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Immigrant Adaption to New Environments: A View from the Sending Country

Keijo Virtanen

During the last seventy years much has been written on immigration and assimilation of immigrants. Such interest is quite natural in view of the fact that by the end of the 1920's more than 35 million people had arrived in the United States as immigrants. The inward flow of immigrants had an enormous impact in other countries as well: e. g. Canada, Australia, England, and many countries in South America and western Europe.

Research on the subject of the adaptation and assimilation of immigrants in a new country has heretofore been almost completely in the hands of investigators in the receiving countries. Their interest has usually focused on the social impact of various immigrant groups, on the problems they cause, and on the methods employed to adapt them to the new society. At the same time, the immigrant has been seen as a stable phenomenon; that is, that immigrants are ready and willing to settle permanently immediately after their arrival. For the most part, motives for the departure of immigrants from the sending country have not been taken into account in assimilation studies. In the following pages, the approach is based on the point that during the period of the great emigration from Europe, the motives of immigrants to a new country varied among groups and were not identical to each other.1

The concept "assimilation" is used. differently by different writers in different contexts. A common method of studying immigration is to focus on the stages of adaptation, starting immediately after arrival to a new country. The assimilation process is thus said to be completed when the immigrant has fully accepted the new culture - not only its external features but also its values and norms. The immigrant is assimilated when he does not emphasize consciously his ethnic background any more but instead connects himself and his interests to his new homeland.2

Most assimilation research conducted in the receiving countries, especially in the United States, can be divided into three chronologically simultaneous groups.

1. Advocates of Anglo-Saxon culture thought that it was possible and also necessary for the immigrant to throw out the old language and the old habits in favor of the dominant Anglo-Saxon, Protestant core culture of America.3 In the period between the early 17th century and the 1880's, immigration to North America was mainly from the western and northern parts of Europe. This pattern of immigration gave a particular flavor to the notion of "Americanism".

2. A new interpretation was born in the beginning of this century when the departure area of European emigration moved to the southern and eastern parts of the continent. Rapid industrialization and urbanization in the United States resulted in the need for an abundance of cheap labor. At the same time, the development of communications and transportation made overseas traffic easier. In 1909 the term "melting pot" was first used in a play by Israel Zangwi.4 Zangwill was against the Anglo-Saxon culture; he claimed that the immigrants of various nationalities and races would assimilate into a single new entity in the new country. The American politician William Jennings Bryan expressed the new situation by saying that "great was the Greek, the Slav, the Celt, the Teuton," but even greater is the American who inherited all of their virtues.5

The wave of immigration from northern and eastern Europe caused a reaction in American society that culminated in the quota system of 1921 and 1924 designed to prevent the so-called "new immigration". Americans thought that these "new immigrants" would not be able to assimilate nearly as well as immigrants from western and northern Europe.6

3. Researchers on immigration had long taken for granted that various nationality groups would rapidly assimilate in the new environment after the first stage of adaptation. To their surprise they found, however, that immigrant communities were still alive decades after the great emigration period. During the last fifteen to twenty years the melting pot theory has been put aside; it has been replaced by a new term, "ethnicity", which refers to the maintenance and preservation of the original features of different groups.7 The titles of many studies indicate this change clearly.8 Rudolph Vecoli claims that since the 1970's the study of immigration and ethnic groups has been undergoing a renaissance.9

Among scholars who accept this new interpretation, however, opinions about the nature of the assimilation process differ. One view claims that immigrants try actively to preserve their original identity. Other scholars maintain that immigrants adopt the values of the new country as much as possible in order to make their children's life better, but that simultaneously, they keep features of their ethnic background. Between these two views is the one that concludes that in certain aspects of life assimilation happens readily while on others ethnic pluralism prevails. In this view, there is external and internal assimilation, the former of which is a faster process, and the latter so slow that it does not come to an end during the lifetime of the first generation.10

A feature similar to all of these conceptions is that they reject the melting pot theory; its only function was in the fact that it never existed.11 Today scholars of ethnicity do not think, as they did some decades ago, that assimilation begins when somebody decides to emigrate, or at the latest when the immigrant arrives in a new country.12

An assumption in all three of these approaches is that immigrants come over the ocean to settle permanently. From the point of view of studies on return migration, however, it must be said that some migrants, like most Finnish immigrants, for example, planned to make only a long working trip. They did not intend to settle permanently; on the contrary, they meant to come back after a couple of years. In general, this motive applies to all the European overseas emigration from the 1880s up to 1930.

Many scholars of immigration in receiving countries have forgotten this point, probably because they wanted to study what meaning the long-range assimilation process has in their home country. They have paid little attention to the so-called temporary labor theory. Henry Pratt Fairchild wrote in 1926 that many immigrants do not plan to settle permanently but only come to accumulate dollars and enjoy the high standard of living in America. He overlooked this unpleasant group by saying the sooner they return to their home countries the better, and correspondingly, that the fewer immigrants there were like these the better.13

Migration has been studied very little from the perspective of the returning immigrant. In 1960 Frank Thistlethwaite used the expression "the further face of the moon" when he outlined the field of migration research in general.14 The situation did not change much by 1973 when Rudolph Vecoli urged scholars to concentrate particularly on return migration.15 By 1980 only three monographs had been published on the history of overseas return migration.16

An awareness that, in spite of their motives at the time of departure, only one fifth of Finnish emigrants returned permanently home, can lead to new dimensions in discussions of assimilation and adaptation. Why has the ethnic identity of various groups survived so long? Had the immigrant any reason to try to adapt or assimilate into the new society since he planned to stay there only for a few years? Immigrants were generally egoistical people: the strengthening of their own economic situations guided their actions almost completely. A good example of immigration egoism is given by Arthur Thurner, who points out that the Finnish immigrants in the Copper Country of northern Michigan were so stubborn that they did not even want to learn the English language.17

Of course it was also necessary for the immigrant to find features to ease his stay in the new society. It is a well-known fact that different groups tended to settle in the same areas: Finns in the little towns and in the countryside of northern Michigan and Minnesota; Italians in the big cities of the eastern parts of the United States, etc. In these communities immigrants founded all kinds of organizations and enjoyed in other group activities. For adaptation and assimilation these had a double meaning.

On the one hand, these group activities eased the cultural shock that the immigrant faced after arrival. The immigrants roots were in completely different living conditions: the Finn, for example, came from the rural communities and from rural occupations; he was generally uneducated; his greatest asset was his physical strength. Immigrant communities helped him to get used to the new surroundings and to the new situation. But on the other hand, these communities were an obstacle to complete assimilation. The immigrant was isolated and his ability to create new contacts was severely limited because of language difficulties.

Over the years and decades as the immigrants became used to their new home, the desire to return to the old country faded; thus most Finnish immigrants to America stayed for the rest of their lives as immigrants. There were many reasons for this. One was the continuous flow of new immigrants up to the 1920s. The immigrant communities received new members; men sent tickets to their families, relatives, and friends. The fact that there was such an exceptionally large number of immigrants was a factor in hindering assimilation in the new environment; migration of Irish, Jews, and southern Europeans is proof of this.18 From the point of view of an individual immigrant, the positive impact of the immigrant community was after all in adapting, not in assimilating. There are clearly two aspects involved.

European immigrant groups were different from each other in many respects. Often the racial differences of various groups have been cited in discussions of the adaptation problem.19 These kinds of explanations are quite uncertain, however, even though the American society particularly has tended to divide the immigrant groups into stereotypes. For instance, Swedes and Finns were stiff but respectable sons of rural areas; Italians and Greeks were regarded as racially, socially, and religiously different from the mainstream of the American society.20

Speaking of adaptation and assimilation, a better explanation can be arrived at by comparing the motives for emigration among different groups; the extent of migration; the emigration periods; the settlement in different parts of the host countries; and the occupations predominant there. The concentration of southern Europeans in cities sharpened their image, and since their movement was temporary by nature, they were thought of as poorly adaptable compared, for instance, with Scandinavians who lived in the countryside and whose number was relatively small.

The host countries were not similar either, and this fact had a considerable impact on the immigrant's rooting. The political and social systems in the United States, Canada, Australia and South America were quite different from each other. Economic opportunities were better in North America than elsewhere, which explains the lower return rate from there. Even though emigration was mainly caused by economic factors, these factors were finally also very crucial in the adaptation and gradual assimilation of immigrants in spite of the fact that the motive for emigration had been a temporary working trip. A high standard of living compared with the conditions in the old country - as well connected as other factors - was a stronger motive than the plans for return, since the home country remained in the immigrant's mind very stable; he could not imagine that there had been any changes over the years.

During the period of mass immigration there were differences between the receiving countries. The United States quota system of the 1920s meant that only about 150,000 immigrants arrived annually; the figure previously had been more than a million for many years. The process of assimilation changed its nature with ending of the new flow of immigrants.21 The immigrant community got older, and at the same time children and grandchildren of immigrants became an important factor in assimilation. They went to English language schools; they were able to make contacts outside their own community; and they married persons from other ethnic groups, a factor that had been rare among the first generation of immigrants. In other words, they assimilated rapidly; this fact had a considerable impact in binding and connecting their parents to the American society. It has been stated that immigrants with families assimilated faster than unmarried persons.22

The development was not the same in those receiving countries in which immigration was heavy after the depression of the 1930s, especially after World War II. Australian immigration followed the pattern of the United States until the 1920's though in smaller scale. It was also very modest in the 1930's, but after 1945 it remained on a reasonably high and stable level: the number of immigrants has annually been about one percent of the country's total population. With respect to assimilation, England may now be in a situation similar to the United States fifty years ago. After World War II, England has received almost one million Africans and Asians; it has recently started to put limits to immigration.23

Even though the mass immigration to the United States ended half a century ago, we still can find many ethnic communities. Those groups whose immigration was heavy in numbers have especially been able to preserve their Italys and Irelands in the new environment. In addition to the above mentioned factors, new attitudes have had their impact; emphasizing one's ethnic background has been in fashion since the late 1960's,24 perhaps too emphatically in scholarly research.

From the experience of a small immigrant group like the Finns, we can generalize that the first generation did not assimilate if the criterion for assimilation is complete identification with a homogeneous American community. The immigrant adapted himself to the new conditions, but only his children became Americans. He himself was an immigrant with citizenship.

The Finnish immigrant belonged to three worlds: 1) to the immigrant world where Finnish language dominated and where all the activities were concentrated around Finnishness; 2) to the receiving country, the land of toiskieliset, which became more familiar over decades, especially to the children; and 3) to the old country, the home village, which he never could forget. Probably in most cases the immigrants were able to acquire a reasonably high standard of living in the new world. But it was only death that cut off their Finnishness, even though they had not seen their home country in decades.25 The immigrant community had taken good care of its ethnic identity.

Generally speaking, the adaptation of immigrants is a very central question in the study of immigration and ethnic history. Such study is difficult, since the subject matter consists of human actions, and since the individual immigrant cannot always even himself recognize his own motives. The results, therefore, cannot be exact or measurable. Another problem is that sources are far from complete. On the other hand, the immigration phenomenon involved large masses of people, which offers possibilities to make generalizations on the basis of similar features and motives. These two approaches supplement each other, and both are necessary in research.

1. See Keijo Virtanen, Settlement or Return: Finnish Emigrants 1880-1830. in the International Overseas Return Migration Movement (Forssa, 1979). Information on return migration and related problems is based on this work unless otherwise mentioned.

2. See for example, Lawrence Guy Brown, Immigration: Cultural Conflicts and Social Adjustments (New York, -1939), reprinted 1969, pp. 369-372; William Carlson Smith, Americans in the Making: the Natural History of the Assimilation of Immigrants (New York, 1939), reprinted 1970, pp. 114-139; and Charles Price, "The Study of Assimilation", in Migration, J. A. Jackson, ed. (Cambridge, 1969), pp. 181-183.

3. Price, p. 183.

4. Henry Pratt Fairchild, The Melting Pot Mistake (Boston, 1926), p. 9.

5. R. E. Park and E. W. Burgess, Introduction to the Science of Sociology (Chicago, 1924), p. 734.

6. Maldwyn Allen Jones, American Immigration (Chicago, 1960), pp. 276-277.

7. Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, "Introduction" in Ethnicity: Theory and Experience (Cambridge, 1975), pp. 1-26; Leonard Dinnerstein and David M. Reimers, Etnic Americans: A History of Immigration and Assimilation (New York, 1975), pp. 150-156.

8. See, for example, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Beyond tha Melting Pot (Cambridge), 1963; John Brown, The Un-melting Pot (Glasgow, 1970); Rudolph Vecoli "European Americans: From Immigrants to Ethnics" in The Reinterpretation of American History and Culture, Richard L. Watson, Jr. and William H. Cartwright, eds. (Washington, D. C., 1973; and Melvin G. Holli and Peter d' A. Jones, eds., The Ethnic Frontier (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1977).

9. Vecoli, p. 82.

10. See Vecoli, pp. 88-89; compare with Smith, pp. 125-1235.

11. Glazier and Moynihan, 1963.

12. Smith, p. 124.

13. Fairchild, p. 222.

14. Frank Thistlethwaite, "Migration from Europe Overseas in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, "in Rapports, vol V, Xl:e Congress International des Sciences Historiques (Uppsala, 1960), p. 40.

15. Vecoli, p. 88.

16. Theodore Saloutos, They Remember America: the Story of the Repatriated Greek-Americans (Berkeley, 1956); Betty Boyd Caroli, Italian Repatriation from the United States, 1900-1914 (New York, 1973); Keijo Virtanen, Settlement or Return.

17. Arthur W. Thurner, Calumet, Copper and People: the History of a Mining Community, 1864-1970 (Hancock, Michigan, 1974), p. 18.

18. Price, p. 186.

19. See, for example, John S. Lindberg, The Background of Swedish Emigration to the United States, an Economic and Sociological Study In the Dynamics of Migration (Minneapolis, 1930), pp. 252-253, note 2; Brown, pp. 371-372; Maurice R. Davie, World Immigration with Special Reference to the United States' (New York, 1936), pp. 556-563.

20. Leonard Dinnerstein and Fredric Cople Jahr, "Introduction" in The Aliens: A History of Ethnic Minorities in America (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1970), p. 7; see also Lindberg, pp. 252-253, footnote 2; and Brown, p. 221.

21. Price, p. 209.

22. Brown, pp. 253-256; Davie, pp. 490-491; Smith, pp. 376-386; and Dinnerstein and Reimers, pp. 146-150.

23. Price, p. 209.

24. On the reasons for emphasizing ethnic background, see Dinnerstein and Reimers, pp. 150-156.

25 John I. Kolehmainen, "Americanization and the Search for Identity", in Old Friends-Strong Ties, Vilho Niitemaa, et al., eds. (Vaasa, 1976), pp. 265-266.

Published in Finnish Americana, 4(1981), p. 104-112.

© Keijo Virtanen

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