From melting pot to salad bowl

Aug 29, 2013, 03:44 IST | Hemal Ashar

Talk on religious diversity in USA highlights immigration, retaining identity and still blending in

The US Consulate at Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) was in wind down mode recently, on a late Monday evening. Feverish morning activity over, it was time for the Consulate’s Mumbai Mondays series. Here, speakers talk about a particular topic one Monday every month, with the talk open to the public. This particular talk centred on religious diversity in the United States and was formally titled: ‘Diversity in the USA: The American Salad Bowl’. Vice-Consul Jessica Kania was the speaker.Jessica lives in New Jersey, an announcement that was greeted by smiles from the small group of persons, which comprised the audience, as there is such a heavy concentration of Indians in New Jersey (approximately one hour away from New York). 

Jessica started by introducing herself as a “Second generation US citizen, which means that my parents were born in the USA but my grandparents were not.” With that opening statement, Jessica at once established the mixed nature of USA, a true immigrant destination -- the promised land so to speak, where people from everywhere arrived to seek opportunity and a better life. They met, married, had children contributing to the diverse nature of this land. Jessica stated she had an inter-faith marriage, she is Jewish while her husband is Catholic.

Story line: The Mira Nair film The Namesake tells the story of the first-generation son of Indian immigrants in the US and how he tries to make a place for himself amidst the cultural clashes he encounters in and out of their home

Adding a distinct interactive flavour to the talk, Jessica began by telling her audience to talk to the person nearest to them and ask about what they have in common. A hum filled the room as strangers turned to each other and exchanged details.

Kania believe this? Jessica Kania speaks. Pics/Nimesh Dave

Approximately 10 minutes later, Jessica asked a few persons what they learnt about the one sitting close to them, what do they have in common with them. Some of the answers were stock answers like gender, where they live, what people do -- two gentlemen raised some laughs as they answered, “We both found out that we were immigrants to Mumbai. We both are bachelors. We love the US library, here.”

Jessica explained that the exercise was meant to show that diversity is not just on a first level or about surface commonalities. She then went on to illustrate the dictionary definition of diversity through slides, explaining why diversity is seen as something positive. Now that surface facts were established, such as that there is so much religious and cultural diversity in the USA, Jessica said it was time to “Look at it on a deeper level. What is the outreach to different groups like in the country?”

Picture Proof: Showing up on graphs

Jessica’s strongest point came when she explained in gastronomic terms the changing nature of the concept of diversity in the USA. The perception of diversity and its interpretation has undergone or is in the process of undergoing a change. Jessica claimed the country first had the old idea of the USA being a melting pot.

“It meant essentially that as an immigrant you are supposed to blend in America. When fitting in, you were expected to lose a part of your identity to blend in. Now, we have the salad bowl concept. In this, you are supposed to keep your identity, people do not want or feel the need to lose it in order to blend in. That’s the idea of the salad bowl.”

Talk the talk: The interactive session

Jessica used figures to illustrate the huge salad bowl that the USA is right now. “Figures show that 1 in 10 Americans were not born in the USA, currently, that certainly blows your mind, when you think how it impacts the culture,” said Jessica, adding, “the country continues to be the fastest growing in terms of immigration with the most immigrants coming in from Asia.”

Religious diversity showed up in a slide show, with Jessica illustrating different places of worship in the USA -- church, mosque, temple, synagogue, Buddhist temple. There were questions on some controversies like a proposed mosque at Ground Zero (site of the 9/11 World Trade Center) attacks. Jessica also mentioned a controversy about a temple, which was to be built at a particular site in the US. There was some apprehension in the community because of this, a lot of scepticism, “but there was dialogue and that’s when you know you are in the right direction. When people are willing to listen,” she said.

Jessica emphasized that diversity is not just surface, but permeates all strata. “You get a dosa now in the Google office (USA) cafeteria,” she said to laughs. Then, we need to see that diversity is not just racial but can be that of gender like, women in the Congress for example. Her Congress example evoked discussion about the 33 per cent reservation for women in India. Jessica stated that there were two sides of the quota debate. Questions and opinions flew back and forth, about whether quotas mean that something is being forced on people, rather than allowing a natural progression.

While the discussion was freewheeling and interactive, and Jessica could certainly hold the audience interest, when she was asked whether she ever felt discriminated against, even subtly in the countries she worked in, the diplomat in her surfaced and she quickly said she had not. Because of time constraints, some other prickly questions also could not be allowed: such as, the West feeling that there is too much concession, allowances, opportunities being given to immigrants and not enough totheir own.

While diversity may certainly be a good thing, has life in the USA post 9/11 changed for a certain set of people? Do immigrants and others not take advantage of the generosity and freedom of this land of the free, like some people feel? What do Americans think when they see those living in the US holding signs like: ‘Down with America’, do they feel that those who have arrived in the country need to be grateful or at least loyal to their new homeland? There is certainly a feeling in the West that those who move to their countries must “mix in” or assimilate.

While the “salad bowl” concept may have now surfaced, the “melting pot” concept has in no way been relegated to the inner recesses of the crockery cupboard, so to speak. Yet, these points were a little like vinegar in a salad dressing, bitter; and maybe this was not the time (short discussion) or the place (a Consulate) where they could be addressed. 

1. Diversity is not just on the surface but on deeper levels
2. In the USA, current figures show one in 10 persons have not been born in the country.
3. The Salad Bowl concept is taking precedence over the Melting Pot concept
4. The new idea is to retain or keep your identity, not lose it as an immigrant
5. Diversity is not just about race, it is about gender too and important in all strata of society

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