April 11, 2021
Opinions and Commentary

Reconciling Identity and Integration

History is replete with the migration of humans or diaspora-like events. In history, migration was often caused my seasonal changes or as a means of survival, such as of the nomads who, literally, migrated to areas that offered viable resources such as food and water.
Once the resources were depleted, the nomads migrated further.  Certain migration was prompted by disease such as the black plague in the middle ages.  In modern times, migration or diaspora were more often caused by political, religious or social reasons.  In these cases, the migration was forced—groups of people were displaced.  One phase of displacement is said to have occurred around 300-500 AD of various Germanic and Slavic tribes.

Other major diasporas happened as well.  Jews were forced to resettle outside of Jerusalem as early as in the year 135 after a failed Jewish revolt against the Roman empire.  These Jews were forced to resettle all over Europe and in Asia Minor, for example.  The term Diaspora literally means, “a scattering or sowing of seeds” and refers to any people or ethnic population forced or induced to leave their traditional ethnic homelands being dispersed throughout other parts of the world.  After Columbus’ discovery of America, Europeans began emigrating from their homelands—many in search of a “better” life, some to escape religious persecution.  Some hundred years later, Europeans sought slaves in Africa and brought them to America.  The twentieth century continued to see massive ethnic refugee crises, due to war and the rise of nationalism, fascism, communism and racism as well as from natural disasters and economic collapse.  Many who managed to survive the migration resettled in the United States.

America is a land of immigrants.  Although there are obvious problems regarding immigration, for the displaced, it is still one of the safest havens for the beginning of a new life.  Today, when asking an average American, “what is your nationality?” most will give you an inventory of their ethnic ancestry such as, “I am part Polish, Scottish, French, Italian, and Native American”.  It is true that the average American is now simply a collection of merged ethnicities.  At the same time, most are happy to refer to themselves as simply “American”. Americans have created a unique culture of their own—an American culture.

That Americans are proud to be American is not an understatement.  Their ancestors chose America for resettlement.  For the most part, differing nationalities live peacefully with one another.  Of course those that were forced to resettle in America, such as the African-American population have suffered a great deal and are only now coming to terms with their history.   Still, it is fair to state that most Americans wanted to become part of the New World and thus did not, perhaps, emphasize the importance of ethnicity.  Obviously, our predicament is quite different.  None of us chose to leave our homeland.  It is impossible to survive in Chinland as long as the Burmese regime is in power.  Hence, we are not willing to forgo our culture, languages, traditions, and most of all, our ethnic identities!

Dr. Sui Khar’s recent article asks, “Ethnic Nationalities or Who are we?”  The title is rhetorical.  However, do we really know who we are?  And if in fact we are unsure, how can we possibly maintain our identities?  First, what exactly is an ethnic group?  It has been contended that ethnicity is based primarily on genetics.  That is, an ethnic group is defined by the fact that its members only procreate with each other. Whether it is important to maintain ones’ ethnic purity is not for me to argue.  I would like to state, however, that ethnicity may also refer to a shared culture, language, and identity.  Realistically, some Zo already have and will continue to merge with other ethnic groups.  Still, maintaining ethnic pride and identity is a real possibility given that you understand your ethnicity and commit to keeping it alive. Keeping your culture and identity is your choice. Culture and language are not “stagnant”.  Culture and language are alive—they are the living breathing artifacts of an ethnic identity.  They have to be nurtured and cared for—otherwise they will slowly disappear.

Anthropologists might argue that ethnic merging is a reality that is unavoidable.  People of differing ethnic origins living in close proximity, will eventually merge.  However, there are some examples of ethnic groups that have successfully maintained their ethnic identities.  The Jews around the world, for example, define themselves as such and collectively share a culture, a language, customs and traditions. The same may be said for other ethnic groups such as the Chinese. In America, a land of immigrants, we have Chinatown and Little Italy.  We do not have Polishville or Malaysia town.  The Chinese and the Italians simply decided to maintain their tradition. They are proud of their ancestry, culture, language and traditions.  Hence, they maintained their tradition even while living in other—host countries.  The Polish and the Malaysians did not maintain their own culture and merged with their host countries.  The reasons may be numerous, nonetheless, maintaining ones identity is a choice.

Many of the above mentioned migrations occurred voluntarily.  In our case, however, we were forced to leave our beloved Chin Hills because of the Burmese regime.  They may have forced the Zo (Chin) to leave the Chin Hills, but they cannot steal or destroy our identity. Most Americans speak just one language, English.  And although they claim to be a number of other ethnicities, most do not know those languages nor have a real notion of the cultures.  There must be a desperate emphasis on avoiding this fate for our subsequent generations.  That is to say, the Zo or Chin did not choose to resettle in Norway or Australia, they were forced to leave their homeland.  There is hope that one day, all of us may return to our homeland and freely practice our traditions and speak our languages.  Hence, we must maintain our identity until that day comes.

There is a lot of speculation about how to reconcile maintaining tradition while integrating into a new society. In my experience, the first two generations usually suffer a great deal from immigration.  Abraham Maslow, a renowned sociologist, argues that a sense of belonging is a “need” just above the need for food, shelter and safety.  The first generation usually spends its time working, trying to survive in their new homeland.  The second generation is forced to integrate by attending school. The first generation does not practice the maintaining of its ethnic identity and does not learn the language and culture of its host.  They do not engage with their children nor help them navigate through life in their new society.  The second generation, in an attempt to have a sense of belonging, will detach from the first generation.  Yet, the second generation will most likely never really psychologically belong to its host country.

In the worst case scenario, the second and third generation will create a subculture. Janokwoski (1992) argues, for example, that first generation Latinos do not integrate into American society, they do not learn the language nor participate in normative American culture.  Their children stop speaking Spanish yet do not integrate with Americans and thus seek a safe haven—a group where they have a sense of belonging.  A gang may just be such a group.  Gangs, like all societies, have their own culture, tradition, language and identities—this is what all human beings seek.  Janokwoski argues that had their parents maintained their traditions and at the same time, integrated into American society, their children would not have elected to attach themselves to a gang subculture. By no means am I contending that our second generation will elect a life of crime or become members of a gang.

I am simply emphasizing the importance of maintaining identity while successfully integrating into our new societies.  If we do not recognize the importance of this, we will face a plethora of problems with our subsequent generations.  I can give you some examples of this.  When I moved to Germany, I decided to enroll in a Korean language course—I wanted to make German friends.  But when I got there, it was full of Koreans. I learned that many Koreans came to Germany in the 1960s to work in the factories.  They had children in Germany and did not maintain their language and tradition.  The second generation grew-up without a real identity.  They did not feel “German” nor understood what it meant to be Korean. Instead of pursuing degrees in medicine or engineering, they were studying Korean—something they should have learned from their parents.  The world needs intellectuals not individuals who are pre-occupied with basic notions about themselves.  If you do not understand who you are and where you came from, how can you know where to go in the future?

My parents made the same mistake as the above mentioned Koreans.   My father is Sizang; my mother is German.  I was born in Germany. When I was a child, my parents separated. My sister and I chose to live with our father.  Unfortunately, he spent most of his time working to support his two daughters—as a single parent. At that time, there were very few Zo (Chin) in America. We grew-up in isolation. When the Chin came, years later, we did not know how to interact with them.  We did not speak Sizang nor were accustomed to long get-togethers or fellowships. In the Chin Hills, language, culture, tradition and a sense of identity are assumed naturally, but beyond Chinland, there are no guarantees of their survival.  I was lost—just like those Korean students. I went to Asia to search for my roots.  I realized I am not 100% Asian.  Then I moved to Germany to see if I can find my identity there.  I have not.  Frankly I still do not understand and know my true identity.  Whereas I have accepted my fate, you have a choice about yours and your children’s. I believe I could have felt 100% Zo had I learned the language and practiced the culture.

The lesson is simple and clear.  Ethnicity is defined in a number of ways, the most important being identity, language, and culture.  It is imperative that you maintain these while resettling outside the Chin Hills.  At the same time, it is equally important to integrate into your host country to protect our future generation and to preserve everything that is Zo and/or Chin.  By understanding your hosts and the experiences of the second and subsequent generations, you will maintain open communication and thus convey dignity and self-respect.  One day, then, in our lifetime or theirs, they can then employ the self-determination so often campaigned for by our leaders!

* Bianca Son (Mang Khan Cing) is one of the Chin Forum’s Management Body Members (www.chinforum.org). This article “Reconciling Identity and Integration” is based on the presentation she had made during the Chin Forum tour to the Chin Communities in Europe (Denmark, Germany and Norway) in July 2006.


Ethnic Nationalities or who are we? Chin National Journal by Dr. Sui Khar (Vol. 1/06)

Islands in the Street: Gangs and American Urban Society by Martin Sanchez Jankowski (Paperback – Jan 8, 1992)

Toward a Psychology of Being, 3rd Edition by Abraham H. Maslow (Hardcover – Nov 9, 1998

By Bianca Son (Mang Khan Cing)*

Chinland Guardian

Related Posts