Assimilation expert.

growing up asian Oct 18, 2020

As we slowly emerge out of the world's longest lockdown, I'm reflecting on the kind of person that I am out in public. Being in social isolation for over 6 months has had its challenges, but it's also been really... relaxing.

And this is because I'd describe myself as an assimilation expert - ie. a person who can seamlessly "fit in" to any cultural context by way of foregoing their own sense of self or culture. This for sure has its perks, but it's also exhausting trying fit in to the so-called norm all the time.

To do so, something's got to give. And for me, that has long been an ability to stay true to myself.

It's evident in my tourist-persona.

When I travel, (because that’s all I can think about right now), I find that I’m pretty good at slotting in and going unnoticed. I don’t really get approached by any touristy things and it’s only when I open my mouth that people seem to realise, “you’re not from here”.

I feel I have these laser sharp sensors that scan the environment and process information at lightning speed. I walk into a train station in a foreign country, and my eyes quickly absorb information; “machine over there, cash only sign, people lining up, the queue starts here, buy this ticket first, stand this far away from people, train platform over there, show this ticket first, make sure to smile at this person etc” and this then allows me to disappear into the crowd so that I don’t upset the flow of society and their cultural norms.

I compare this with my observation of tourists in Japan (you know the ones), who have no ability to observe or follow the many rules of Japan, nor do they have any desire to respect the ways of the society that they’re visiting. They look like bears trying to catch salmon or like big crocodiles splashing around …

And as I notice these contrasting tourist-personas, I realise that my hyper-vigilance and my ability to seamlessly slot into a new culture is all a product of assimilation. I’ve been practicing the art of disappearing and “fitting in” from the age of four and that in turn has transformed into some great travel skills.

Assimilation vs Acculturation.

Cultural assimilation could be described as, the process in which a minority group or culture comes to resemble a society's majority group or assume the values, behaviours, and beliefs of another group. And I sense that as humans, this is what we feel most comfortable with or what we wish we could do. The immigrants just want to quickly fit in, and the “locals” just want the immigrants to play by their rules.

Assimilation ensures that the status quo remains unchanged and that successful assimilators gain more privileges than their more “fob” counterparts. This works well for some people, however, we must remember that when we assimilate, we lose connection to our own values, behaviours and beliefs.

We lose ourselves for the sake of fitting in.

On the other hand, there’s acculturation which is about retaining your own culture within a minority community in a country while at the same time, adapting to some aspects of the majority culture. You stay grounded in your roots and you celebrate your ancestral culture, yet you also appreciate and celebrate the new culture which you are immersed in. Furthermore, acculturation is a two way street where the majority culture also changes by way of being affected by other cultures. And this, no doubt, scares the crapola out of people (refer to the chapter, "fear of a black planet" in Rani Eddo-Lodge's book, "Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race.")

However for now and for the scope of this blog post, let's just focus on what these concepts mean for us as Asian Australians...

Despite being theoretically “better” than assimilation, I would say that acculturation requires a lot more inner work to understand and implement. You would need an awareness of all of these cultural influences at play, and to then be able to somehow carry a new kind of truth that isn’t really modelled by others around you (because we all come from different cultures and have different experiences of our own cultures).

Assimilation allows us to find safety in going unnoticed and fitting in, but it also requires us to abandon ourselves. Acculturation on the other hand is much more about honouring yourself and working out how you can connect and engage with two or more cultures at once. Acculturation is complex and challenging and something that I can only think about now in my 30’s, and definitely not something I could even comprehend as a child or a teen.

Expert Assimilator.

Which leaves me to being an expert at assimilation because when I was a kid, the only two options present to me were, assimilate or die (socially). My body learned from a very young age that you could either be safe by observing and copying behaviours as closely as possible, or, you could miss different cues and you’d be left looking like a fool. So I learned quickly.

I can’t deny though that my ability to assimilate like a pro has afforded me so many privileges:

- I can be accepted and respected by most groups of people if I play my cards right,
- my therapist skills are top notch because I can read people’s cues like a hawk,
- I'm great at traveling (see above),
- and I can get what I need from services because I can swiftly identify norms and expectations and adapt accordingly.

And this all seems great and it makes my life easy to some extent, however the price that I’ve paid to access these privileges is my sense of self.

I’ve learnt from a very young age that it’s safer to act like someone else than be seen and noticed for the person that I actually am.

Time to grow up.

It’s important to acknowledge that assimilation occurs because we’re social creatures and we find safety in belonging. We choose to assimilate because we’re empathic human beings that exist in relationship with others and as a part of this, we want to be accepted by those around us. However, at some point (perhaps a global pandemic is a good trigger for change), we need to shift our child-like and simplistic assimilation framework into a more mature, adult acculturation framework.

If we continue to prioritise fitting in above all, we’ll lead lives where we perpetually feel like we’re not being seen or heard, which is paramount in contributing to positive mental health outcomes.

If we continue to purely assimilate, we will lose touch with our ancestral cultures, which means that we’ll be these very shallow versions of ourselves when in fact, we are the product of a long lineage of complex human lives.

And if we continue on this assimilation-only path, we’ll find that we’re always a bit mediocre, because safety and fitting-in breed mediocrity. We’ll find that we’re not actually taking chances or “putting ourselves out there” and that instead we’re just happy to work in mediocre jobs with mediocre pay with mediocre friends and mediocre partners.

And for me, I sense it’s this fear of mediocrity that has been pushing me to graduate from an assimilation framework into a more acculturated way of being.

Towards a new way of being.

If this conversation about assimilation and acculturation speaks to you, I hope that you will join us in our Shapes and Sounds Club, launching in 2021. This will be the space where we not only talk about topics like assimilation and how this impacts our mental health, but where we'll actively find and implement solutions to create meaningful change in our lives.

It’s big, heavy work and it’s a much easier journey when you’re supported by others who are also treading the same path. Make sure you’ve signed up for the Shapes and Sounds Club waiting list and we can't wait to be in touch as soon as possible!




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