View From Lodi, CA:  Immigrants Are Just Not Assimilating

Years ago, I had a conversation with one of my Muslim students about his life in the United States.

Toward the end of our dialogue, I asked him what in life is most important to him.

"Islam," he replied.

"But if Islam is the most important thing to you, why did you move to a Christian country?" I asked.

My friend answered that he came to America for better economic and educational opportunities.

"In that case," I said, "economic opportunity and education are most important."

The world around us is changing faster than we could ever have imagined. To be ready for what lies ahead, we need to ask some tough questions and be prepared for answers that we may not like.

The Lodi News-Sentinel special report, "From Pakistan to Lodi," outlined many of the conflicts Muslims have when they come to the U.S. Readers gained valuable insights into what life in Lodi is like for a Pakistani immigrant.

But did the feature go deep enough? Why do immigrants come to America? What do they expect from us when they arrive? What sacrifices will they make to assimilate?

Let's return to the exchange I had with my friend.

If Christianity were the most important thing in my life, I wouldn't move to a Muslim country. But Muslims—and all other immigrants—who come to America know they are free to practice their faith and carry on with their customs—many of which are dramatically different from ours—under the protection of the U.S. Constitution.

That's our part of the bargain and we keep it.

But what immigrants do to assimilate into the U.S. is their option.

In his story, "Pakistani men adjust to life in Lodi," News-Sentinel reporter Nicholas Grudin wrote that, according to Raja Khan, about 80 percent of Lodi's Pakistanis are not fluent in English. Even though the Lodi Adult School is close to their Eastside residences, most do not attend.

Speaking as an English as a second language instructor at the Lodi Adult School, I am saddened that more effort isn't made. Anyone who doesn't learn English will never become part of the American fabric. And a non-English speaking person is doomed to low paying, dead-end jobs.

Khan states that for the 20 percent who do know English, "the transition into American culture is much easier." If that is the case, why isn't the other 80 percent trying harder? Did they come to America unwilling to learn English?

Actually, I can answer my own question. I have had dozens—if not hundreds—of conversations over the years wherein I encouraged non-English speaking Muslims to attend class. Most tell me that English is too challenging.

Whenever I hear excuses, I think of Austrian refugee and Academy Award winner Billy Wilder. When Wilder came to the U.S., he was penniless and spoke no English. Every night he lay on his bed, listened to the radio and learned 20 new English words.

"Most of the refugees had a secret hope that Hitler would be defeated and they could go back home," Wilder said. "I never had that hope. This is home. I had a clear-cut vision: This is where I am going to die."

Equally disappointing is the insistence of Muslim men on imposing their will on the women and female children of the family.

News-Sentinel reporter Julia Priest's story, "Lodi's Pakistani women struggle with clash of cultures," did an excellent job of highlighting this grave problem.

Very few Americans can imagine the restrictions placed on Muslim women. And without passing judgment on which method of child rearing is right or wrong, many certainly don't agree with the Muslim approach.

Young girls enrolled in our local high schools are forbidden to partake in social activities and have limited involvement in physical education classes. If Lodi had segregated schools, most of these girls would attend them.

What awaits these young women is an arranged marriage.

Nasim Khan, the former president of the Lodi Mosque, is quoted as saying that most arranged marriages "have worked out pretty well."

But Nasim Khan's assessment aside, for young women who have grown up in America, most would prefer to make their own choices.

Adult women stay at home. Many don't drive, and if they did, they wouldn't be allowed out. They are not encouraged to develop outside interests.

In fact, women are rarely allowed to pray side by side with their husbands. The second-class status afforded women is diametrically opposed to how Americans treat their partners.

I am also concerned that so many of the Pakistani men are described as "seasonal workers" who, when not employed, idle time away debating politics at the so-called "White House."

I doubt if gathering at ethnic enclaves promotes much pro-American feeling. A more likely scenario is that old prejudices and home country allegiances are reinforced.

Regardless of what is discussed when the men get together, everyone who comes to America has to hit the ground running. Each of us—including those who arrived only yesterday—has an obligation to work together to make Lodi a better place. If we don't have that as our mutual goal, our community suffers.

So with all the cultural differences between Christians and Muslims and Pakistanis and Americans, the question remains: "Why do they come to Lodi?"

The answer is tough to swallow. And it applies to all immigrants from all nationalities arriving in any state in the union.

In today's multicultural America, an immigrant can pick and chose. He can take what he wants and leave alone what he doesn't. What is taken is economic betterment and what's left alone is all things American.

The whole process is divisive and sad. So many yearn to come to America. They make their homes here. Many attain their goal of earning a better wage than they would in impoverished Pakistan. Some will live more years in the U.S. than they did in their native land.

But they never truly know anything about the country they so longed to migrate to.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.