How to thrive in a melting pot

Jean Nicol

In the old days, 'huddled masses' were willing to give up their homeland traditions in exchange for freedom and opportunity. Today's immigrants have different expectations.

This is what caused the rumpus recently when the town council of Hamtramck, in Michigan, decided to allow a mosque to broadcast live calls to prayer in Arabic over loudspeakers five times a day. The population of 23,000 was transformed in the 1990s by immigrants from China, Bosnia, Bangladesh and Somalia. Now, 41 per cent of inhabitants were born overseas, and one-third speak less than perfect English.

Meanwhile in Europe, there was an outburst of anti-immigrant sentiment following reports that refugees regularly apply to a number of countries for asylum and weigh up the respective levels of freedom and material advantages offered in each.

In Hong Kong, immigration policies are tough, and ethnic self-segregation is the rule among both transient and embedded communities. Some young Hongkongers are even reluctant to learn English - the city's acknowledged social glue. But the fact remains that everyone comes from somewhere else, or their ancestors did.

The thing is, the developed world is moving from relative homogeneity towards increasing diversity - in terms of ethnicity, values, customs, languages and lifestyles. Naturally, tensions arise and people are torn between building bridges and fences.

Alliances changed more slowly in the past. People, for the most part, 'knew their place'. But at today's fast pace, forcing together in-groups and out-groups, as psychologists call them, can lead to individuals not having a clear idea of where they belong, and therefore where their loyalties should lie. However, although a society's complex web of in-group-out-group relationships can be severely disrupted by an inflow of strangers, it cannot be eliminated: people are hard-wired to favour their own. In-groups get people organised and foster security. But they also necessarily exclude out-group members.

The challenge is to foster a greater number of overlapping in-groups and ones that are wide enough to accommodate people from many different backgrounds, yet not so wide as to become meaningless. At a global level, this is already happening. Greater access to money and mobility means that more people can choose their cultural loyalties; they choose their in-groups rather than stick to the ones they were born into or relegated to by default.

One misconception about ethnic melting pots is that the processes involved are linear, a sort of continuum with the old ways at one end and the target new ones at the other. But this is not how people actually behave in the real world.

In practice, immigrants and host societies have at least four ways of handling the absorption process. Assimilation is the choice to replace native culture with the mainstream one, much as America's poor and powerless huddled masses did. Separation is when people reject mainstream influences and remain segregated, creating ethnic ghettoes. Marginalisation is when people fit into neither cultural camp. And finally, the most constructive all round is biculturalism, where people maintain their native culture and simultaneously learn and are able to adopt the values and customs of mainstream society.

Insularity has not worked in the past, especially for the Chinese, and it is probably unsustainable in today's shrinking world. With no real alternative, it is better to get tooled up for the job of successfully living among strangers.

Jean Nicol is a psychologist specialising in issues of cultural identity and change in an era of globalisation