Immigrants, Treasure Your Heritage—and Melt

Rick Steves: Exploring Europe, exploring travel as a political act

08.26.09 | 11:43 AM ET

At Copenhagen’s City Museum, I met a Pakistani Dane who worked there as a guide. He spoke Danish like a local and talked earnestly about the exhibit, as if his own ancestors pioneered the city. Thinking of assimilation, I got emotional. Surprised at being choked up, I was struck by the beauty of a Pakistani Dane as opposed to a Pakistani living in Denmark.

Like the U.S., Europe is suffering growing pains when it comes to its immigrants. Coming from an immigrant family in a nation of immigrants, I like America’s “melting pot” approach. I think it works best for all if newcomers embrace their adopted culture, learn the local language, and melt in.

But the European scene is a bit more complex. While I’m a fan of melting in, I also celebrate the cultural diversity and survival of Europe’s smaller ethnic groups. If diversity is such a virtue, what’s wrong with immigrants wanting to preserve their home cultures? Is it hypocritical to celebrate the preservation of the Catalan language, but expect Algerians to learn Dutch? Should Europe’s famous tolerance extend only to indigenous European cultures?

While I’m glad I’m not a policymaker who needs to implement immigration laws in Europe, I’ll be honest about my take on this dicey issue: I favor indigenous diversity (policies favoring European “nations without states”), but policies facilitating immigrant laborers and their families (from outside Europe) to embrace local cultural norms and assimilate.

Am I wrong to wish that a Muslim living in Denmark would become a Dane? Am I wrong to wish the U.S. would speak only English, rather than Norwegian or Spanish as well? Am I wrong to lament districts of London that have a disdain for all things British?

Immigrants energize a land—but they do it best (as is the story of the U.S.) when their vision is a healthy melting pot. Melt, immigrants ... treasure your heritage while embracing your adopted homelands. But it’s more than just an “immigrant issue.” Europeans (like Americans) fearful of encroachment, change and differing hues of skin need to show tolerance, outreach and understanding. From what I’ve seen, with these attitudes, it works better for all involved.

Rick Steves

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. He is the author of Travel as a Political Act.

5 Comments for Immigrants, Treasure Your Heritage—and Melt

Martin Crossland 08.26.09 | 3:20 PM ET

Well said. I am always amazed to see and hear second generation immigrants in Europe and America. In one sense they seem to have integrated perfectly, yet they can still be very nationalistic when it comes to matters that pertain to their parent’s country of origin or religion. Nevertheless It would seem to me that it is the immigrant who has the greater obligation to conform. I live in South Florida where over half the population speaks a language other than English. Many first generation immigrants never feel the need to learn English, they can even take their driving test and nationalization test in Spanish or Haitian Creole. Having said that, generally the second generation of these immigrants are totally integrated, and are often perfectly bi-lingual and bi-cultural. I lived for many years in Peru and Brazil, and was expected to conform, and did so willingly. I had to take my driving test in Spanish and Portuguese. No exceptions. Should English be the official language of the United States? Why ever not? I know of no other country where immigrants are accommodated quite so much as here, so why should we be any different. I’m an immigrant myself, so I’m not xenophobic.

Cate 08.26.09 | 5:58 PM ET

I beg to differ about the US being one big melting pot, a term which is a little outdated. Multicultural yes but I haven’t experienced one uniform US culture - plenty of subcultures. Where is the melt?  Some articles produced by the Centre for Immigration “The Cracking Melting Pot” may be of particular interest in polishing your argument.

As for assimilation - I’m surprised people still continue to use this outdated word - look at what assimilation did to indigenous cultures throughout the new world. And the cost and time trying to fix these problems.

I like the way the US has incorporated the Spanish language into its law and policymaking. It shows it’s realistic and visionary given it’s location to Latin America. The US relies heavily on migrant labour from Mexico and other South American countries. Many of these are uneducated, how long and costly would it take for migrants to come up to speed on their English speaking skills? If it were made a necessity, the chances are that there would be a labour shortage in the US. Ok for now but not ok during a boom. The government took a pragmmatic approach, not many government’s would do this. No I’m not an American, just an expat living in the US who is also a trained policy-analyst.

Of course there is always a downside and the problem with the US is that is hasn’t handed over the control to the migrants. They need to be encouraged to learn English, to be show that it’s actually a benefit not a hindrance. Do it right and people will follow, and other government’s will model.

Immigrants do need to be more proactive as well, but governments need to show them how to merge into a new culture instead of telling them, and natives need to step out of the 19th century and get into the 21st century. This obsession about being invaded by foreigners is archaic and based on fear. We all like to think and talk about globalisation but do we really understand what is involves apart from buying the lastest Asian technology and travelling. Borders have opened up, migration is done out of necessity and choice.Unless migrants are encouraged to participate, feel part of the overall community and shown the joy of being a part of a new culture, they won’t do it.

You ask if you are wrong for all these wants, perhaps not wrong just idealistic. There is nothing wrong with having English only in the US—fifty years ago. There is nothing wrong with preserving indigenous culture in Europe but why should non-Europens be discriminated against? Many of these come from ex-colonies of European nations. Surely these migrants should be given dispensation as well.

I wonder why the Pakistani from Denmark guide chose not to call himself a Pakistani Dane. Did you ask? It would have been nice to have incorporated his reasoning to make your argument more solid.

Bill 08.26.09 | 9:40 PM ET

Hey, it’s complicated.  I see what can happen in a country that has two languages.  Canada has struggled for years to accommodate Quebec.  And no matter what you think about who’s right or wrong, it’s still a major problem for Canada.  Large sections of the US spoke Spanish before they spoke English, but we would function better as a country if we all spoke one language (even if it were our 2nd language).  Take elections, for instance.  Surely it would make for a better informed electorate if everyone understood what politicians were saying (insert joke here).  My wife and I love to travel, we’re learning to speak Spanish, and we enjoy visiting ethnic areas of the US.  But it isn’t necessary to give up your heritage in order to assimilate.  The country if filled with people celebrating their Polish, Greek, Mexican and Cajun roots.  Maybe instead of a melting pot, we could be a nice big salad.  Lots of different ingredients, all retaining their own flavors, but still part of something quite nice.

grizzly bear mom 08.27.09 | 11:35 AM ET

I believe that it is in the best interest of all indivudals economically, socially, culturally, etc. to speak and read the language of where they live.  How else can they rise economically? How can they vote wisely if they don’t understand what the candiates say?  Considering this, it seems low value added to provide ballots in many differrent languages.    I would imagine immigrants dream of their children becoming president of the U.S. or whatever country in which they live.  But they will have to learn the langauge in order to do so. 

That being said there are wonderful things we can learn from other cultures such as Asian respect for elders, and long term planning; Italy’s sweetness of doing nothing, etc.

Mary Arulanantham 08.31.09 | 7:20 PM ET

I find my attitudes on this subject very mixed. I am a former ESL teacher; it is important to provide opportunities for new immigrants to learn the dominant language. I married a Sri Lankan Tamil; racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural differences have been the basis for a half century of terror and bloodshed in that beleaguered nation. Ultimately, the American cultural/political ideals of tolerance and independence and mutual respect will be the glue that holds our dispirit communities together. Assimilation is really a slow moving phenomenon. My 4th generation German roots are almost invisible while my husband’s newness is blatantly apparent, even after 25 years in this country. What assimilation looks like will just be different from what it is now in another 4 generations.

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