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A Journey Through Cultures: Becoming Fit in American Society

ashley's picture

A Journey Through Cultures: Becoming Fit in American Society

A certain type of evolution is notable through an immigrant’s arrival to the United States, in which there is an evident transition from their ethnic ties to that of American ways. This can be seen as a form of cultural evolution, whose permanent results can be seen over the spread of various generations. It is interesting to note the external factors that cause this change to occur; that which makes an individual believe they must detach from their old customs and take up new ones. This cultural evolution truly becomes a matter of survival of the fittest in American society today.

For groups of newly arrived immigrants, culture shock is a big component of their daily lives throughout their first encounters with people in this country. Attire is a main visual cue that tells them something here is different. Upon interaction, the language barrier demonstrates another trait that is impeding them from having the same life they knew in their home country. Because new immigrants may dress differently, speak a different language and have mannerisms not in accordance with that of the American norm, they are quickly singled out and many times looked down on.

Facing initial resistance from those deemed American, whether Anglo-Saxon or not, causes newcomers to the country to wish to be incorporated into the American life. Hence, they search for ways of achieving this, wishing to reduce the struggle that is in a single day for them. A school setting can provide us with an example of interactions between American citizens and new immigrants, demonstrating how these interactions affect the choices of those new to this country.    

Within a school one can clearly see the segregation that occurs amongst those of varying ethnicities and how new immigrants find themselves being associated with an “odd” culture that marks them inferior. As aforementioned, clothing can be a clear marker of one unfamiliar with American ways. There is much hushed whispering that takes place when an individual wears attire different from the norm, particularly that which is associated with a person’s native culture.     1 academics.utep.eduImmigrant Family, Pre-Cultural Evolution: Source:

Laurie Olsen, author of Made in America, depicts the experience of a young girl Gloria who, having just arrived from Mexico, had a new article of clothing from her home country. Gloria claims, “It was a beautiful serape… excited on [her] first day that [she] could wear it to school. But it did not feel beautiful when [she] got there. It felt wrong” (Olsen, 45). This anecdote depicts the ways in which the style of dress plays a large part in the visual aspect of transitioning cultures. To further elaborate on this notion, Olsen tells us how “clothing is a major theme in conversations of immigrant girls [who are] acutely aware when their own clothing does not measure up to American standards…” (Olsen, 45). Immigrants seem to calculate their validity against the validity of American ways, always.

Right alongside clothing comes the issue of language, where the inability to communicate with those in the mainstream is a guarantee to being shunned, losing all possibilities of acceptance. Seeing the barriers that their current culture, mentalities, and characteristics present, which keeps them from advancing in their new location, there is a consensus that they are currently not in the most fit condition possible. Newcomers are being held back behind this wall that their native background presents. Various aspects of their lives are seen as being made to suffer due to this. Attached to not being the most fit in American society comes the explanation for why they do not succeed financially, the reason why they are not accepted socially, the reason why they are deemed incompetent. With the recognition of being viewed in these negative frames comes the realization that something must change. There has to be something done to improve their current status. The solution: to become American. How does one become American? By ridding oneself of home culture, native traditions, and picking up on American social values, American dress, American mannerisms, and the American language - English . Michael R. Olneck, in his work “Immigrants and Education in the United States”, brings to light the ‘“clean break”  assumption: [that which states] that immigration should and does involve ultimately a complete exchange of prior cultures and identities for new [ones]” (Olneck, 383). The transition begins early on in an immigrant’s attempt to become fit for their new surroundings in order to survive and prosper.

While having picked up on American characteristics, it might yet be noticeable that these traits are foreign to the foreigners, but over time and generations, this visibility reduces and remnants of where these people originated from dissipate. When a certain group works hard to maintain this image of truly being American, they do what they can to keep their family members from going through the hardships they know are out there. They also choose to protect themselves from what they’ve been working so hard to keep away from. In this sense we can see members of an ethnic group who reject their origin, and along with that reject members of their own background. By doing so, they hold no loyalties to their own ethnicity and reduce the possibility of being placed under condescending looks which they’ve managed to evade by evolving to become American.

To protect themselves and perhaps due to feelings of shame, individuals find themselves casting side glances at those newly arrived, although these persons are in the same position they or their family members were once in. There is a disconnect between individuals who have been in the United States for various generations and those who are newcomers. Third generation (insert ethnicity) or higher are more likely to view themselves as more fully American, not wanting the embarrassment of being associated with the immigrant group - with those who lack American culture. Olsen once again provides a direct account of such an occurrence, in which Evangeline recounts how “…other Mexicans wouldn’t help [her]. It was like they felt shame because of [her]…It is like they cut themselves off from their own heart” (Olsen, 111). Through this we notice the stigma that comes with being a new immigrant, and how others wish to not be associated with them for fear that it will bring down their own status. In order to be accepted, persons learn to cut themselves off from their roots. Such persons become walking contradictions perpetuating a self-hatred, unable to approve of themselves wholly. Some such walking contradictions would include members of the United States border patrol who are simultaneously of Mexican descent. These individuals are condemning fellow Mexicans for something a member of their family is highly likely to be at fault for as well. But the desire to be full American overrides any affiliation they may have with the culture. The culture for these persons, regardless of their original culture, has altered over time until they find themselves as part of the inner circle, being accepted by those deemed as the higher race, the more valuable beings. They are finally fit.

The desire to be a strong candidate for success within the United States drives newly arrived immigrants to strive for American ideals. Over time, newcomers undergo an evolution of culture in which they drop that which represents their home country and pick up a new one which represents their entryway into success. This evolution is most notable through transitions that come in styles of dress, which make them visually appealing for social acceptance. All along, in adjusting speech, style, and mannerisms, the main goal remains to become fit and to survive. Family, Post-Cultural Evolution


Works Cited:
Olneck, Michael R. Immigrants and Education in the United States.
Olsen, Laurie. Made in America: Immigrant Students in our Public Schools. 




Anne Dalke's picture

Diversity reduction?

"Survival of the fittest" is a phrase we've kicked out of the biology curriculum (@ least in this class, and in all the classes we imagine teaching, arising from this one) and yet you use it repeatedly, ashley, as keynote in your description of social evolution, in phrases such as "being the most fit in American society," "truly becomes a matter of survival of the fittest in American society today," and "they are finally fit." So what interests me for starters here is the presumption @ the heart of your essay that "fitness" is the measure of social adjustment.

The irony of this language is very strong, of course, since you are documenting an excruciating process of people being "cut off from their roots," "walking contradictions perpetuating a self-hatred," and so forth--this hardly sounds like "fitness" of any sort! So how and why does it work for a description of cultural processes, if not for biological ones? Is there a danger, as there certainly was in Social Darwinism, of mistaking the "is" for the "ought"?

I'm wondering too if you might be overgeneralizing from specific cases. Both the 1997 essay on Rethinking Assimilation Theory for a New Era and the May 2008 Civic Report  Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States agree  on the differentiated quality of immigrant experience in this country (Mexicans, for example, assimilate more slowly, but their experience is not seen as typical).

I'm also curious to know whether, in writing this essay, you saw yourself as constructing a counter-narrative to the story Paul has been telling us, which focuses not on the high degree of order, or any predictable distribution of elements, but rather on the diversity of biological systems, as an assortment of difference. Are you arguing that social evolution works in a different direction: toward increased assimilation and the reduction of diversity? (You describe, for example, "a complete exchange of prior cultures and identities for new" ones,  and say that "visibility reduces and remnants of where these people originated from dissipate.") That would constitute a major revision of the story told, so far, in this class. I want to know more....