Coming to America

‘Should we treat assimilation not as a taboo subject but as an opportunity?’

Academia European Eye Immigration US Politics

A visitor from the old world sooner or later ponders why immigrants make the magical transformation into Americans, a process that seems so painfully intractable to European nations. Assimilation means your life is determined by two cultures. Does it require a particular state of mind to handle it happily or perhaps some intellectual or emotional predisposition not to succumb to a melancholy limbo between your past and present surroundings? To somebody like myself, who has been transitioning between cultures and countries for almost a decade, this question comes naturally. It was only recently, however, that I understood its true dimensions for our debates about immigration. 

It was one of the first warm days of the year when I left Manhattan: on Park and Madison Avenues, the affluent residents of the Upper East Side were strolling. The morning’s harsh light had dimmed by the time I got off the train an hour later in Syosset, a middle-class hamlet near the north shore of Long Island. After a tumultuous ride in a shabby taxi, during which a fellow passenger, an elderly woman from Puerto Rico, offered in a mix of sign language and broken English her view on Obama (“much talk, no action”), I arrived in front of a modest house — the home of my great-aunt Ingrid. 

Before knocking on the door, I looked down the small suburban street: houses from the Fifties or Sixties, neat front gardens, children playing on the pavement — to my European eyes an utterly American scene. At any rate, it was a far cry from where my aunt came from: the easternmost corner of what was once East Prussia and is now Lithuania. When they heard at the end of the war that the Russians were fast approaching, the family decided to flee westwards. It must have been a dramatic escape: it was agreed that my grandmother, who was then pregnant, would go first, with her mother. Ingrid and her father were supposed to follow shortly after. But only she made it to the West, on one of the last trains that left Memel. Leaving her father haunts her to this day.

The family was living near Frankfurt, in an apartment provided for European refugees, when Ingrid met Ed, an American soldier stationed there. They fell in love. To this day, my aunt remembers it as a fateful, almost magical encounter (and it never surprises me when I hear the arrival of US soldiers described as a descent of creatures both god-like and utterly human). Naturally, she came with him, to this small town on Long Island. What kind of expectations and fears did people like her have, trading their past for the unknown in the new world after the old had collapsed? 

I entered her house, where a typically transatlantic group had gathered: distant relatives with Irish roots, a neighbour who grew up in Munich and a Finnish lady. It dawned on me while we were having sponge cake with cream and jelly beans that all these first- or second-generation immigrants had become American by fate or by choice. America is a country of descendants of immigrants: people who felt, for whatever reason, the need to leave behind the places and people they had formerly known, and who had the luck, resolve and inner strength to do so. 

Assimilation poses moral questions — to society in general and, above all, to the individual. In public debates however, immigration is all about facts, laws, politics — the values, interests and expectations of individuals hardly matter.

Immigration in our time is a serious matter, leaving little room for sentimental stories. And yet, I wondered on my way back to the city — the train rattling through Queens, full of people chatting away in Chinese and Bengali — whether we shouldn’t treat assimilation not as a taboo subject, but as an opportunity. Isn’t that what my aunt’s Americanisation stood for? Is the “new type of immigrant” really that different from the notion of a woman from the Eastern shore of the Baltic finding some kind of self-fulfilment in what must have looked like a promised land in the West? America still holds this place today.

In literary approaches to the subject, melancholy is often the main emotion an immigrant feels (two recent examples: W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz and Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn). Relief, too. “The past becomes dreamy because its symbols have all vanished, and the present too is dreamy because it is linked with no memories,” wrote George Eliot. Often, it’s not simply a question of leaving a country behind: it can be self-sought too, a departure to a different self. This was true for my great-aunt when she came to America as a young woman — and it is, I realised on my way back to Manhattan, for me too.