By Noa Dahan
When a person migrates from one country to another, they inevitably move into a new culture.
For any immigrant, this cultural shift is difficult to navigate, and there are two common reactions to this change. Some immigrants acculturate. Acculturation means entering a new place and getting used to a new culture, while keeping many customs from their person’s heritage intact. Other immigrants assimilate. Those who assimilate abandon their old customs and replace them with the new customs.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is often regarded as a place that has acculturated. Life in Chinatown does not resemble life in the rest of San Francisco. Its inhabitants clearly stay true to their heritage. Yet, I struggle with the notion that people in Chinatown have acculturated.
Acculturation means holding on to an old culture while being immersed in a new one. Chinatown, however, is not at all like most parts of San Francisco. It is void of any pastel-painted houses and banners advertising the arts. Instead, Chinatown features buildings painted red, gold and green, colors considered lucky in China. There are outdoor fruit and vegetable markets and old men play intense checkers games in the park; I’m serious, there was yelling involved.
I cannot buy the idea that the Chinese living in Chinatown today have acculturated because they have not really been dropped into the culture of the majority of San Francisco.
Acculturation, to me, looks like people celebrating the festivals of their home or decorating and cooking like they used to where they once lived. In Chinatown, however, every sign is in Chinese and English. People living there chat in their native language every day, and can walk down the street to a bakery that sells pastries like they used to get at home. Chinatown might be in San Francisco, but living there does not feel like living in most of San Francisco.
For most immigrants, it is really difficult to not lose one’s original culture when coming somewhere new. My dad, an Israeli immigrant, has lamented a few times over the years that he will never see my brother or me in uniform. Every Israeli child serves in the Israeli Defense Forces directly following high school, but as my brother and I are not Israeli citizens, we will not serve. To most people, this is a real stroke of luck considering the conflict in the Middle East.
My dad, however, grew up in a place where every parent got a distinct sense of pride when their children got their dog tags. Army service is a right of passage there. It is a major part of the culture, but something that my dad will never experience from the perspective of a parent. It was something that was once a given, that now isn’t. There are a lot of examples like this one. My dad no longer lives 20 minutes from multiple beaches and less than that from five falafel restaurants. The grocery stores in America do not sell ten different flavors of Bissli, a classic Israeli snack. As much as my dad tries to acculturate by hanging out with other Israelis and going to a synagogue like the one he grew up at, living in America is distinctly different from living in Israel.
I recognize that Chinatown is not China, and while as an outsider, I might not have been able to fully understand the differences, they inherently must have existed. However, I do not think that the Chinese people living in Chinatown have truly acculturated. The people there hear their native language everyday. They can walk down the street and get a pastry just like one in China. Their children are in school classes entirely of Chinese children. The hospital there even practices both modern and old Chinese medicine. While Chinatown may not be completely like China, a Chinese person living would not experience the same total culture upheaval that other immigrants do.
This is not to say I disapprove of Chinatown. I think it’s great that Chinese immigrants can move but still not lose their sense of home. I think it’s excellent that people born in Chinatown can understand their heritage and feel connected to it. I do not, however, feel that Chinatown is an example of acculturation because the culture in Chinatown is so different from the rest of San Francisco.