The most diverse gathering of races and ethnicities from across the world is living in one place here in the United States. Ours is truly an unprecedented experiment in the history of societies. In this country, where almost everyone’s ancestors came from somewhere else, the issues of immigration reform and the status of undocumented citizens have recently come to the fore. As the son of immigrants from India, I have experienced firsthand how the cultural wisdom of immigrants enriches America. By realizing how other cultures can benefit us, maybe we can all come to a better understanding of why fair legal forms for immigrants should be instituted.
Our country has become great and our economy has become strong through the hard work and ambition of immigrants. People who chose to leave their ancestral homeland to come to America are a self-selected group—bold and adventurous. And those who were forced to leave their countries bring with them the same intense drive to stand on their own two feet. Immigrant labor and skills are a major part of our economy’s growth—in industry, in agriculture, and in technology.
The focus on the economic contributions of immigrants tends to draw attention away from the tremendous social and cultural impacts that these communities have on American society. Immigrant communities bring time-tested traditional practices, customs, and knowledge with them from their countries that can inform and uplift American culture.
Here I’ll discuss four recent examples of immigrant cultural gifts that have been absorbed into American society. This is only a sampling of the remarkable ways in which immigration has impacted the United States throughout history.
Spirituality from the East. In the past two decades, Eastern spiritual teachings have blossomed in the hearts and lives of Americans. Meditation, Yoga, and Qi Gong—the ancient Eastern arts of quieting the chatter of the mind to better hear the soul—are taught throughout America. These are rich cultural practices that Asian immigrants helped to bring from their homelands. In classrooms, seminars, and gyms across the country, this knowledge is passed from immigrant cultures to Americans from all races and creeds.
As the Bible teaches one to “know thyself,” Asian spiritual teaching offers its own path towards this same spiritual goal. As the American understanding of Eastern Spirituality continues to deepen, our culture is being enriched with a fuller understanding of religion and faith.
Learning how to eat from traditional cuisines. In America, new diet trends and fads come out every year. With so many different studies and perspectives, the simple question of what to eat has become very complicated. In his book, In Defense of Food, renowned food author, Michael Pollan, discusses how the best answers for what to eat come from traditional cuisines. Traditional cuisines are complete systems for eating that give a person the full spectrum of nutrition needed to thrive.
Across the board, be it Korean, Filipino, or Armenian food, traditional cuisines emphasize a diet of whole grains, many vegetables, and good fats. As Pollan affirms, there is a very low incidence of ‘first world’ diseases like diabetes and heart disease for people eating traditional diets. As a society, we are greatly informed by the presence of immigrant communities that bring their traditional cuisines to this country. There is much that we have learned and much more we must continue to learn from immigrants regarding our diets.
Relearning organic agriculture from other cultures. There’s a word for organic farming in most other countries: farming. In the majority of cultures on earth, small scale farming is still prevalent. In most of these places, farming is organic by default because chemical inputs are not available. Cultures around the world have preserved centuries-old techniques for cultivating food. Immigrants in America who have this cultural knowledge are a valuable asset as we strive to grow more clean organic food here.
For example, many South American farmers use a soil amendment called Biochar. Biochar is an extremely potent and nutrient-packed charcoal that has been used by Amazonian cultures since long before colonialism. Today, Biochar and the people who know how to make it, are widely sought after in organic agriculture. In addition to South Americans, many other immigrant communities bring valuable agricultural knowledge to the U.S., including the Punjabis in California’s Central Valley, the Hmong people in Minnesota, the Japanese, and the Koreans.
Medical treatments from immigrant cultures are informing and supplementing our medical care. Cultures around the world have developed unique systems for treating and healing disease. Many medical systems that were brought from foreign shores have shown themselves to be effective and have gained wide popularity in American culture. Accupressure and acupuncture from East Asia, Ayurveda from India, herbalism from Latin America, and Homeopathy from Germany, are just a few of the many immigrant medical systems that have enriched our body of medcial knowledge here in the United States.
These contributing members of our society deserve immigration reform that recognizes their importance. All cultures possess wisdom that can greatly benefit the world at large. In America, the most diverse place on the planet, we have the historic and unique opportunity to embody the greatest features of all the different civilizations from which our ancestors came.
Rohit Kumar is an entering student at Stanford Law School and the founder of localblu.com – a blog covering urban farming and sustainability.
Growing photo via Shutterstock