Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The acculturation spectrum

Thanks to both the inter-nets and meatspace, I have been lucky to become acquainted with many non-South Asians navigating a South Asian cultural milieu, either in the Indian subcontinent nations or in diaspora communities in Western countries. They are partners of South Asians, religious converts, Bollywood fanatics, conscientious and talented dancers and musicians. Not a single one that I have met is a silly dilettante, to be written off as having invalid motivations and experience. They -- or shall I say, we -- have all undergone some extent of acculturation with South Asian cultures.

I also have many dear friends who are approaching acculturation from opposite perspectives; second-generation Americans of South Asian descent who are enculturating themselves to either South Asian culture or American culture due to parents who rejected one or the other, and South Asians (including second- and third-generation Americans) who have married Caucasian or African-Americans and are acculturating themselves to a home culture different from the one they grew up in.

(Important Note: Are there issues of postcolonial power structures inherent in this topic? Absolutely. They cannot be ignored. But for the purposes of keeping this on topic, I will only mention it tangentially here and work under the assumption of individual authenticity and goodwill - that individuals are not actively trying to subjugate those of a nonwhite culture by their participation in that culture.  We can discuss this more in comments, if you would like.)

In the last 24 hours, I have read two articles by women married to Indians whose viewpoints on acculturation are diametrically opposed to each other.

Chardi Kala Wife writes about her identity as an Indian Australian.

And American Punjaban PI contends that Pardesis can never be Desi.

I found myself agreeing with both of them.

Acculturation isn't a race. It's not a game you're trying to win. It's trying to find the best mix of cultures for you, your partner, and your family. What works for one person could be disastrous for you.

According to J.W. Berry in Applied Psychology: An International Review (1997), the type of acculturation an individual goes through can be plotted on a two-dimensional grid. The answers to two questions determine placement on said grid:
  1. Do I want to maintain the cultural identity that has formed me prior to encountering the new culture? (Cultural maintenance)
  2. Do I want to participate in other cultural settings or remain mostly among my cultural group? (Contact and participation)
Answering no to the first question and yes to the second is considered assimilation or the "melting pot" approach. (However, if loss of your previous cultural identity and participation in the new setting is forced upon you by goverment/society/in-laws, it's considered the "pressure cooker" approach!)

Answering yes to the first question and no to the second is the separation approach. This approach is taken by those who might say, "I will stay in America to work, but I will not allow my children to have any American influence. They will be brought up as pure <insert your ethnic group here.>"  But if people are forced by government/society/in-laws to stay separately from the surrounding culture, but they are still allowed to keep their home culture, this is considered segregation.

Answering yes to both questions leads to the integration approach, where both cultures are respected and practiced; this can only happen if both the individual and their surrounding society are open and inclusive. According to Berry, the individual must adopt the basic values of the dominant culture, and the dominant group must also realize they need to accommodate people who are not exactly like them for the greater good.

Answering no to both questions leads to marginalization: an individual no longer feels at home or welcome in either culture. This can be either self-determined or forced upon individuals by society when they are not allowed to participate in the cultural practices they held pre-acculturation, but they are also rejected by the dominant society.

Think about your answers to each of these questions. Your answers don't have to be absolute; I would say "sort of" or "some" count as "yes" and "not really" or "only a little bit" count as "no." Determine whether you have a positive or negative reaction to each statement.  Which quadrant do you fall into? Are there external factors that turn separation into segregation or assimilation into a pressure cooker for you?  Keep in mind that there is not a 'right' way to acculturate, although assimilation and integration probably have more positive effects on mental health than the others.

Acculturation strategies may differ when dealing with different spheres; a typical example is a college professor of Indian descent who is successful in his work and well-liked and respected by all his colleagues, but speaks his native language at home and his personal friend circle consists only of Indians from his particular linguistic group. He's integrated into the community but takes a separation strategy in his personal life. Do you find yourself choosing or being guided to different strategies in the public and private spheres?

It is very interesting to me to see others who are acculturated into South Asian communities and realize that they are literally all over the grid. No one way to acculturate  is any better than another, as long as your health is staying intact. There are numerous variables that determine the way someone will acculturate, and they're not variables that invite moral judgment. So someone who converts to vegetarianism or chooses to dress in salwar suits instead of jeans or learns to speak their partner's language is doing so because of a myriad of different variables, both personal and social. They're not necessarily being pretentious or showing off; they are assimilating and it's working for them and their societal context.

But they are not "better" or "desier than thou" as compared to those who prefer food from their own culture or track pants or speaking in their own native language while at the same time appreciating their partner's culture. Such people are integrating both cultures, which may be very difficult to do given societal pressures. Likewise, integrators are not better than assimilators; their individual and social situation naturally leads them to taking the best from both worlds and may look nothing like the person who finds it easier to assimilate; it's comparing apples to oranges. And those who are in places where their acculturation is adversely affecting their mental and physical health should be supported, not judged.

What is your acculturation strategy?

What elements of your personal situation do you think contribute to that?

Do you feel your strategy has been more in your control, out of your control, or a mixture of both?

Do you employ different strategies in different spheres (home, work, school, when abroad, when home)?

Want to take a guess at the strategies I use? :)

If you would like to share, please do share in the comments below.