The American Melting Pot versus the European Salad Bowl

Rodney Johnson |

I recently took a car service from the outskirts of Washington, DC to Baltimore. Along the way, I struck up a conversation with the driver, who was from Uganda. After the weather and other pleasantries, the topics turned to social issues of the day, eventually landing on marriage. We discussed the benefits of a great marriage, and how finding the right partner can be a struggle.

He then mentioned how some people get “postal maids,” and that’s where things got interesting. I asked if he meant “mail-order brides,” which made him laugh as he corrected himself.

Oddly enough, I had something to contribute on this topic.

I know a gentleman who, while not exactly ordering a bride from a catalog, did travel to the Philippines and return married. The husband is middle-aged and heavy set, while his bride is young and thin. It fits all the bad stereotypes that cross your mind, except for one.

After years of marriage, they’re still happy.

They each got what they wanted out of the relationship. After his wife passed, this very nice, financially stable man from a small town in Texas wanted companionship. He’s not a barfly, and had limited ways of meeting people. The bride wanted a better life for herself than was possible on the islands, and also wanted the ability to earn money she could send home to her family.

It wasn’t a business transaction. It was more like a mutual partnership, from which their relationship grew and provided for them as a whole.

My question about such a relationship was always the same. What happens next? So far, the two of them are very happy, but will she eventually want something more, or different?

This is where my driver had something to offer.

The Worried Ugandan

Recently, an older Ugandan man had come to him with a problem.

The gentleman’s Ugandan wife, whom he’d recently brought over from the homeland, was behaving in ways that troubled him. When my driver asked what the problem was, the older gentleman replied, “She goes to happy hour!” He said the last two words as if they were a dark, evil place, which made my driver laugh out loud.

The older Ugandan was quite worried. Even though his wife was cleaning the home, cooking all of the meals, generally keeping house, and only going to the dreaded happy hour when he wasn’t home, it was still a source of concern.

My driver tried to comfort the man, pointing out that perhaps his life was actually better because his wife had a social group where she could talk about many things that would probably bore him to tears.

But the older gentleman was having none of it. The idea of his content Ugandan wife joining in activities like happy hour filled him with dread. As my driver explained, this was a common problem among Ugandan men who bring over wives.

Apparently the social norms call for very conservative, subordinate behavior in his home country. Once the women become acclimated to life in America, they start venturing out, making decisions, and doing crazy things like going to happy hour.

When he finished his story, I told him I could empathize with his friend, since it might seem like he was losing a bit of his culture.

But I am beyond happy that his friend’s wife, as well as many others from Uganda who end up in the US, eventually join in our social norms. It is the social integration of many groups into the American way of life that gives us strength, in stark contrast to the separation of groups in Europe.

The Melting Pot vs. The Salad Bowl

In October 2005, just a few months after the terrorist bombing in London, we wrote about the American Melting Pot versus the European Salad Bowl. The point being that, in the US, within a couple of generations immigrants by and large join the culture, watching football on Sundays and going to happy hour.

In Europe, even several generations after immigrating, migrant families remain segregated from mainstream society, living in communities that cling to the ways of their ancestral homelands.

The difference in outcomes is obvious.

One infuses our society with new vigor, bringing new life and ideas to the table, rewarding participants with upward mobility. The other serves as a constant threat, chipping away at what already exists and holding back those who choose not to participate.

As I left the car that day, I couldn’t help but be thankful that for the most part, Americans provide acceptance and opportunity to those who reach our shores. I’m also glad that, so far, most who arrive from foreign lands are simply looking for opportunities to build their lives in a secure environment.

As I look forward to 2016 and think about all of the things that we face, I hope we never resemble the European model, that we always make a place for new immigrants at happy hour, and that they always want to be part of the group.

Happy New Year!

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