Reconsidering Assimilation Theories: The Case of China

by Yuan Mingyang

Although the new assimilation theory supported by Alba and Nee (1997) and the segmented assimilation theory in Portes and Rumbaut (2001) to some extent explain the experience of immigrants and their descendants in the United States, some flaws can be found in the basic conceptions in both theories. For example, Jung (2009) pointed out that the notion of race has been largely overlooked and misinterpreted in both the new assimilation theory and the segmented assimilation theory. These flaws might become more obvious in the context of countries other than the U.S. since both researches are largely based on the U.S., and therefore in the following paragraphs I will examine some key concepts in the assimilation theories in the situation context of China. The aim is not to criticize these theories but to reconsider whether it is appropriate to take these concepts for granted in the assimilation theories.

The first problematic concept is “culture”, which is also mentioned in Jung (2009). Segmented assimilation theory has been criticized to blame everything to “culture”, which tends to essentialize social groups into certain good or bad social images (Jung, 2009). The segmented assimilation theory also uses the term “culture” without making a clear definition of it. Without a clear definition, culture can literally mean everything in human society, and as a result, the argument of the segmented assimilation theory that some groups successfully assimilated in the U.S. due to their culture becomes hollow.

The notion of culture in both theories also fails to analyze the interaction between the groups that are sometimes considered as sharing similar cultures. Lin (2012) made a research about how Taiwanese assimilate in the mainland society. Lin found that the key for Taiwanese to assimilate in the mainland is a Weberian social stratification, instead of a vague notion of culture. Lin argued that it is possible for Taiwanese to assimilate in the mainland society, but only into the group of people with similar socio-economic status and taste, since a large number Taiwanese in the mainland settle in large cities and are businessmen of higher socio-economic status. The segmented assimilation theory would not be able to provide an answer for this kind of cases. Indeed, the segmented assimilation theory might not even notice this kind of cases if it kept overemphasizing the effect of a blurred notion of “culture”.

The term “assimilation” is also hard to be defined in the assimilation theories. Culture is not a good criterion for defining assimilation as discussed above. Although both theories more or less use socio-economic status as a criterion for assimilation, these two theories seldom mention the situation where a group of higher socio-economic status are trying to assimilate in the host society, for instance, Taiwanese in mainland China discussed in Lin (2012). It is also hard to determine whether Taiwanese in China, most of who are businessmen with high socio-economic status, have assimilated in the mainland society, and therefore socio-economic status might not be able to measure assimilation.

National policy, which is part of context in the theory of Portes and Rumbaut (2001), might be another way to examine whether a group is accepted as a member of the country, but usually policy is different from reality. For example, although pluralism is prevailing in the national discourse in China, and many national policies preferred minority ethnic groups over the Han majority, minority ethnic groups usually live in specific areas and are of relatively low economic and education standards (Myers et al., 2013). Although multiculturalism is written in the Constitution, the government focuses more on unity and has a strong control on the autonomous regions of minority ethnic groups (Ibid).

The final point comes to the definition of migration itself. If we define migration only as people moving from one country to another country, we might be blind to the things happening inside the borderline. Both theories are restricted by the international system composed of sovereign states since they only focus on people across the border. The groups that are inside the border from the beginning will not be considered in the theories even if they do not share similar social norms and economic standards with other members in the same country. The neglect of race (Jung, 2009) might also be a result of this kind of theoretical assumption which only focuses on people moving across the border. In the case of China, since Korean, Russian, Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur, Uzbek, and many other minority ethnic groups are living inside China (see Myers et al., 2013 for details), their live and the interactions among minority ethnic groups and the majority Han will never be covered by assimilation theories. It is necessary to reconsider from the beginning what we should really focus on and what do all these conceptions really mean when we are studying migration.

References

Alba, R., & Nee, V. (1997). Rethinking assimilation theory for a new era of immigration. International Migration Review, 31(4), 826-874.

Jung, M. (2009). The racial unconscious of assimilation theory. Du Bois Review, 6(2), 375-395. doi: 10.1017/S1742058X09990245

Lin, R. (2012). Birds of a feather flock together: Social class and social assimilation of the Taiwanese in mainland China. Soochow Journal of Political Science, 30(2), 127-167. (Original text in Chinese)

Myers, S. L., Gao, X., & Cruz, B. C. (2013). Ethnic minorities, race, and inequality in China: A new perspective on racial dynamics. The Review of Black Political Economy, 40(3), 231-244. doi: 10.1007/s12114-013-9165-7

Portes, A., & Rumbaut, R. G. (2001). Legacies: The story of the immigrant second generation. Berkley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

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Immigrants Should be Commended for their Bravery

Anonymous student post

The attitude towards immigrants from nationals that I’ve most often seen is one of “you’re welcome.” As if the immigrant owes something to the national. The national presumably allows the immigrant to stay in their country. The immigrant is treated as a guest, and has higher standards in some regards held to him/her. An immigrant has legal barriers to overcome in almost every country. “You want to work here and help our society like a good citizen? Well we’re not going to make it easy for you, jobs are for citizens—never mind the merits of the job candidates!”

Immigrants have to be outcasts for their entire new life. Only their children, grandchildren or even beyond will get a more equal treatment in the eyes of their new society. Immigrants deal with discrimination on paper from the laws limiting immigrants rights, and tangibly in their day-to-day lives. Barnard mentions the attack on Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant, who was stabbed to death in a hate crime. Barnard mentions, “Many [immigrants] fear the police because they are in the country illegally; some give false names…”. Dealing with prejudice effects the entire immigrant family negatively. The typical immigrant has many more issues to deal with than someone who is nationalized. They need to learn a new set of laws, adapt to new culture, and possibly learn a new language.

Immigrants should be commended for their bravery in leaving their home country to find a life in a new one. They deserve at the very least to be allowed to work in the new country. Why would we disallow someone from being a service to society? The idea that jobs are “taken” by immigrants is a negative aspect of immigration is comically ludicrous. Jobs are not a finite resource, and for each job that is taken there is less work to be done. Society will always naturally find a place for improvement, and new jobs wont ever stop being created. It is harmful to society as a whole to stipulate who can get a job on a basis outside of merit.

In the studies of bilingualism, Portes shows: “…fluent bilinguals [outperform] limited bilinguals and English-only students in standardized tests and grade point averages, even after statistically controlling for parental status and other variables.” Immigrants who are fluently bilingual have cognitive advantages that could further merit their place in the workforce. According to Rumbaut, 97% of the world’s population are “stayers” only about 3% are immigrants. The immigrant minority has a clear disadvantage and we should not have them thank us and beg us to stay. Rather, the immigrants should be commended for their ambition taking heed in a new country. When immigrants come to a country, they are suffering for the benefit of society. The nationals should be thanking the immigrants.

Fear of change or fear of oneself?

by Marius Brusegard

In 2008, just below three percent of the world’s population were international migrants, according to “Immigration’s complexities, assimilations discontents” (2008), by the professor of sociology at University of California-Irvine, Rubén G. Rumbaut. This means that as much as 97 percent of the world’s population is still living in the countries where they were born.

It strikes me then, to hear about incidents like the one in which the Ecuadoran immigrant Marcelo Lucero was stabbed to death in Patchogue, N.Y., by 16- and 17-year old boys, as described in Anne Barnard’s article in New York Times (2009). The reasons for these attacks can be argued to be based on ideas such as racism or nationalism, or just the ignorance of youth feeling the urge to experiment with violence or such.

Another way of explaining the attacks can be fear, which the previously mentioned reasons also are rooted in. This being fear of competition in the job market, fear of cultures unknown to themselves, fear of changes etc. If the less than three percent of immigrants (on a world basis), creates enough fear to make someone kill another human being, that might either mean that some people are extremely easily scared, or that they do not need a good reason to become able to kill another human being.

In this case though, the Latino student population in Patchogue Medford School District had risen to 24 percent from 4 in 2003. However, this relatively fast growth of Latino students shouldn’t create as much fear as should be needed to perform the atrocities mentioned. After all, studies have shown that immigrants adjust to their new societies by language assimilation and such. As Rumbaut (2008) describes in his article, the Spanish language of immigrants is no longer spoken by the third generation, because of a switch to English. In fact, studies by Rumbaut and Alejandro Portes (2002) studies show that 95 percent of even Cuban-American children attending private bilingual schools actually preferred English.

Also, Rumbaut argues that according to numerous studies, immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or go to prison than the natives, in spite of the opposite misconception. These are all studies that show how the fear of differences in cultural values, or changes, or just immigrants in general, seems unfounded. The immigrants are adapting to their new societies, not the other way around.

America might be the country with the highest variety of nationalities in the world, and the citizens are almost all known to have heritage from outside of America. They call themselves Irish-American, French-American, Chinese-American and such. Yet in a country like that, it seems to be quite a lot of fear of and resistance towards immigrants, in spite of the American’s ancestors all having been immigrants not too long ago.

Are foreign languages a threat to the host country culture and language?

by Glenn Soenvisen

In the mid-90’s a new term, “Kebab-Norwegian,” was coined in Norway; it meant the dialect of the Norwegian language which contained relatively many loanwords from non-western immigrants. This term was soon picked up and used vigorously by the media, where it sometimes was stated as a reason for the deterioration of the “real” Norwegian language. In some extreme cases it was even stated that the verb was put in the wrong place when speaking “Kebab-Norwegian” and female and neuter gender nouns became male. Some even said that it brought unwanted culture into the country, stating that degrading non-western words for “females” were used to refer to females in general. In short, some people perceived “Kebab-Norwegian” as a threat to the “real” Norwegian culture and language. Therefore, we needed assimilation of the users in order to retain our national identity and values.

What I find funny about this, though, is how little basis there are for these utterances. For one thing, “Kebab-Norwegian” is only used in the eastern parts of the Norwegian capital Oslo by immigrant youth and their possible native Norwegian friends; it’s an ethnolect rather than a dialect, and there has been no proof of it spreading to other parts of the country, as is only logical since ethnolects are associated with specific ethnic or cultural subgroups. You could say it is an in-group way of speaking.

And that brings me to another thing worth pointing out: the ethnolect in question is spoken, not written. Sure, users may write it when chatting online through facebook and the like, but those services are closed networks and not available to everyone. Furthermore, even Norwegians may write in their own dialects in such contexts, but it doesn’t seem to affect their ability to write correctly written Norwegian when needed.

Moreover, considering that “Kebab-Norwegian” is almost exclusively used by youths, the users of it are most likely bilingual, or even trilingual, having learned “real” Norwegian from a very young age, as well as English which are being taught from early elementary school level. Keeping this in mind we can take a look at what Alejandro Portes writes in his feature article “English-only triumphs, but the costs are high:” bilinguals outperform their monolingual counterparts in almost all cognitive tests.

In short, immigrants speaking “Kebab-Norwegian” should have no more difficulty in using suitable language to suitable situations on the same level as native Norwegians do. That learning two or more languages at the same time makes for underdeveloped ability in both/all is a thought for the 1930’s.

Besides, even Norwegians themselves mess with the genders of the nouns. I myself use all three genders (male, female, neuter), but in some parts of Norway the female one doesn’t exist. There’s also often the case that nouns can be used as both male and female. What’s more, the new rages in the language debate is that native Norwegian children are more and more using the sound sh [ ʃ ] where kj [ ç ] should be used and, to a lesser degree, using the word hvem (who) where hvilken (which) should be used.

Lastly, it’s not like degrading words for females in general is exclusive to non-western languages. I dare say that bitch is, unfortunately, used extensively in informal spoken English and Norwegian both.

Of course, foreign languages may have influence on the national language and culture, but only in minor ways, such as adding words which we don’t have any words for in our own language, replacing interjections, or introducing new foods. However, this cannot be considered a threat at all. Rather than threatening, the influences enrich and enhance, like an add-on to your browser. If “Kebab-Norwegian” really was a threat, one can wonder why the English influence, which is much bigger, hasn’t made us all speak “Norwish” yet. There is no need for complete assimilation.