Cultural diasporas in our midst

Merrilee Beckman of Iowa City, Iowa, wrote the following after viewing Yearning to Breathe Free blog entries. I found her information on cultural diasporas in today’s world so helpful that I asked for approval to post her thoughts as a blog entry. She attributes many of her thoughts to the writings of Jeremy Rifkin, author and social thinker.
Guest blogger Merrilee writes:
I know the Burmese focused on here were pushed out of their country by a vicious military who have no moral qualms about the death of their own people.  They are a people with a powerful sense of communal and religious identity.  It used to be that immigrants to our country assimilated fairly quickly.  Most of them were more than ready to leave their pasts behind and become Americans.  The whole idea of ‘starting over’ was part of the American Dream.  Today it is so different.  The entire world is experiencing a great migration upheaval.

Isa Lawan Dambazan, born in Nigeria in 1964, keeps one foot in Nigeria and one in Fort Wayne, Indiana, because he has family in both places. © 2009 John Gevers.

Two worlds at once
Millions of humans are in transit each year, and these immigrants bring their culture with them, existing in tight knit communities that keep their cultures intact abroad. Immigrants always did this to some extent but it’s different now because of all our communications technology allowing people to be in two worlds at once.  In the past you’d migrate to a country to stay. You’d write letters home but they took so long that it was hard to keep contact with family and friends in the old country.  The old cultural ways stayed alive for awhile but inevitably faded. Today an immigrant can use the Internet and cell phones to make contact with relatives left behind both constantly and instantly.  Cultures are becoming de-territorialized and mobile in a way that couldn’t be conceived before.  They are no longer bound by geography.

A cultural diaspora in Fort Wayne, Indiana. © 2009 John Gevers.

Split loyalties and allegiances
Cultures are becoming transnational and global, and cultural diasporas have split loyalties and allegiances in a way they didn’t before.  Many of the immigrants are poor, discrimminated against, jobless, and living in squalid conditions in what amounts to ghettos, and because they stick to themselves they are often regarded with suspicion and fear.  And, of course, when the economy is suffering it’s feared they’ll ‘steal’ valuable jobs from the rest of us.  The vast majority of all these immigrants are peaceful, law-abiding citizens.

A Burmese refugee who is now resettled into an apartment complex in Fort Wayne, Indiana. © 2009 John Gevers.

Retaining a cultural diaspora in our midst
For centuries, a people and culture were inseparable from their property and territory.  No longer.  Again, sophisticated communication and transportation technologies now allow cultures to stay linked socially across myriad national boundaries. You can see why people like these gentle Burmese need to retain a cultural diaspora in our midst.  It gives them a way to keep their sense of identity while negotiating their way in a radically strange, new world.  The Burmese in Fort Wayne are one node in a whole postnational network of diaspora going on today. They hold onto their cultural identity as a way to be “both here and there.”  Cultural diasporas are increasingly living in multiple places with multiple loyalties, and it’s the job of their host countries to find ways to help them interact across traditional boundaries.  Having lost the comfort of their geographical boundaries, they must now discover a way to bond with those of their host culture in a way that will draw them into a real community.  How to find a new shared purpose that is as powerful as the bond of their cultural identity?  For them, and for us.

From Burma, a refugee resettled in Indiana, maintaining homeland tradition. © 2009 John Gevers.

“Us-them” divisions and a shared sense of meaning
One of the biggest differences between people like the Somalians in Minneapolis or the Burmese in Fort Wayne is that in modern Western societies there is a highly honed individuality and fewer gender differences/roles.  Both men and women here engage in all kinds of activities that aren’t permitted by tradition-bound, communal cultures.  But when individuals (that’s us) have a shared sense of meaning and undertake a cooperative effort to achieve a common goal,  then the “us-them” divisions tend to disappear, and those cooperating in the common endeavor blend into a single “us-group.”  Those who were “them” become part of “us.”  All stereotypes and prejudices are based on “us-them.” So we have to find a shared sense of meaning.  We have to find opportunities to simply mingle with one another.  That gives us chances to recognize our common humanity.

Mother and child from Burma. © 2009 John Gevers.

Contact is essential, empathy crucial
Contact is essential — interacting as social equals, the way you did when you went to take the pictures posted here.  Empathy is the crucial ingredient for an “us-us” perspective where we can see them involved in the same kind of human activities, showing the same basic human emotions, we have.  That’s what your photos in Yearning to Breathe Free do for a wider audience. They creatively turn strangers into “us.”  You can see their peaceful culture reflected in their faces and in the courtesy they extend. The power of these  beautiful photos takes away the fear of knowing there is a group of foreign immigrants living “near us,” and actually makes you want to meet some of them and get to know them better.

One Response to “Cultural diasporas in our midst”

  1. Jennifer Milholland Says:

    As we welcome groups like the Burmese to our community, one of the most helpful things we can do is to appreciate what previous generations of immigrants have gone through as they settled in a new country. Some of the sweeping generalizations made here might hinder a full understanding of how newcomers fit into the broader historical picture. My concern is the insinutation that it was all just so easy in the past, but today it’s more difficult. It’s always been tough, and that’s worth studying.

    1. “It used to be that immigrants to our country assimilated fairly quickly.” Not so much, if you are, say, familiar with the Germans who settled in Fort Wayne. Heavy immigration began in the 1870s with draconian military conscription that pushed families to the U.S. They were primarily interested in working and farming–and not interested at ALL in giving up their language, religion, and other cultural elements. Most German (private) schools and churches were German language; they were FORCED to give up their language in 1917, since they were being punished as spies and traitors to the U.S. Germanic groups like the Amish continue to reject assimilation. 2. Today’s immigrants are “poor, discriminated against, jobless, and living in squalid ghettos.” This is nothing new. Look at the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese on the West Coast, and the Jews (for whom the term/concept “ghetto” was invented). These groups were feared and attacked over the jobs issues. “No Irish Need Apply.” 3. “For centuries, a people and culture were inseparable from their property and territory.” This is patently incorrect. Territory is the least important component of the cultural mix. Language and religion are the most powerful, and to this day, Fort Wayne continues to be heavily Lutheran or German-Catholic, and Germanfest is the largest ethnic celebration in the city. The U.S. as a whole is still heavily English, in its language, legal system and overall philosophical underpinning.

    Regarding the Burmese, I suspect the technology (especially TV, internet, and cars) will help them integrate somewhat more rapidly than previous generations. I hope that they will also be less discriminated against than previous generations, as we are a much more open, global society today, but as with any ethnic group, there will be difficulties. Finally, I predict that by the 3rd generation, they will be as assimilated and accepted as any other historical immigrant group. John, what you are doing here is (among other things) important historical documentation that will be a useful record for future generations. The Burmese are another very colorul thread in the fabric of our community and I look forward to learning more about them as their influence expands. Especially the food….yum!

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