in a Dutch fish (my boyfriend) at an early stage of living abroad. Also in South Africa I attended an Afrikaans school. Afrikaans is a language derived from Old Dutch, thus, contains many similarities.
I’m assimilated, now what?
So I’ve adapted and changed up until the point that I feel Dutch. What happens to my own culture? Am I no longer South African? Well, according to the Britannica Encyclopaedia, even after full assimilation, it is very rare for a person or group minority to completely replace their previous cultural practices. There are some things that a person tends to never let loose, like religion, food, preferences, proxemics, and aesthetics (Pauls, Elizabeth P., 2015).
I have to agree with this. On many superficial levels I have fully adapted but some ways of thinking will never change. I like this about myself. It is important to keep some of your own culture and heritage, otherwise you’ll find yourself like a tree without roots, as I quoted in my introduction. Remember when Rafiki tells Simba, “Remember who you are” in The Lion King movie? Well, that’s my advice to anyone, anywhere in the process of living abroad. Listen to the monkey and remember who you are.
Want a humorous point of view on the matter? Watch this series called Black-ish with Anthony Anderson and Laurence Fishburne. It’s about a well-to-do African-American family. Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) has the complete all-American life but starts to question whether all his success has brought too much cultural assimilation to his family. Watch the Black-ish trailer here.
Please leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you!
Brown, S., & Bean, F. (2006, October 1). Assimilation Models, Old and New: Explaining a Long-Term Process. Retrieved from Migration Policy Institute: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/assimilation-models-old-and-new-explaining-long-term-process/
Pauls, Elizabeth P. (2015). Assimilation in Society. Retrieved from Encyclopaedia Britannica: http://www.britannica.com/topic/assimilation-society
Waters, M., & Jimenez, T. (2005). Assessing Immigrant Assimilation: New Empirical and Theoretical Challenges. Cambridge, Massachussets: Department of Sociology, Harvard University