Atavism or Assimilation?
January 15, 2008, 05:37 PM
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Thanks to the wonders of C-SPAN, I watched the inauguration of Bobby Jindal as the Governor of Louisiana as it happened Monday morning. His parents are immigrants from India, and he is a Republican conservative. His politics and level of assimilation don't sit too well with some homies in Mother India who believe they have a claim on him. (Indians are very interested in immigrants and descendants being successful: the online Times of India has a section of Indians Abroad.)

As a columnist from the widely read Times made clear, genuine assimilation to American values is not entirely acceptable to traditionalists, particularly to the degree achieved by Bobby Jindal.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of Indian migrants in America: though no sociologist, i'll call them the atavists and the assimilationists. The atavists hold on to their original identities as much as possible, especially outside the workplace; in speech, dress, food habits, cultural preferences, they are still much more Indian than American. The assimilationists, on the other hand, seek assiduously to merge into the American mainstream; they acquire a new accent along with their visa, and adopt the ways, clothes, diet and recreational preferences of the Americans they see around them. [...]

Born to relatively affluent professionals in Louisiana, he rejected his Indian name (Piyush) as a very young child, insisting that he be called Bobby, after a (white) character on the popular TV show 'The Brady Bunch'. His desire to fit in to the majority-white society he saw around him soon manifested itself in another act of rejection: Bobby spurned the Hindusim into which he was born and, as a teenager, converted to Roman Catholicism, the faith of most white Louisianans. ["Should we be proud of Bobby Jindal?" Times of India, Oct 28, 2007]

The upshot is that a tiny bit of assimilation may be okay, but certainly becoming a conservative Republican is beyond the pale, according to the editorialist.

I'm just fascinated by the use of the word "atavist" regarding immigration, and will definitely use it, e.g. "Columnist Ruben Navarrette is a closet atavist."