Jan 232012

Posing With Statue of LibertyAside from being a wonderful English phrase, "learn something new every day" captures an immigrant’s experience to a tee. It feels good to understand your new home better, day by day. Until you hit the acculturation treadmill.

The bigger the cultural difference between your own and the host American culture, the steeper and longer the learning curve. Even immigrants and transplants from Central Europe, who have, culturally, always taken inspiration from and looked up to the United States, have plenty to process and learn.

After a while, the instances when you get a pop-culture reference, understand a slang expression, or connect the dots of history accumulate so much in your experience bank you start to feel more comfortable in your new home. You may even begin to dish out your own references. You may think you’re getting it, and it feels good even you’re purposefully retaining your own culture (you can’t forget your life before you got here, can you?).

Then something happens and you think again. You encounter a custom, a holiday, a rule everyone around you knows, but that leaves you stumped. The longer you’re here the fewer such instances, of course, but that only makes them all the more frustrating in reminding you that you aren’t from around these parts. It’s not a great feeling to constantly be pushed to the outside.

It’s as if you’re catching up to a moving caravan, but the last bit is a treadmill. Or, to use a geometric analogy: your acculturation is an asymptote, a curve that gets closer and closer to a line without ever touching it (call it the acculturation asymptote). Every day in immigration you get more and more enmeshed with your host culture, but you will never become it. You can become an American legally, never culturally.

You will never have seen all the TV shows or movies; you will never have heard all the songs; you will never have bought all the products and seen their commercials. I don’t care about the new Muppets movie, the Christmas sugar cookies, or Steely Dan, not because they are bad but because they aren’t a part of my past.

The secret is to accept it’s okay to feel as an outsider because that’s what you are, no matter how much they chant "One of us!" for you. Embracing your situation, your emotions, your identity will help you cruise on the acculturation asymptote and navigate the treadmill.

Or you can do a little dance:


Video by OK Go, courtesy of EMI Music. The song “Here It Goes Again” is from OK Go’s 1995 album Oh No.

Image credit: Ed Yourdon

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