How New Yorkers Assimilate Foreign Cultures

Food for Thought

“Come check out Staten Island; it needs some love,” said @foodandfootprints in their latest video about Sri Lankan restaurants. I had no idea there was a Sri Lankan community there. My wife and I took the ferry and walked from the ferry terminal to one of the restaurants featured in the video. Unlike Queens, Staten Island is mostly residential, so, the visual signs of ethnic communities are rather subtle. At around noon on Sunday, the place was packed. The friendly lady behind the counter was busy making recommendations and giving free samples to everyone. The food was excellent; for details, watch Greg and Jumi’s latest video.

One of the studies I read about immigration explained why the immigrants in New York are the happiest compared to those in other major cities around the world: because they were not pressured to assimilate. The reality of the matter is that New Yorkers couldn’t put pressure on any immigrant groups even if they wanted to, because there is no cultural norm to which immigrants can conform. New York City is missing the center, the universal; it’s decentered/deconstructed. The city is not growing like a tree but like grass.

To be sure, white people still hold the greatest power in the city, but within the white European cultures, there is a great diversity too. It’s not like Paris where becoming “French” can be palpably felt, heard, seen, and even tasted. Even if the mayor of New York commanded the immigrants to assimilate, nobody would have a clue what that would mean in practice.

But how does this city maintain a modicum of cohesion if every community is left on its own, segregated from the rest? Part of it is achieved by people like Greg and Jumi who make deliberate attempts to understand and integrate the ethnic cultures into their own. This assimilation in the opposite direction is largely missing in other cities because those who hold the dominant cultural position expect the minority cultures to approach them, not the other way around. In cities like Paris, assimilation takes place only one way. In New York, it happens both ways because nobody assumes the universal position. New Yorkers are used to meeting each other halfway.