“What are you?” “I’m American.” Uh… For many (especially those of us who look ambiguously ethnic), that is one of the most confusing (and dreaded) questions -- with a potentially very complex answer. “American” doesn’t address race or ethnicity, and if we’re talking nationality, does it refer to our current legal status or our country of origin? Are we talking about passports? (What if you have multiple??) Exhausting.
When the ‘simple’ question of “What are you?” is so difficult to answer, it’s no wonder that immigration policy and its ongoing reform is equally complex and controversial. We often hear that we are “a nation of immigrants,” but just how inclusive that immigrant nation is is up for debate.
Learning the language is central to any cultural assimilation. For anyone who’s ever traveled abroad, the limitations of not speaking the local language are painfully apparent. But learning to communicate effectively goes far beyond linguistics: a huge part of that “language” is visual. How do immigrants assimilate into American culture through their visual self-presentation? What does it mean to “look American”?
Native citizens and immigrants alike have the same tools for performing identity: some elect to get cosmetic surgery to cheat the genetic lottery, many scrupulously manage their virtual identities in an effort to project just the right public image, and others pursue the American dream via consumerism and strategic bling. But are they assimilating or integrating? It’s the whole melting pot vs. salad bowl debate, with integration implying a distinct multiculturalism. But what does that look like?
In some New York neighborhoods, this multicultural integration is visually striking. In Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, the bright colors and patterns favored in Russia are still on display on the NYC streets -- though the fur coat affinity is far less prevalent. In Chinatown, the generational differences are most striking: the older set is more conservative, maintaining a similar style of dress they wore in China, including items with symbolic significance, like jade. The younger generation, however, skews toward a more “hipster” aesthetic. In general, immigrants actively elect to operate as chameleons, moving fluidly between two cultures, or risk being typecast.
So why does it matter if immigrants assimilate or integrate? Displaying difference can be threatening, while demonstrating sameness is perceived as allegiance. “Looking” American, in many respects, is at the root of what it means to be American.
Dig deeper into the immigrant experience and continue to contemplate “what you are” with these tips:
Immigrant Voices offers first-person accounts of immigrant stories after arriving in the U.S. The tales reveal why they came, how they lived, and how they perceived of their own experience.
“Inside Out 11M” is a mobile art project that showcases photos of immigrants and descendants of immigrants in an effort to put a human face on immigration reform.
Fedoras for Fairness created a montage of celebrity immigration stories to create awareness around female immigrants and their families.