Between Two Worlds: Identity and Acculturation

  1. Century of Immigration
  2. Promise & Prejudice
  3. Between Two Worlds: Identity & Acculturation
  4. Help Wanted? Immigration and Work
  5. Family & Community
  6. Immigration and Popular Culture
  7. Becoming American Home

Thursday, October 18th: 6-8pm at Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library Meeting Rooms A-C

Film: The New Americans, Episode 1, The Nigerians

The New AmericansProduced by Steve James and Gita Saedi, directed by Steve James 2004

Chicago International Film and Television Festival, Gold Hugo, Best Television Production, Best Limited Series, Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award, International Documentary Association Columbus International Film and Video Festival Award Winner

Running time for excerpt: 34 minutes

In this intimate series with “the richness and density of a Dickens novel” (Los Angeles Times), Steve James, co-producer of the acclaimed documentary feature, Hoop Dreams, turns his camera on the struggles of the Nwidor family to make their way as new immigrants in America.

The Nwidors are Nigerians who were forced to flee their home after the military executed their tribal leaders. We first meet them in a refugee camp in Benin. Israel, a former chemical engineer, his wife Ngozi and their two children have been living for years in a dripping tent in a refugee camp, waiting for resettlement. They share their hopes with the camera and humorously acknowledge their exaggerated expectations for their new life in America.

In their first weeks in a low-income housing complex in Chicago, they are grateful for a dry place to sleep and the interesting experience of their first MacDonald’s hamburgers. But they find much of their new world confusing. Both parents struggle with low-paying jobs in the hotel industry, and are exhausted by their schedules, the lack of community support in America, and the expectations of family back in Nigeria that they will send money home regularly.

Access to medical treatment in the U.S. reveals unexpected health problems. Israel discovers he has dangerously high blood pressure, and Ngozi finds she is a tuberculosis carrier. Their attempts to adapt and succeed crumble at times into despair, but we also share with them small moments of hope. Ngozi is in danger of failing her nurse’s assistant certification class, her stepping stone to better her chances for a good job.

In a scene of quiet triumph, she learns she has passed her final exam. Israel, whose health has kept him from succeeding in one job, begins work at a new one, with chances for greater mobility. While we rejoice in their success, it is by no means certain that this family, as hard working and likable as they are, will finally attain their American dream.

Humanities Themes

Foodways and Culinary Traditions: Immigrants introduce many new foods to the American diet as evidence by the prevalence of so many “ethnic” items that have become mainstream staples—salsa, hummus, curry, and others. While some native-born Americans may find immigrants’ cultural differences threatening or unfamiliar, foods represent a basic necessity and form of cultural exchange that can break down barriers between people.

Religion: Immigrants have always brought new religious traditions to the United States that have not always been seen as compatible with existing, mainstream religions. Still, the United States has prided itself on being a nation that values religious freedom. Learning about other religious traditions—such as Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, and others—can broaden our understanding of how people develop spiritual beliefs, values, and a sense of morality.

Assimilation and Acculturation: Assimilation and Acculturation generally refer to cultural transformation and adaptation of new members of a community into the local dominant practices and norms. Earlier historians assumed that immigrants followed a rather direct trajectory from their native culture to becoming “Americanized” and in the process, shed their ethnic or national origin and cultural differences. Most contemporary scholars, however, emphasize how immigrants retain some elements of their culture, language, and social practices and in fact reshape what it means to be American.

Writing One’s Personal Story: It is no surprise that many immigrants and children of immigrants have written extensively about their changing identity and the challenges of assimilating and acculturating into American society. Writing of memoirs, poetry, prose, and other genres offer a way to express and reflect upon the personal transformations that immigrants and their children experience being in a new society.