Most of us are familiar with the metaphor for America as a “melting pot.” People from countries all over the world come together here to form one nation where we are all Americans. This metaphor implies that during that process, our diverse backgrounds, cultures, and religions melt away as we form a homogeneous American stew.
America was founded by a group of Europeans who pushed out the natives of the New World so that they could establish their own society. With an already pre-determined idea of what an American should be, immigrants by the Nineteenth Century were subjected to nativism, the fear of foreign ideas and influence in favor of those of the “native” population. Immigrants were thought to have radical ideas that were influenced by foreign thought and foreign rulers. Every group of people that arrives in America has to undergo an “Americanization” process. This process consists basically of assimilation into mainstream American culture.
The metaphor of the melting pot has shifted. America is now to be considered a “tossed salad.” This means that components of our racial, religious, and cultural heritage remain intact. We identify with our groups outside of being just plain American. We are Mexican-American, African-America, Muslim-American, Italian-American, Asian-American, and the list goes on.
Immigrants play a balancing game. They struggle with figuring out what parts of their culture to keep and which should be discarded in favor of assimilating with American practices. Even though, in theory, we celebrate the diversity within America, there is an othering that takes place for immigrants who do not fully assimilate.
In Edwidge Danticat’s short story “Caroline’s Wedding,” discussed up some of these issues. Grace and her parents are immigrants from Haiti, with her younger sister being the exception having been born on American soil. Much of the tension within the family stems from the difficulties of being immigrants and the varying levels of assimilation to American culture.
Ma has much stronger ties to her Haitian culture and is reluctant to let those go. Meanwhile, she has trouble adapting to the behavior of her daughters, which is much more “Americanized.” The main point of contention is Caroline’s engagement to Eric, a Jamaican. She disapproves that Eric and his parents have not come to her to ask for Caroline’s hand in marriage. Ma is discontented that the old Haitian ways are not practiced. “When we were children, whenever we rejected symbols of Haitian culture, Ma used to excuse us with great embarrassment and say, ‘You know, they are American.’”
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is dedicated to addressing issues relating to immigration. Their program, Kitchen Conversations, aims to allow people to articulate their views about immigration and engage in a dialogue. These facilitated discussions allow a space where people can share, with other and maybe even themselves, their opinions and beliefs and be heard, maybe for the first time. Facilitators are there to challenge participants to evaluate their opinions and examine the origins of these notions.
“’If they insist on living all together with other Chinese people, they’ll never learn English. If they don’t want to be part of us, why did they come?’” This outburst came from an exasperated participant in a Kitchen Conversation. The idea that the lack of assimilation is a sign of lack of wanting to be in America, ability to be a loyal citizen, and devotion to the ideas in the Constitution. Yet when questioned about what assimilation means, many participants disagree. What does it mean to be truly American? Grace grew up in America along with her sister, but what makes her sister so much more American than her? Grace only felt validated once she received her naturalization papers. “I felt like an indentured servant who had finally been allowed to join the family.”
Immigrants struggle to merge two identities. With America’s immigration population is projected to grow staggeringly by 2050, we need to start to challenge our notions about immigrants and promote tolerance. What it means to be “American” is changing and maybe it’s time we start to truly embrace America as a tossed salad.
 Higham, “Patterns,” 4.
 Ewidge Danticat, “Caroline’s Wedding,” in Krik? Krak!, INew York: Vintage Books, 1996), 215.
 Ruth J. Abram, “Kitchen Conversations: Democracy in Action at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum,” The Public Historian 29, No. 1 (Winter 2007), 60.
 “Kitchen Conversations,” 72.
 “Caroline’s Wedding,” 214.
 Jeffrey S. Passel and D’vera Cohn, “U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050,” Pew Research Center, http://www.pewhispanic.org/2008/02/11/us-population-projections-2005-2050/ (accessed February 4, 2014).