Wednesday, October 19, 2016

On Assimilation

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

I am an immigrant in Japan. For this reason, I study and speak Japanese language every day. I follow the news and keep up with local current events. I wear a suit when I work in a Japanese office. I bow in social situations that require it. I take off my shoes at the entrance of people's homes. I am careful about what subjects I choose when making small talk. I follow Japanese etiquette when eating, or socializing, or riding a subway. In short – I do everything in my power to assimilate.

No one forces me to do this. I simply do it because I do not believe immigrants have the right to expect accommodation for the norms of their homeland. I deliberately use the term 'homeland' here because I think it is analogous to being a guest in someone's house. As I wrote in my article 'Standing,' a house guest does not have the right to demand that his host bend to his every preference and whim. Immigrants are, at least at first, similar to guests I believe.

But how far does this really go? What exactly does a nation have the right to demand from its immigrants? The more militant proponents of multiculturalism would probably answer, ‘nothing.’ Nations should be honored that immigrants want to move there, and foreigners should be encouraged to maintain their unique identities, they might argue. I do not agree with this. I believe good fences make good neighbors. I think if we value diversity, we have to value borders – the right of people to form their own exclusive communities. No one could maintain the unique customs of their own home if anyone could walk in the front door at any time and demand all the house rules be changed.

So what can a country require of its immigrants? There is a line I think. There is the public and the private. I think the private is that which no one can really regulate. Our own thoughts, our own beliefs, and broadly speaking, what goes on in our own homes. Immigrants have every right to maintain their religious traditions, diets, and other behaviors within their own minds and within their own homes. In my own case no matter how long I live in Japan, I know that a little bit of New York will always be within me. Growing up in New York obviously had a big impact on my personality. That attitude will never fully die and that's fine with me; It has made me who I am and I like myself.

But out in the world – out in public, no one person 'owns' that society. It is collectively owned. We are bound by a social fabric that requires mutual compromise and trust. To create that trust we create rituals and conventions that are unique to each culture. This is why I think out in public it is important for immigrants to show solidarity with their new country of residence. Dressing, speaking, and generally acting as other citizens do is a show of good will – a sign that the immigrant seeks to be an equal member of society.

I have no illusions that I will ever be seen as “fully Japanese.” Even if I could make myself look Japanese it wouldn't change the fact that I didn't grow up here. The culture just isn't in my bones the way it is for natives. Nevertheless, I still make the effort to fit in as best I can. I think all nations, rich or poor, have the right to ask that much of would-be immigrants.

I believe nations have this right because a 'nation' is simply a collection of people – a large tribe if you will. Those people have come together and built a society. In the course of building that society they settled on a few standards – language, dress, religion, manners, etc. Those standards and traditions, arbitrary as they may be, become a culture and that culture has its own value. The people that created it have a right to preserve it. They may wish to preserve it because, and here’s the controversial bit, they may believe their culture is better than others.

Can one culture be simply better than another? People certainly seem to believe so. Millions of people every year vote with their feet by emigrating from one culture to another. I certainly did when I left the United States and moved permanently to Japan. While these preferences may be subjective, they are no less valid. I and a hundred thousand other gaijin come to Japan every year because it is Japanese, and we want it to stay that way just as the natives do. Assimilation is the small price I pay to help preserve the society that attracted me in the first place.