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First Generation
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It seems that the first generation born in America of parents from other countries wanted so much to be American that they stopped speaking the "old" language and even changed their last names to fit in better.

In my grandparents' generation, that was true. I wonder when it became a badge of identity and rebellion to refuse to speak english, to live in ethnic enclaves and to be a hyphenated American (if at all). I know people of a particular ethnicity whose ancestors came to this country 5 generations ago. They settled in small communities with well-defined boundaries, married within the community, spoke only the "home" language. To this day their descendants cannot speak English (we have to provide translators) and all legal documents have to be provided in that other language, by law.

There's something wrong with this picture. They would yell bloody murder if the laws of their homeland were applied to them, if access to education and medicine mirrored that of the old country--but they don't want to be American. Their school are private schools run by members of the community with lessons in their own language, focusing on the history of the homeland and a basic grounding in their language and customs as the curriculum. The shops and services are established within the community and serve the community members. There is very little contact with the outside and much of the economy is a barter one.

Only a few of the older men of the community speak both languages and they serve as the interface with public agencies, such as the one I work for, but it is clear that their mores and values are those of their community. Sometimes it makes working with them difficult, since they often resist the fact that a woman can be in a position of authority. Talking to them is like going back 80 to 100 years in time; the referents to conversational topics are all turn of the century. And I don't mean the 21st century.

I feel guilty about my feelings on the subject, as though I were betraying my liberal roots. Feelings aside, I believe they should learn English and participate in the current society if they are going to be beneficiaries of its laws and infrastructure. It's not necessary to lose your roots just because you learn another language and become conversant with events since World War I. A common language binds us together, and as the Indian subcontinent has discovered, lack of a common language is a major divisive force.

But my friend, who is a member of this community, says I don't understand. These people don't want roots in the past; they want continuity with and identity with the past. And the only way they can maintain total congruence with their culture is to reject all that is foreign. She argues they have a right to do that.

I guess so. I guess they owe nothing to the country in which they reside, so long as they pay income tax and bother no one.

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