Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Melting Pot - 8/7/10

I grew up attending grade school mostly in the 1960s. I remember learning about America being the Melting Pot. The essence was that the United States was a place where people from around the world immigrated and became something more: American. The sum would be greater and nobler than the parts. It was a great message and a great dream. It was the easiest thing for a school boy and Boy Scout to buy into. I recall it being a pretty popular theory that was often touted.

There was a sameness and oneness provided that you looked and acted American. I was lucky I could fit in that way. I didn’t have an accent and I looked pretty darn Caucasian. Basically, I fit in, when I wanted to. At church or Sunday school, I could be Armenian as I wanted. In truth, I was a mix and I grew to like being a mix.

I came to realize that the Melting Pot Theory was just that a theory. There was some truth to it, but it did not apply equally and certainly not everyone bought into it. I came to realize that it did not apply to Black Americans or Jewish Americans to the same degree that it applied to Americans of Western European descent that also happened to be Christian. I even remember what a big deal it was when John F. Kennedy an Irish Catholic was elected president. It marked an inflection point in the cultural and political fabric of this country.

I grew up in Detroit. There were Americans of every background. We lived on Freeland, a great name for an American street, when I began school. We had neighbors on one side named Nation and on the other Angkowsi. Both looked down on my parents and our family. The Nations thought they were of bluer blood than everyone else even though they lived in the same modest middle class working neighborhood as the rest of us. The Angkowskis were even more bizarre. They were Polish Americans and they looked down on Armenian-Americans? The mother, a loud rotund woman, was born here and the father, a quieter gentleman, was older and an immigrant.

I recall Mrs. Angkowski making snide comments and innuendos about us being Armenian and less American than they were. What? It wasn’t until years later that I realized that Catholics, at that time, were not considered mainstream. After being their neighbors for a few years, a funny thing happened. The oldest Angkowski daughter was going to get married. She was engaged to… can you believe it, an Italian boy. Even though he was Catholic, Mrs. Angkowski was devastated. She wanted a Polish boy for her daughter. She even came to my mother, all of a sudden looking up to how we maintained our heritage, and asked if my mother would “speak sense” to her daughter. So much for the Melting Pot.

Did we act arrogantly? Did we flaunt our heritage? Or were we simply proud to be Armenian Americans and did not try to hide it? I believe the latter. It was how my parents were raised and what the organizations they belonged to also promoted. As a result, I was raised with that same approach of being an American and being an Armenian: Proud of both and not trying to hide either. We kind of believed in the melting pot… kind of. We believed in a oneness and fairness that underlies the Melting Pot concept but we wanted to retain our unique bits and pieces.

When I just Googled “melting pot” the top two listings were for fondue restaurants by that name. There were a few articles about my topic here. One I read talked about another theory that would have made more sense to me back then and certainly makes more sense to me now. While the Melting Pot Theory claims that everyone adds their value to a unique and new American Culture, the Salad Bowl Theory says that yes we mix our cultures into something new but the parts are still distinguishable just as in a salad. In the Salad Bowl, we do in fact get to keep our unique bits and pieces. I think corporate America calls this diversity.

What motivated me to write about this? It was the July 31st wedding of Chelsea Clinton. I was not paying much attention to the hubbub regarding her wedding. I always liked Chelsea while not being entirely fond of her parents. I thought it was unfair how the press made light of her gangly and homely looks when her Father was president. It was OK to criticize the President and First Lady but I did not believe it was right to say things about a child’s looks of all things. Chelsea blossomed in spite of it, went to Stanford, and has been living her life in relative anonymity thank you very much.

I did not know anything about the fellow she was marrying. It was not all that important. On an airplane after the wedding I was reading the Sunday paper covering the wedding and learned her betrothed was Marc Mervinsky. I learned he was Jewish and this marriage had generated some buzz along this interfaith tangent. I guess it is a big deal? Didn’t Caroline Kennedy do the same thing? I cannot recall if there was any fanfare regarding Caroline doing so. I always admired Caroline for being, at least in my opinion, the most private and stable of the Kennedys. Does Chelsea have the same qualities?

Anyway, I did not mean to digress into a gossip columnist. Chelsea and Marc’s marriage and the buzz about the interfaith aspect of their backgrounds did make me think of this Melting Pot concept to the point of writing about it. Maybe we are really on the brink of it? We have legalized gay marriages. We have a black President. Inter-racial and inter-faith marriages are more the norm. Maybe the Melting Pot is a reality. Maybe in a few decades or a century or two we will be a homogeneous people with one language with several dialects maybe. Mass media and culture seems to be converging on just that. The number of languages in the world have continues to decline. And yet, Esperanto, a vestige of the Melting Pot era, is not one of the active languages. It was, in fact, still born.

A few years ago, I heard of a UCLA study of immigrants. By the third generation in this country, the number of people fluent in the language of their heritage country is almost nil. Marrying within a particular faith or ethnic background is not so important among vast numbers of young people that I see. Socio-economic stratification, however, has been with us since the concepts of work and possessions were realized. Socio-economic stratification is an entirely a different matter and probably a subject for a future blog.

OK… readers that know me and have read other parts of my blog might wonder why I am writing this since I take my Armenian ethnicity quite seriously. My children have Armenian names and actually married Armenians for which I and quite proud and which actually defies odds. I was raised to be both a good American and fight to preserve our ethnicity in this Salad Bowl. Very often people will ask me why I am so dedicated to my heritage. They wonder why “in this day and age,” this time of diversity, inclusion, and acceptance why I am so old fashioned. I feel the questioning is casting a slight bit judgmental. I laugh it off and say the same thing, “being Armenian is more like being a member of a large club than being a small nationality.” All in all, I believe in and live in this Salad Bowl. I believe one's heritage is but one of the personal choices we can all make to create and maintain some unique identity.


  1. I think that your heritage, Mark, is what allows (paved the road, kinda sorta)you to be so very accepting, tolerant and inclusive of diversity.....

    Once again, you've got my interest-

  2. This is in response to your August 24th and 27th letter. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    I read your letters early this morning and started to respond, but never finished what I started. I had some errands to run. "Have car will travel" is my motto. Anyway, as I drove through the northside and westside of Chicago, I noticed how much the demographics had changed. Yes, there were the usual pockets of neighborhoods Andersonville, Pilsen, Korean (yes I travelled far and wide today lol)there was a show of a more modern generation where the melting pot was not the same as I knew it 30 years ago, but cultures intermingling together. I saw a japanese sushi restaurant next to a latin restaurant, middle eastern store not too far from the Jewels. I was happy to see the intermingling of race relationships this way. I think foods bring people together ... to engage all the senses and enjoy what each person brings to the table. If only the political realm can do the same. That's another topic lol.

    What I noticed as I drove through and saw the differences in the store fronts and restaurants, each still had its own identity, letting the potential customer know "I am here, welcome" These pockets of diverse neighborhoods is "melting" together. These neighborhoods have come together to live side by side. There is a new generation of people who chose interracial relationships which I find wonderful. I don't think one would lose their heritage. As you pointed out, it is an individual choice.

    As far as some of the killer categories in these neighborhoods ... I saw a Walmart, Petsmart, CVS, Borders, yet I also saw unique shops ... boutiques, patisseries, cafes, ethnic grocery stores that are thriving. These places may not be dominating the nation, but they are certainly making an impact in their neighborhoods. I like that feeling! I stopped in to my favorite middle eastern bakery/grocery store and the staff was friendly. They're always friendly! I usually pick up my favorites ... hummus, baklava, and dates. I don't get the same friendliness from a Whole Foods Place. The bigger grocery stores are starting to realize the diversity of the neighborhoods and the demand for more ethnic foods so there is a whole aisle devoted to "ethnic foods".

    I like independent stores. They have their place. I'm sorry to hear about your encounter with Mr. Navarre. I can understand his point of view in trying to make it in this economy. Not everyone has that flair to make a sale. Yet, I wonder if he was trying to make a sale or make conversation since so few people stop in small independent stores. Independent stores were flourishing 30 years ago. It's getting old and so are the people who started them. That's another topic.

    Just my thoughts. Thanks for sharing yours again!