How to Become an American

Some immigrants to America expect American culture to bend and change for them. Others embrace American culture, even if there are elements in it they may not like. If they do not, they tend to remain secreted away in ethnic enclaves where they don’t have to speak or write English or acknowledge American social ways. Of course their children adapt and become distant from them, and their grandchildren do not even understand what the old grandmother or grandfather is saying in that strange foreign tongue. There always are cultural interchanges in both directions, and I don’t just mean ethnic restaurants. Even so, some immigrants do not fully become Americans.

I’ve been going through some of my father’s oldest papers, from the late 1930s and early 1940s, when he was employed by the WPA, the Works Progress Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal “put people back to work” programs. My father’s role for the WPA was to do a historical survey of Russian and other Eastern Orthodox churches in America. His technical title was “translator.” Why? Because most of the church records had been written in Russian, Greek, Armenian, Georgian, or other languages he could read. He could talk in those languages directly to the priests, many of whom did not speak English well, or at all.

Unlike the many priests he contacted in his research, my father wrote all his notes in English. Why would Michael S. Vartanoff do that, when Russian would have been his most familiar language, the easiest one in which to take notes from a Russian church record? He had only lived in this country for fifteen years by then. Why did he bother to write his notes in English? Because he wanted to master English and fully become an American.

Mixed in among my father’s notes of names of priests and names of churches and addresses to visit and descriptions of church hierarchies are what might at first seem like doodles. On one page, he wrote “1917” over and over. A key year for someone whose entire life was changed by the Russian Revolution. But why was he writing it? To decide which style of number seven to use, with a serif, a line through it, or slanted. Numbers may be the same in the two alphabets, but treatment of them varies. Other pages show him writing his name over and over. Again, why? He was practicing how to write his name in English cursive.

By contrast, I can’t read or write Russian cursive, despite two lazy years of college Russian. Learning the Russian alphabet, the Cryillic alphabet, is not terribly difficult. Employing it on an everyday basis, when one’s native alphabet is different, is work. I never pushed myself to learn the cursive. My father pushed himself constantly to perfect his command of English. I found page after page of quotations copied down and then copied again and again. These were in English cursive. I found pages where he was practicing the shapes of English letters. Again and again, he practiced his name. Don’t we all do that as children, practice our signatures? Imagine having to learn to sign one’s name all over again in a totally different alphabet. My father was undaunted. He made the effort.

By the time I was growing up, my father’s command of English was so perfect that it was only when I took Russian in college that I found he had one grammatical fault to his English. Just one, and itself a minor one about the use of indefinite articles. Of course once I pointed it out, he never made that error again. Not that my father shook off all aspects of being a man of international background. His perspective on the world was global, not insular. How could it be otherwise when his youth was spent halfway around the world in a completely different culture, terrain, and political structure?

Another aspect of my father’s efforts to aculturize himself to America were his scrapbooks of newspaper and magazine articles. Although at the time there were many New York newspapers available in foreign languages, he read and saved articles published in English. He saved an occasional article in Russian, but the majority of his clippings were from English language newspapers. He wrote comments on the articles in English. He familiarized himself with our politics, our culture, our literature. He never lost interest in the fate of the Russian empire in which he grew up, but he read about world events in English, the language of his new country.

I have learned from going through my father’s papers that people who immigrate and want to integrate into a new culture work at it. They don’t stop working at it as years go by, settling for a small vocabulary and a poor command of grammar. They don’t take the easy way out and only talk to people who speak their native language; they also make friends with Americans who speak English. And they don’t expect others to learn their native language. They learn English as a second language, or a third or a fourth, as in my father’s case. They cross the cultural divide. I am in awe of my father’s persistence, his attention to detail, his ambition to achieve mastery in American English. Perhaps he had a leg up, because he’d had a good education in his native country. Or perhaps he had a signal lack, because he came here alone, with no family. Many immigrants with family members perhaps don’t feel a need to connect intimately to their new country. I think they’re missing out. They’re going to be the old grandparent whose words of wisdom nobody can understand.

What is curious is how many immigrants have the exceptional drive and daring to leave their homelands and come here for a better life, but how few of them push beyond the fringes of our society to become Americans. In reading my father’s papers, I now see the difference between immigrants who want to become Americans and who work at it, and those who don’t. The daily struggle to earn a living is irrelevant, by the way; my father lived through the Great Depression and had the same problems others did. Despite that, he still made himself an American, working hard at it long after he’d become a naturalized citizen.


  1. I did some research on this for my book. There is lots of evidence that many immigrants who appear not to be making an effort to assimilate want to assimilate more than anything but are locked out. This is especially true of visible minorities. They don’t have much education in their home countries and are only minimally literate in their native languages. They work with others who speak their native languages and have no real opportunity to learn or practice English on the job. But most of all, members of the dominant culture lock them out. As far as I can see from the research I’ve done most immigrants want to shed their native cultures and be 100% non-hyphenated Americans–but can’t be accepted. And the well-meaning efforts of multiculturalists only make things worse.

  2. How are they locked out? Give me details.

    If they go to a bank where the tellers are bilingual, they can choose to struggle through doing their business in English. If they work for a landscaper whose foreman is bilingual (also a standard situation), they can do the same. Just asking, “What is it in English?” is a start.

    I agree that lack of education in their home countries is an issue. One of the silliest things about bilingual signage is that many Hispanic immigrants can’t read their original language, either.

    • Let’s start with jobs. The only jobs for which they’re hired provide very little opportunity for learning English. They do learn but very slowly. How much of a chance to you have to speak when you’re gardening? That’s quite different from the kind of job your father had. Moreover most jobs and other opportunities are gotten through informal networks and they don’t have access to Anglo networks. Also, since you mention Hispanics, it turns out that they actually learn English FASTER than most other immigrant groups, which is hardly surprising since English is easy for Romance language speakers. By 18, only 1/3 of immigrants children are fluent in Spanish.

      Assimilation is a 2-way street consisting of acculturation and acceptance. They acculturate but aren’t accepted. And the difficulty of being accepted undermines motivation for acculturation. And, as I said, the multiculturalism industry only exascerbates their diffuculties because, in addition to being rejected by bigots they are wheedled and bribed by multiculturalists to retain their ancestral languages and cultures.

  3. I am beginning to suspect one of my father’s first jobs in this country was caring for horses. Not a lot of opportunity to learn English from them. I know for a fact he earned his keep a year later shoveling snow off the pathways at Worcester Tech, where he was an impoverished scholarship student. At that time, almost everybody going to that kind of college was likely to be both insular and well off. I wonder how much talking he was able to do with such people? He said he read the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover, and lived on spinach. Not a fun experience, but you could say it was an immersion English class, I suppose, because at least in the classroom he heard English a few hours a day.

    Some people take ESL courses, and others don’t. Some people only watch television in their native language and read in their native language, and others widen their horizons. A couple of decades ago in Maryland, Koreans as a group made the effort to learn how to pass the postal employee exam. As a result, they’re all over working for the post office and in other public servant positions. Stand outside any government office, federal, state, or local, and you’ll see any amazing variety of people in all conditions going to their jobs. My point still is that some immigrants make an exceptional effort to meld with American society, and some don’t.

    Does it work? Your argument about acceptance and acculturation is valid. Many native social groups don’t want any newcomers, flat out. Show up with a foreign accent, and you’re even less accepted, but a “foreign accent” might be defined locally as having a non-Maine accent, or a non-West Virginia accent, not just a non-American-born accent. In my opinion, it’s still better to try to be a full-fledged citizen of where you now live. If nothing else, it makes you less crippled, regardless of the habits of the people around you. Imagine living in a country for years and not knowing how to speak the main language. Or read it. Or write it. You might as well bind your feet.

    • I don’t doubt that some make extraordinary efforts. But from what I’ve seen it’s usually immigrants who want to assimilate and members of the dominant population that won’t let them–even as they say, and believe, that immigrants want to “keep to themselves.”

      I’m sending you a copy of my book, dang it!

  4. I already have two copies of your book, remember? I bought one, and then you gave me one.

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