Keeping Your Culture Stirring in the American Melting Pot

May 14, 2013

If your parents were from Germany, had you in the U.S., and then you, in turn, had children of your own, how much of that Germanness would they still have? Is cultural identity something that fades over time—and if so, how much?

I wanted to find out, so I went to a place where people from all around the world come to learn English. Hillsborough County Public Schools Adult Education Department offers 92 ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) classes at over 30 locations. I sat in on a class at the University Area Community Center. There were about 15 students, all representing nearly as many countries.

Among them is Yira Naza, from Panama City, Panama. She admits she's changed quite a bit since coming to the U.S., from her taste in music to the way she cooks.

"For me, the most important thing I can give to my son is the language. He is three, and I speak Spanish to him all the time, but he always answers in English,' says Naza.

Naza was not the first person to say this. In fact, nearly everyone who had kids that spent a large part of their lives here said the same.

I begin speaking to Haitian student Fredriksin'n Paul. At one point, I had a hard time understanding him, and vice versa. Our conversation went in circles for a while until instructor Dan Hromalik walked by.

"Does that sound familiar to you?," asks Hromalik. 

He was referring to something I told him prior to these interviews. My mother is also Hatian, and much like how Paul struggled with English, I had nearly forgotten Creole completely. After a feeble attempt to communicate with Paul in Creole, I give up. I've kind of given up on ever knowing the language as much as I once did. Despite the fact that I was an unofficial translator for my mother at a young age, and despite the fact that she still only speaks to me in Creole, I barely remember the language.   

Losing this ability didn't feel gradual. It was swift, or at least the realization of it was.

Dr. Sergei Paromchik is a District resource teacher with Hillsborough County Public Schools Adult ESOL department. According to him, this phenomenon is more common than I once thought.

"For about one or two generations, if the kid was born in the U.S. or came here at a young age, it will take at least one or two generations for the kid to become assimilated," says Paromchik.  "Acculturation, this is the first stage, when you don't lose your cultural heritage or your traditions. And the second, more final stage is almost complete assimilation."

After talking to some friends and colleagues, I realized that this is more common than I imagined. My best friend Daniel's parents are Colombian, and his Spanish is limited. So much so, his son Jullian's grasp of Spanish will probably be much worse (although both parents are hopeful). My friend Jen's parents are Vietnamese and Mexican. She probably knows as much Vietnamese as someone who took a summer course. She only understands some Spanish.

Lutheran Services Florida offers refugee resettlement services to families from all over the world. They put me in touch with Mirala Kikic, who fled war-torn Bosnia and arrived in the U.S. in 1998.

To Kikic, passing down customs and traditions from Bosnia to her children is of paramount importance. Passing down the language, however, has proved to be more of a challenge.

"In our house, we do speak Bosnian between each other, so that was his first language, but then he started daycare and switched to English," says Kikic.

From left to right: Mirala Kikic, Maja Kikic, Vahid Cancar, Deni Kikic, Nives Gulan, Suvada Gulan.
Credit Jean Henry / WUSF News

Her son Deni is 14, and admits he has trouble with the language.

"I prefer to speak English because I'm better at it but either way. I can understand much more than I can speak."

For Mirala, passing down the language and culture is important because she'd like her children to know the history of her homeland and why she had to leave.

This is a common saying among the children of immigrants, myself included. But is limited proficiency enough to pass down a language? Doesn't this degree of separation weaken ties to heritage?

One of the bedrock tenets of the US has always been that our strength comes from our diversity. But nothing is immune to time. Some customs change—some traditions stop. As time goes by, the labels given to those before us—  'outcast', 'other'— well, those labels either shed, or become irrelevant. And somewhere down the line, those pieces of your past and your family that you decided to keep are not simply in America, they are of America.

Language, although a major part of any culture, is a small part of what these kids and expatriates end up holding on to. I've forgotten my mother's language, but I remember how she taught me to carry myself with pride, and to treat people with dignity. I feel like that's way more important than language. From the people I've spoken to, it appears this issue of maintaining cultural identity is more of a balancing act; treading a line between past and future; stranger and native.