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.


  1. Interesting post. So we have four - assimilation, separation, integration, marginalization. The previous generation before us of South Asian immigrants to the UK, some of them felt they had to assimilate. Have you heard the insult coconut (white inside, brown inside)? I guess this is directed against South Asians who have assimilated rather than integrated? My mother certainly assimilated or tried to. The marginalization reminds me of how we felt after Ethiopia. It was self determined I guess - we found that we couldn't fit back in to England, yet there was nowhere else we could go. We certainly weren't Ethiopian. At that time I'd never been to India. (Never went until 2002)

    1. Assimilation used to be considered the "ideal" -- at least for people coming to America. Come here, learn English, change your name from Xui Li to Julie and Vikram to Vick. And after all the hard work their parents put into acculturating, the second generation had it tough too, being viewed as "ABCDs" by their family back in India. With an integrative approach, certainly less is lost.

      Ironically, the opposite has been viewed with derision - if an American goes to India, learns the language, wears the clothing, etc., they are seen with derision by other Americans as "going native."

      I wonder if a short period of marginalization is part and parcel of repatriation culture shock?

  2. Thanks for the mention! I couldn't agree more that there is no right way to acculturation. The only problem I have with it is when I see someone try to shove their view down someone elses throat. That's when it becomes an issue.

    I think I fit in most with assimilation. I was very strong willed and stubborn coming into this relationship about the fact I would never again lose my identity. It shaped my journey a lot. Because of my approach, much of my strategy has been in my control.

    I will say I adopted Indian dress more in the home than out of the home but that had nothing to do with force, etc. I wore western wear to go out because I was going out with western friends and we all agreed we needed a break from the Indian lifestyle once we got out of the house. (That was in India.) Back in the US, I wear both styles of clothing as I feel like it. I haven't noticed a trend in either direction. It just depends on how comfortable I want to be that day and what kind of mood I'm in.

    1. I think you meant to say integration rather than assimilation, according to the rest of the details you gave. You have a very strong self-identity that you maintain even alongside adopting aspects of Indian culture.

      Reading through your blog, I think you take a strong integrative approach as much as external factors allow. When they don't, would I be amiss in saying that you tend toward a separation approach? "We needed a break from the Indian lifestyle" makes me think that might be the case. Of course, we're mapping human behavior onto a chart, which sometimes fits and sometimes doesn't! :) You can't be totally separated from Indian culture living in a joint family, after all.

    2. Oh, yes I did mean integration lol. And you're right on the separation. See how confusing fitting in can be? Lol. I think a few of the terms applied to me at some point in time. Just like you mentioned, it's very complicated.

  3. Don't think you mean assimilation based on what you've said?

  4. ... 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

    Change "best" to "easiest" or "most desirable given our personal circumstance" and that's many of us who have had to navigate multiple cultures.

    All of life is wearing different masks. Sometimes you become those masks, but if you're lucky, a few of them will resemble who you really are and want to be inside.

    1. I think that in the majority of circumstances, people naturally gravitate towards the easiest path for them. What I didn't touch on (because this was long enough) is the long, long list of factors that play into the approach an individual chooses or is forced to choose. It includes age, gender, length of time in the culture, how close together the original and new culture are in certain factors such as food, language, religion, etiquette, etc., education level, support systems, coping strategies, individual's prejudicial/discriminatory attitudes, personality factors, as well as cultural demographics, national immigration policy, opinions of the new culture toward immigrants/foreigners, economic atmosphere, etc.

      There's so much to consider and so much acting upon the situation; the simplest path is best. But simplest is different for everyone because of the unique combination of the above factors.

      For example, someone in her late teens or early 20s may find it easier to assimilate and take on both visible and invisible aspects of the new culture while shedding aspects of the old one; that's a time of identity formation. In assimilating, however, she might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater on some aspects.

      Conversely, someone exposed to the new culture in her 30s or beyond may have already established a fairly strong identity and self-image. Integration may be the easiest approach for this person, as they take on good things from the new culture while still retaining their 'core self'; however, this path can lead to cognitive dissonance when supposedly 'good' aspects of the new culture do not match with the solid self-identity.

      And an immigrant in her 60s may choose wear the same dress she wore in the "old country," follow the same rituals and traditions, and surround herself with people who speak her language and follow her religion, separating herself from the new culture. It's a lot of work to learn a new language and break out of a pattern of life you've lived for over half a century.

  5. The good old Mr. Berry. Figured that someone would have picked up on his works.

    While your remarks are on spot I´d like to mention that for me the methaphor of the "melting pot" doesn´t fit what is meant with the concept of "assimilation".

    Aware that Berry himself pointed out that the two concepts are tightly interlinked I still disagree.

    "Cultural Assimilation occurs when individuals reject their minority culture and adopt the cultural norms of the dominant or host culture." Therefore assimilation is the attempt to completely blend in by giving up (all of) your cultural heritage.

    The "Melting Pot" on the other hand "is a metaphor for a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous and the different element melting together into harmonious whole with a common culture". Different from assimilation, here the immigrants are actually changing the majority culture.

    And while assimilation can (theoretically) become the Melting Pot, this is only possible if certain preconditions are met - namely that the host culture is willing to accept differences and the immigrants don´t deny their own culture.

    Having said that here my answer to your question.

    I most likely use all four strategies depending on the situation at hand. However, integration is certainly the one which works best for me and my partner. But I must admit that this does not penetrate further than my behaviors. My values are certainly driven by my upbringing in Germany and I disagree with many things that belong to the "Indian Value System" (yep, generalization at it´s best!). I might understand certain practices but I am unwilling to adapt to them in my personal life. With my criticism I hold back. That makes life easier.

  6. I'm in complete agreement with you. Scholars post-Berry do put emphasis on the fact that culture exchange goes both ways, and that the melting pot is not necessarily like a fondue pot, but (as my fifth-grade teacher explained it) when you take a bunch of crayons and heat them up together for a very long time. When the wax melts, some of the colors blend, some are separate, but it's all one mass that's mostly the same with some bits of red here and blue there.

    Because I was relating this mainly to the experience of the individual, I did not really put a lot of emphasis on the importance of the external culture and how it affects the situation (one of those factors being the attitude of the culture towards immigrants.) But the attitude of the external culture is very important. India in general does not have an immigrant-friendly culture and so it's already a strike against the person wishing to acculturate there.

    I also think you are very right; all four things happen at one time or another with everyone, but with weight toward one or the other. You can't really answer those two main questions "yes" or "no" anyway!

    Thank you for your comments! Come back and comment more ! :)

  7. I love the crayon-metaphor. Smart guy/gal your teacher;)

    Acculturation is a heavy topic. So much research has been done, so many variables play a role.

    And a sounding "yes" to the fact that India does not have an immigrant-friendly culture.

    Especially difficult is for me that people don´t ask questions but usually state assumptions they claim to be facts. It´s difficult to become friendly with people who think that you come from an "unholy country, where all women are loose and children always abandon their parents once they are aged, where traditions are non-existent, kids dumped in institutions and the main religious character was entertaining himself with prostitutes."

    Add to polite conversations like that the immanent stare and you get a bunch of white women unwilling to roam Indian streets - unless necessary;) Which makes us less seen, less acculturated, less part of society, which leads to more prejudices...

    The perfect vicious circle.

  8. And he made those comments years before this study came out too! Ha. Wise man, ahead of his time. I wonder where he is today?

    I wasn't able to get into the number of variables involved except in the comments because it IS such a heavy topic. I don't think I can say anything that hasn't already been said (although studying acculturation of members of a majority culture into a minority diaspora population would make a fascinating research subject); I just wanted to use it as a model to back up my assertion that we all acculturate differently and there is no one who is doing it "better" or "worse" as long as their particular situation is working out well.

    Mostly, it was in response to American Punjaban's post about non-Indian women who try to play "desier than thou" because they've assimilated more than integrated, etc. You can't compare when our situations are all so diverse.

    I've found that when speaking to people one on one, it's a lot easier to deconstruct stereotypes. Once they KNOW someone from that culture, it's harder to paint the culture with a broad brush. And if those conversations prove fruitless, well, at least I know that person isn't worth talking to! It's not my job to change anyone's mindset, nor do I have to waste my time talking to blowhards who don't believe anything the TV doesn't tell them either. And that goes for everyone, regardless of culture.

  9. I read American Punjaban´s Post before reading yours. And I was entertaining the thought to comment on it, also using Berry´s Model - since you point out right the women she and also Cyn ( are describing are women who have chosen to assimilate rather than integrate (at least according to the description given).

    I agree that we all have to find our own ways to become part of the Indian culture(s) and that those differ from each other. I also understand PI´s and especially Cyn´s reaction to individuals who seem to advertise assimilation as "the way to go". And while I can imagine how annoying it might be to deal with these people (I never met anyone like that, yet) I actually think that it must be hard trying to fit in the Indian culture since we usually stay out (color of skin, language, accent, etc.). Assimilation is a stressful process which involves a lot of pain. Especially when every step you take reminds you of the fact that you don´t fit in. Therefore I see the behaviors the women - PI and Cyn describe -display as a self-assuring mechanism. They might not be fully accepted by the majority of Indians, but at least they differ from other pardesis who are unwilling/unfit to blend in.

    It´s the In-Group/Out-Group Dilemma with a twist.

    As for deconstructing stereotypes: Familiarity is a factor that plays a role here. The "rudest" comments I got were from people I barely knew/just met - very often senior males in family settings. Here conversations or discussions were impossible (not wished for and not appropiate for my social stand as a guest).
    On the other hand the willingness to see your own opinions challenged (on both sides) is a must for a fruitful intercultural exchange. This is why I pointed out that many people rather use statements than questions (everywhere not just in India) because this lowers engagement and one can move on to the "real issues" in life.
    And last but not least there is one´s own knowledge and understanding about the culture of origin. Which is very often limited due to ethnocentristic tendencies. Honestly, I could never explain "the German culture".

    But that touches the variables again that suggest successful or non-successful acculturation.

    I am happy that you wrote your post. I was planning to write a similar one at one point - now I don´t have to anymore!

    Is it personal or scholastical interest that made you study acculturation?

    1. "Especially when every step you take reminds you of the fact that you don´t fit in."

      As someone who has taken an assimilation approach (at least in part), that sentence is something I'd never even think of saying. The steps that I take are steps that I take to get the slightest bit closer *to* fitting in, from my perspective. Will I ever completely fit in? Probably not, but that doesn't actually bother me at all. I've never fit in anywhere really; why should I start now? :)

      I see now how you meant it was infuriating when people make statements like that - especially from people you can't really debate. That's got to be an awkward situation.

      My main interest of course is personal, but I've also created culture training materials as part of one of my jobs and learned a lot about it back then. These frameworks can't explain everything about life but can be used to shed light on particular facets.

    2. "As someone who has taken an assimilation approach (at least in part), that sentence is something I'd never even think of saying."

      Which shows that:
      a) the four strategies are interpretable and
      b) individual perspectives and experiences play a role.

      I think assimilation usually isn´t for me because I never really felt part anywhere. I managed to live a life which includes so many contradictions that "being part of something" is difficult and usually not desirable. Good thing I am a loner...would be hard otherwise.

  10. This post is so well timed, well written and appropriate.
    I love that you have evenly shed light on the four 'methods' accepted by this model and that you have made it clear that there is no preferred or perfect path - as everyone's path, circumstances and feelings are so vastly different.
    I read the other posts and comments but mostly kept quiet because I feel as though I have a different opinion on acculturation and how I express that journey. As you know I write a completely public blog, it is accessed by family and people I know and because of that I only share things that I want known to all. That can mean that negativity is left off, so that my own family do not worry, so that my in laws do not feel as though I am airing dirty laundry but most importantly I want my blog to be a positive place for me and for those who visit. The realities of living in India can be harsh, depressing, and really life altering but I would never want anyone to feel that me or another person having a less than stellar experience should discourage them from their own journey.
    I portray the happier side of life, because the sad part is easy to write about, it is in your face and never ending but I made the most of my time there and I enjoy India and all her faults. Unfortunately even though I enjoy India, with the way things fell out with my husband's parents and the fact that I was pregnant there was no time to take a single risk or chance staying with my husband in a new city when I could come home and set up our life here, as well as experience free medical care, the support of my family and the ability to earn money for our future.
    I do not judge others on their individual experience, but do feel as bloggers we have an unspoken social responsibility to be fair and honest in what we portray and convey and I think that is what I have done.
    My situation doesn't relate much to living in middle class India and the inconveniences that can entail but it relates to a severe and dramatic family breakdown - which is why I like to keep it separate from my blog about a positive integration with India.
    It is interesting to think about how methods vary in your differing circumstances and spheres of life. Generally I am following something close to the integration method, I adopt the best of both and by best that does mean the most desirable to me.
    At work I am a mix of integration and a mix of separation as it is hard for me to be in a regional place and openly display my acquired Indian traits and beliefs when they are not at all in alignment to the rural culture I am living among. However, I do not hide them and of course after my experience so many moral and ethical changes have taken place - in some ways reinforcing the beliefs I always had but could not recognise and in others adding to that.

    1. "it is hard for me to be in a regional place and openly display my acquired Indian traits and beliefs when they are not at all in alignment to the rural culture I am living among"

      "of course after my experience so many moral and ethical changes have taken place"

      In my not at all scholarly opinion, I think this seems to be an effect of a certain amount of assimilation - that you have done some amount of cultural shedding of previous thoughts and beliefs, replaced them with those of the new culture, and now back in the old culture it's hard to re-assimilate.

      I have experienced this myself and am contemplating writing a post on it in the future.

      I did not really follow your blog from the early days so am unsure of how your life was before you met your husband. Were you integrated at all with the Indian community in Australia before you met him? Do you gravitate more toward that community now? Does that help with the feelings of marginalization (that you mention in your post below)?

      Masala Bou wrote also about feeling like she was part of neither culture upon returning to England. Again, I am wondering if this is a normal feeling that lasts until you re-acculturate or find a space in your community where you are comfortable.

    2. I can't say I was ever in alignment with the culture I am amongst, or that I really abandoned previously held beliefs. As I said the acculturation process has helped reinforce my already held beliefs and in some instances added to them, partly because acculturation also involves a lot of self discovery to decide which method is the best for us.
      Behaviours like coworkers talking about smoking weed, going to pubs and music festivals - which is something I was never interested in. Added to that is the fact that I have been living in big cities with my husband for the past three years and have come back to a very white, smallish, country area so it is a combination of the Indian/Australia and country/city adjustment.
      Obviously integregation will involve a lesser form of assimilation but I am steadfastly not assimilated and not separated either.
      Before meeting my husband I grew up in a small area and had very little interaction with other cultures, but always had somewhat of a feeling that western culture was not necessarily very 'me' or at least in the way I have seen it practiced where I am now.
      Vishav and I don't really hang out in Indian circles, or Australian circles - mostly taking it case by case.
      We prefer people in similar situations to us, as first gen Indians do not relate to the level of integration my husband has taken on and Australians do not relate to my level of integration.
      Our preferred crowd, who can relate and understand and discuss the issues that are relevant to us are the mixed couples, as well as second generation Indians - all people who identify more in the Indian Australian crowd as opposed to just Indian or just Australian.
      Migration is very recent here and many Punjabi migrants struggle with language and integration exhibiting more separation method behaviours.
      Because I am integrating, not assimilating or separating the community for me to find home within is very limited, even more so in a smaller area (I actually live in a small town), but the marginalised feelings will pass as re-adjust or re-acculturate to being in this area. I do not know that that will definitely happen, and it is different being without your husband and expecting a baby so emotions are high, but I am definitely more of a city person and appreciate the perks of being in a big city and having access to Indian grocers and Sikh temples and Punjabi schools for our baby.
      I don't believe acculturation will ever just stop, because I will always keep growing and learning and my identity as a wife, a mother, a woman and a person will continue to develop.

  11. Part two (my comment was too long).

    Being back in Australia after a pretty traumatic departure from India I sometimes feel as though I answer no to both questions and feel marginalized completely. I am at a point where I feel like I cannot necessarily relate or be myself with my own family, but also feel resentment and disconnection to the Punjabi part of my personality and lifestyle that I sometimes want to forget (because of said traumatic experience).
    I speak with a mixed accent, and tend to overcompensate in the workplace, and at home because I have been made fun of. I like different foods, clothes, music, movies and it is not easy to find someone to relate to. Right now I feel like my home culture is my husband and how we interact together - as two people on this Indian, Australian acculturation journey.
    I wouldn't call what I am experiencing reverse culture shock, I think it is just another case of acculturation because I changed so much in the space of time that I was gone.
    I am certain that with time I will gravitate back towards integration because for me I feel as though it is the path where I gain the most and the path that is easy when trying to integrate the lives of two people.
    My husband, I believe is also working by the integration method and neither identifies as Indian nor Australian - which is the same for me. Right now I am an Indian Australian and quite happy with that, the blog posted on my site was one I was asked to write for a magazine - hence why it is very fluffy and non specific as I was writing to an Indian heritage, Australian community. This means I had to be fluffy and could not be negative about India (not that i wanted to be) because I needed to be sensitive to my potential audience.
    You can see here an interview for the magazine where I do discuss quite a number of things. It was written a few months ago so with regard to living in a joint family the answer is a bit outdated but I talk in detail (but from a very non academic or wordy perspective) about my integration. See page 28
    I really appreciate you taking the time to share this and articulate it in such a way that it welcomes an open discussion.
    I am sorry if this is very long winded, I guess I thoroughly answered your questions on the factors and differences in my life.
    My guess would be that you are somewhere along the lines of the integration method as well - enjoying the best of both.
    I guess all of these methods are also affected by understanding of the other culture which will change over time, living in a western country and having limited exposure to India can make it more attractive for some than it would be for another who has lived there and has a deeper or longer stretching/vast or just simply a different understanding of the traditions and social nuances.
    Then again, living in India for some draws them even closer to the culture and the people and assimilation works better for them.
    I am back in Australia now and life is throwing everything it has at me, but my blog will continue to be about living in Chardi Kala - living in flying colours, in buoyant and high spirits, being resilient and being strong!!

    1. Thanks so much for your perspective on this topic! Very nice interview as well.

      I would say that I am a weak integrator - I neither reject nor cling to the culture I was brought up in, and at the same time quite open to the new culture, language, food, etc. My core values and beliefs are very simple and for me, the person I am is created day by day and layer by layer. So I think for me, it's a kind of integration that looks a lot like assimilation. And it isn't just US/India, it's Louisiana and Washington as well. I still proudly consider myself a Texan, but I'll cheer for LSU no matter who they are playing and I love me some comfy if ugly Doc Martens and other "Northwestern granola" shoes!

    2. Yes, the integration spectrum is quite broad - but I definitely feel your assimilation with regard to language, friends, music, festivals, style.
      I am a firm believer in being genuine and doing whatever you feel is the right thing to do.
      I am also a constantly growing and changing person (hello, I am 21!!).
      I think my reply to your other comment echoes so much of what you have written here.


Please comment thoughtfully and respectfully. All comments are moderated.