In a recent conversation about welcoming international students, one of my friends said excitedly “we can help them assimilate!”
I nodded and smiled, and the conversations moved on from there. Ever since then, though, I’ve been thinking about that interaction.
The word “assimilation” reminds me of what we did to Native American children to strip them of their culture and identity and force them to conform to what we think they should act and think like.
The word “assimilation” made me think of Japanese internment; of how we as a country ripped apart the lives of those we saw as “other.”
The word “assimilation” makes me think of the Christians who have asked and continue to ask new believers to cast away all of the “pagan” things that are part of their culture, with no acknowledgement of the syncretism in Western Christianity and no recognition of how our cultural practices and traditions can be used to honor God.
Instead of working towards “assimilation”, can we work towards “code-switching”? Can we help people to competently navigate the confusing waters of multiple cultural contexts while honoring their story and their identity – by honoring who God has made them?
Code-switching is natural for me, as a child and grandchild of immigrants. I know the rules of people-engagement at home, and I know the rules at school and at work. I know that what is “common sense” or “good manners” differs in each context, and usually am quite aware when I deliberately break the norms, defiantly challenging perceptions of “right” and “normal.”
I refuse to assimilate. I refuse to deny the experiences, gifts, and heritage that God has given me. I refuse to deny the rich inheritance of stories, values, experiences, and history in my parents’ stories. I also refuse to “help someone else assimilate.”
I don’t want them to give up their identity, to feel like who they were and where they came from is not valued.
What I do want to do, though, is to equip them to read the clues in whatever context they’re in, and know how to succeed. I want to help people understand that in different contexts, the same value can be expressed differently. I want them to see that being a good employee or student and the respective expectations of communication, respect, and assertiveness can look different in different cultures, even in different companies.
Instead of assimilation, I want to see my friends flourish, able to navigate the new waters they’ve been placed in, and able to celebrate and acknowledge their entire identity. I want them to code-switch well.