Immigrant Assimilation

Food for Thought

Sau Voi is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, banh mi sandwich shops in New York. I believe it’s been around since the 90s. The atmosphere is decidedly foreign as I know practically nothing about Vietnamease culture. Half of the store is filled with CDs and DVDs of Vietnamease music and movies. Every immigrant community has stores like this in New York. Sunrise Mart is a Japanese equivalent which also carries Japanese-langauge music and videos.

In my observation, some immigrants, particularly refugees who escaped their home countries, try to survive by offering what they already know, instead of learning new skills here. For them, learning English and about American culture isn’t particularly interesting because what motivated them to come here wasn’t their enthusiasm for America. They prefer staying in their own communities. New York City makes this easier as there are many immigrant communities.

An interesting comparison is Michael Bao Huynh, the Vietnamease chef/restaurateur who opened over 30 restaurants in New York including Baoguette, Baorrito, and Mikey’s Burger, all of which are now defunct. He didn’t simply offer what he brought from Vietnam. He enthusiastically embraced the American culture and figured out what American people love, which is typically done by the children of immigrants.

We often think of the latter as the positive model for immigrants but for the Americans curious of foreign cultures, the former is more valuable since what they offer is authentic. Michael Bao’s Baoguette, for instance, was not only translated but rewritten in American language. Much of the cultural content was lost in that reinterpretation which causes confusion for those who are eager to learn about Vietnamease culture. It’s like the difference between Seven Samurai and its American remake, The Magnificent Seven.

Many other countries like France expect their immigrants to assimilate, but in doing so, they miss a valuable intermediate stage where they could be exposed to the authentic versions of the foreign cultures. The fact that Sau Voi still exists but Baoguette doesn’t tells us that New Yorkers don’t need Hollywood remakes to enjoy foreign cultures.