Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Immigrant narrative / culture

The immigrant narrative is the central story of the American experience, one whose norms define the variations in our multicultural landscape, even when the immigrant narrative is not operative as with minority groups like Native Americans, African Americans, and (to some degree) Mexican Americans.

The immigrant narrative differs most from the minority narrative in the former's voluntary nature. In brief, minority ethnic groups like Native American Indians and African Americans (and Mexican Americans in the U.S. Southwest) come into contact with the USA's dominant culture involuntarily, making them resistant to assimilation. In contrast, immigrant groups by voluntarily coming to the USA implicitly subscribe to assimilation to its dominant culture.  

from American Immigrant Literature: Objective 2. Dynamics, variations, and stages of the immigrant narrative.


o No single text tells the whole story of immigration, but the larger narrative is always implicit.

o Most Americans are broadly conscious of the immigrant narrative’s prominent features and values.

o Examples with variations are provided by any ethnic group whose people write about move and adapting to America: Irish, Italians, Chinese, Salvadorans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Japanese, Ukrainians, modern Nigerians, Vietnamese, Germans, Hindu, Pakistani . . . a list too numerous and growing ever to complete!

o Two ethnic groups do not fit the immigrant story: African Americans and Native Americans. (obj. 4 on minority)


2a. Essential terms: Assimilation, melting pot, and "model minority"

Assimilation and the melting pot:

o To assimilate means to become similar. The term loosely describes a process by which immigrants "become American."

o Ethnic or cultural differences diminish or disappear through intermarriage, use of a common language, and shared institutions, opportunity, or ideology.

o Assimilation can work both ways: the dominant culture sometimes absorbs practices and products brought by immigrants or other ethnic groups, such as values, language, food, etc.

o The primary metaphor for assimilation has been "the melting pot." That is, the American experience of public schools, intermarriage, common language and ideology mix and "melt" our differences as in a great cooking vessel. The product of the melting pot is "the new American" who bears no marks of ethnic or tribal identification.


o Assimilation is suspect to many multicultural scholars and activists because it erases difference rather than celebrating difference.

o The melting pot metaphor may be limited where racial minorities are considered, leading to alternative metaphors like “the rainbow,” “quilt,” or "salad bowl."


2b. The “Model Minority label is often applied to an ascendant immigrant group that exemplifies ideals implicit in the immigrant narrative. (“Minority” is used loosely in popular speech, journalism, and government.)

o A century ago Jewish immigrants were the “model minority” immigrant group, as their children became well-educated professionals. Asian Americans now fit this pattern.

o These “ideal immigrants” take advantage of economic and educational opportunities (often associated with music, math, and medicine).

o Assimilation? Such groups may assimilate economically and educationally while maintaining ethnic identity in religion and ethnic customs (helping family stability). Such resistance to assimilation imitates the dominant culture (obj. 4).

o “Model minorities” are often contrasted with true minority groups like African and Native Americans—so-called “problem minorities”—in arguments against affirmative action. (“Model minority” concept confuses race / ethnicity with class / history.)

o An identifying distinction between immigrants and minorities is that immigrants will often resist identification with true minorities, identifying instead with the dominant culture.


2c. Basic stages of the Immigrant Narrative

 Stage 1: Leave the Old World (“traditional societies” in Europe, Asia, or Latin America).

 Stage 2: Journey to the New World (here, the USA & modern culture)

 Stage 3: Shock, resistance, exploitation, and discrimination (immigrant experience here overlaps with or resembles the minority experience)

 Stage 4: Assimilation to dominant American culture and loss of ethnic identity (departs or differs from minority experience)

 Stage 5: Rediscovery or reassertion of ethnic identity (usu. only partial)

Is the immigrant narrative comparable to a conversion experience?


2d. Character by generation. What are standard identities for distinct generation? (These numbers aren’t fixed—variations occur in every family’s story)

first-generation: “heroic” but “clueless”

 second-generation: “divided” between traditional identities of homeland or ethnic group and modern identity of assimilated American; bi-cultural and bi-lingual

 third generation: “assimilated” (Maria becomes Kristen, Jiang becomes Kevin [most popular Chinese-American boy's name])


2e. Narrator or viewpoint: Who writes the immigrant narrative?

o First-generation? (rare, except among English-speaking peoples)

o Second-generation? (standard: children of immigrants learn English, usually in public schools, and use the language to explore conflicts between ethnic and mainstream identities)


2f. Setting(s): Where does the immigrant narrative take place?

o Homeland? Journey? America? Return to homeland?


2g. How much does the Immigrant Narrative overlap or align with the American Dream narrative? Are they one and the same, or simply co-formal? In what ways are they potentially distinct from each other? What values (such as individualism, aspiration, modernization) do they share?