I was a presenter at the Juneau–Gastineau Rotary Club in January 2020, speaking on “Several sanctioned avenues for immigration to the United States.” At the end of my presentation, an attendee asked a question: “Alexander, what was the most difficult area of your acculturation and assimilation in the United States?”
“My behavior,” I said without any hesitation.
As I answered the question, I instantly observed by the reaction of the audience that they expected a different, perhaps more obvious response, such as: food, language, customs, economics, politics, appearance, etc. True, for a legal newcomer’s adaptation, these socio-economic categories are essential for survival in a foreign environment. Nevertheless, people’s behavior (e.g., temperament, manners, demeanor, gestures, conducts, actions, bearing, comportment, preferences, motivation, ambition, etc.) is the most critical obstacle for acculturation and assimilation to new cultural traditions.
According to prominent American sociologist Joseph Elton, “Acculturation is the adoption of cultural traits, norms and customs by one society from another… There is no clear line [that] can be drawn between acculturation and assimilation processes. Assimilation is the end–product of a process of acculturation, in which an individual has changed so much as to become dissociated from the value system of his group, or in which the entire group disappears as an autonomously functioning social system.”
All of us live within a culture. Most cultural descriptions have labels such as “middle class,” “American,” or “Yupik and Inupiat.” These labels often become associated in our minds with certain habitual features. One such attribute for “middle-class Americans,” for example, might be typical foods—hamburgers, hot dogs and Coca-Cola. Of course, this is a very broad and superficial understanding of culture.
Culture is learned behavior passing from one generation to another—an ongoing process that changes gradually over time as a learned means of survival. In contrast, all animals adapt to their environment through biological evolution. If an animal was well adapted to its physical environment, it prospered. If it was not, it either evolved or became extinct.
As a result of biological evolution and adaptation to the northern environment, for example, the polar bear developed a thick coat and layers of fat to protect it from the arctic cold. But the Yupik and Inupiat do not possess fur. They wear warm clothing, and in the past, made sod houses to protect themselves from the harsh environment. Their ancient tools and dwellings were part of their culture — their adaptive system that coincides with the polar bear’s fur.
In short, language, religion, education, economics, technology, social organization, art and political structure are typical categories of culture. Culture is a uniquely human system of habits, moral values and customs carried by the society from one’s distant past to the present.
Acculturation and assimilation to a culture by newcomers is a personal and self-determined process—the right to make one’s own decisions without interference from others. No one can force a newly–arrived legal immigrant to accept the cultural traditions, lifestyle, and customs of his new country. The newcomer himself must see a socio–economic necessity and benefit in accepting new traditions and values in order ultimately to embrace and accept his new culture without external influence.
I first visited Alaska in 1981, while participating in archaeological field research for graduate school at Brown University. Then, I was one of few, if not the only, Soviet–born people in Alaska since 1945 (Russian Old Believers arrived in Alaska in the 1960s from Oregon and South America).
In fact, from 1946 to 1986, or during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, travel to Alaska was officially closed to Soviet citizens, just as Siberia was closed for American citizens. There was an exception for select scientists, visiting both places for research–related purposes under the auspices of the International Research Exchange Board. In 1981, I already was a permanent resident of the United States, with a green light for traveling to Alaska.
Then, as a recent political refugee from the Soviet Union, my behavior was still typically Russian—direct, impulsive, critical, opinionated and emotional (certainly, very general stereotype of the Russian character). Fortunately, my sponsors and hosts in Alaska, Charles Holmes from Anchorage and Glenn Bacon from Fairbanks, were trained and professional anthropologists; they cross-culturally were able to understand my behavior and occasional awkward expressions and guide me through rough waters and unfamiliar landscapes. After 40 years, Charles and Glenn are still my good and loyal friends. From the mid-1980s and on, Bill Ruddy, Robert Price, Wallace Olson, Mark Kissel and Tom Hanley of Juneau played a similar role in my life.
On one occasion, a humorous cross-cultural incident took place in Fairbanks in the summer of 1981. Glenn’s in-laws invited me to their house for dinner. To experience Russian cuisine, they asked me to cook some traditional Russian meal. So, I managed to cook a borshch (beet and cabbage soup) and authentic Salad Olivye (boiled potatoes cut in cubes, green peas, boiled eggs, cooked carrots cut into cubes, cubed ham, olives, onion, large pickles cut into cubes, and ½ cup of mayonnaise—all mixed together).
After a dinner, I played a guitar and performed several Russian songs for everyone. At some point, Glenn’s mother-in-law approached me and confessed, “I had always envisioned Russians as tall, dark, with shaking hands. But you are different.”
I only smiled in my response, and took her description of a “Russian man” without offense. After all, I was the first Russian she had ever met, except for the demonic Russian characters portraited in Hollywood.
Indeed, the process of acculturation and assimilation can be long and turbulent for many legal newcomers. It is critical, therefore, for American society to be inclusive, tolerant and educated in cross–cultural communication in order to welcome legal newcomers to our diverse and exceptional country.
• Alexander B. Dolitsky was born and raised in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. He received an M.A. in history from Kiev Pedagogical Institute, Ukraine, in 1977; an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology from Brown University in 1983; and was enroled in the Ph.D. program in anthropology at Bryn Mawr College from 1983 to 1985, where he was also a lecturer in the Russian Center. In the U.S.S.R., he was a social studies teacher for three years, and an archaeologist for five years for the Ukranian Academy of Sciences. In 1978, he settled in the United States. He lived first in Sitka in 1985 and then settled in Juneau in 1986. From 1985 to 1987, he was a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and social scientist. He was an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast from 1985 to 1999; social studies instructor at the Alyeska Central School, Alaska Department of Education from 1988 to 2006; and has been the Director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center from 1990 to present.