There’s Something about America
Cultural integration is a critical ingredient in immigrants’ success: only after profound grasp of the culture are people free to act and succeed.
Integration doesn’t mean abandoning one’s own culture, although many are wary of “acculturation”—a term that continually strikes me, an immigrant from Ukraine, as condescending. Why? Because it implies that a villain with next-to-no culture should acquire the cultural ways of a more civilized nation. This idea is often wrong and always rude to new Americans.
I much prefer to talk about cultural integration as absorption of the new culture: modifying one’s behavior and thinking through contacts with the native-born. A certain amount of disappointment/disillusionment is natural, because no society is perfect. But, like it or not, it’s a one-way ticket and de-integration is mission impossible: once the American cultural bug is in, we carry it for life.
And once exposed to US-American culture, many immigrants willingly dive deeper into it, time and again delighted by the cultural traits they felt were missing in their own cultures. Some become Americanized to the point they feel 100% American and at home; their countries of origin fade into the beautiful memories of youth. Especially for these successful immigrants, immigration is “a river of no return.”
American Cultural DNA
Now, what is there about America that it can convert the firmest original identities into US-American? It’s all about the combination of opportunities in America and the special nature of American culture—its diversity and inclusiveness, developed over the centuries. The useful term “American cultural DNA” provides a framework for understanding the complexities of the US culture. As introduced by Dorothy Bonvillain and William McGuire, it’s “metaphorically similar” to our unique biological DNA, although not as clearly defined. Every form of cultural expression is a manifestation of American cultural DNA: our values, sense of identity, norms and forms of government, language, arts, and more. This is what immigrants need to make their own as they integrate.
Natalia Pérez de Herrasti, author of Gramática de la Cultura, says that culture flows like a river—and cultures tend to “describe the river, not the ships sailing in it. People afloat in the stream of their culture are carried along in the direction in which it flows.” It’s difficult for those who are afloat in the main torrent as it rushes downstream, but this is where the immigrants need to be: in this mainstream, not backwaters—if they want to integrate and succeed in America.
Integrating and Commanding Respect
The politicians tortuously obstructing immigration reform in Congress have limited knowledge and little imagination to see the big picture. Otherwise, they’d notice all the benefits that our immigrants bring to the table, including the best talent the world has to offer.
See for yourself in these two examples of immigrant women leaders who are profoundly integrated, contribute to America’s well-being and cultural DNA, and command respect at all levels:
- Irene Natividad, from the Philippines—Committed to a Cause
Irene Natividad, President of the Global Summit of Women and the first Asian-American to head the National Women’s Political Caucus, is committed to promoting women globally. She came to the US to study in college. Previously, she’d attended American schools as her family moved from country to country. These frequent moves made Irene adept at communicating with people from different cultures and also aware of the limited options available to women worldwide—and this shaped her career choices.
The longer immersed in America, the more deeply she appreciated its culture: “My favorite [feature] is the ability for anyone to reinvent himself/herself, plus a possibility to be a success through sheer work. In Europe, especially in Britain, they would always remember that you [had been] a taxi-driver, no matter how advanced you became. In the US you’ll be honored and saluted on your accomplishment.” On her way from academia to global women’s advocacy, Irene reinvented herself at least twice.
Says Irene, “I am totally US-American: in my style, in what I do, in values and energy, in efficiency.” But she admits that both Asia and America own her. Being bicultural/multi-cultural allows her to understand people in-depth and lead global organizations.
- Rohini Anand, from India—Full Circle Leadership
Dr. Anand, an SVP and Global CDO for Sodexo, a recipient of multiple prestigious awards, is widely considered a leading expert on organizational change, diversity, and inclusion. She went a long way to become the global leader she is today.
Rohini came to do graduate studies at the University of Michigan. She married, and the couple moved back to India—with the intention of staying for good. However, after 3 years, they realized that India was not for them—and they returned. Why? Rohini came to love the American culture, with its integrity, hard work, can-do attitude, and a strong volunteer mentality. Most importantly, their values changed in America, and they wanted their daughters to grow up with these important values. Also, she found work satisfaction: “I realized that I changed tremendously in America…and what I valued most was the possibility to make an impact for what I did, in the workplace…I came into my own in the US.” Now she feels confident, “The US is home, not India.” Her cultural heritage helps her to stay on course, navigating Sodexo’s diversity and inclusion as a global business imperative.
Many of the women leaders I interviewed for my upcoming book have become so well-integrated that they fit in perfectly—which conditioned them for success. They introduced fresh perspectives on societal or corporate innovations, thus fulfilling the immigrants’ frequent role as an eternal source of renewal in a nation that prides itself on its continuous reinvention.
The waterways of all-American culture are open for divers comfortable with its profound depths. This integration perspective led me—and many others—to transition from curious snorkelers to fully engaged scuba-divers and deep-water swimmers in this mighty river we call America—and home!