The Internet TESL Journal

Becoming a Cultural Insider: How Holidays Can Help ESL Students' Acculturation and Language Learning

Natasha Lvovich
nlvovich [at]
Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York (USA)


I wrote this essay while teaching the lower ESL class of the Kingsborough Community College ESL Intensive Program, where students become part of the block curriculum, unified by the theme, Discovering the Self between Cultures. In this reading and writing class, students read and discussed authentic literature in relation to the topic (The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Two years in the Melting Pot by Liu Zongren). They also wrote essays about their own immigrant inter-cultural and language learning experiences in connection with their readings and compiling autobiographical books out of their essays as their term project.

One of the essay topics in this class, related to Liu Zongren's book, invited the students to think about their attitudes to American holidays as part of their acculturation process. Preparing the topic for my students and working on the pre-writing discussions, I realized that along with them, I had something important to say. Teaching writing as a process and guiding my students through multiple drafts, I followed my own feeling and thinking on paper, which led me to writing this essay. Writing this essay along with my students allowed me to articulate and discover an aspect of my own acculturation into the U.S. as well as to become a real example for my students. It is with a great deal of joy that we shared our immigrant and writing experiences.

Two Years Outside/Inside the Melting Pot

In his book, Two years in the Melting Pot, Liu Zongren, a Chinese journalist on a visit to the US, discusses, among other things, his struggle to acculturate to life in the U.S. Despite his strong motivation to learn the language and the culture, he finds himself in a situation of emotional torment and deep depression. He longs for home and for his family and often takes a defensive position about his own culture and country, sometimes demonstrating some sort of Chinese "cultural supremacy."

During his stay in the U.S., Liu was able to gain the knowledge of the American culture and to acquire fluency in English. Through his intellectual and social explorations, his sharp observations of the American society, and his ambition to return to China as a more educated man, Liu's goals to penetrate into American life have been achieved. Yet, part of him felt unfulfilled and emotionally drained. Yes, he won the intellectual battle, but lost the emotional battle. His book shows, from the first chapter to the last, that he has remained an outsider in his host country.

But did Liu Zongren really need to emotionally adjust to American culture and society? Did he need to develop an American identity? As a guest and an outsider, he did his best to take the new culture and language in, but this type of acculturation was more instrumental than integrative, more intellectual than affective.

One of the most visible manifestations of culture is its celebration of holidays. In his book, Liu describes his several attempts to relate to American traditions and holidays. He is appalled by the triumph of wealth and by the American abundance of goods, which he considers a waste.  He is appalled by the exaggerated generosity shared by all Americans at Christmas. At Christmas parties, he feels more alienated than ever, and more than ever he longs for the sweet and familiar rituals of the Chinese Spring Festival. His learning about real holidays and people has stopped at an emotional threshold.

But what would have happened if Liu Zongren had come to the United States for good, as thousands of other Chinese? How would his stance have changed if he had attempted to turn himself--emotionally, not intellectually-- into a cultural insider? How would he have experienced American holidays and how would American holidays have helped him in this process?

When immigrants arrive in the US, they long for home and eventually look for a sense of belonging to their new country. This process of accepting and being accepted is often a struggle, resembling an emotional roller coaster.  However, it needs to be completed for the sake of their emotional health. In order to do that, they need to build not only an intellectual, but an emotional connection to their new land. And, like Liu, they start with the intellectual one. Reading, learning and socializing marks the beginning of this process.

Holidays: A Step to Acculturation

Holidays are very important for us: they "glue" us to people around us by being a common experience, a socially meaningful historical event or a cultural/religious celebration. It is our common territory, the ground we all stand on. When we see people around us celebrating the same event, by shopping for their holiday dinner or for gifts, we feel secure and connected.

But what happens if we leave our history and cultural traditions behind before we acquire a set of new ones and we find ourselves in a cultural and social vacuum. When we immigrate to a new country, our body is physically transported, but how about our soul? It seems to be wandering in-between the worlds, looking for something to hook to. This hook, in my experience, can be a holiday--a cultural event that would make the click happen. A holiday can create the intellectual context for learning, and it is through this learning that the emotional integration might occur.

Striving for cultural and emotional meaning, for the sense of feeling connected in order to survive emotionally, to fill in the void brought about by landing in a different country, I tried to become part of this country by joining its holidays.

The first year in the United States, when Thanksgiving was approaching, I decided to buy a turkey and to celebrate like everybody else. It seemed to me that I would "feel" the connection to people and to this land "stomachally," by stuffing myself with turkey (a delicacy back in Russia). However, the turkey and the cranberry sauce shared with a couple of our Russian friends did not bring about a miracle. I left the table physically stuffed, yet strangely empty.

I was teaching "survival English" to new immigrants in a business school ESL program. My instinct as a teacher was to use the material close to the cultural reality both my students and I were trying to embrace. So I found some very simple reading about the history of Thanksgiving (perhaps in my daughter's textbook) and brought it to class with the intention of teaching it to my students. We learned about American culture that first year of my teaching in the U.S. as a distant, purely academic, "textbookish" content. We did some vocabulary exercises and exchanged a few turkey recipes. The words were barren of cultural and emotional meaning.

There is no better learning than teaching--and starting from that first year, I would enrich my teaching materials about Thanksgiving and expand the assignments to the students. Every year my students and I learned about the Pilgrims and the Indians, about Plymouth and New England, examining the map, role-playing, and discussing European and American history. Gradually, the feast of corn, turkey, and cranberry acquired its historical, geographic, and socio-economic meaning. The etymology of the word "turkey" would become a cross-linguistic and cross-cultural adventure, a glance into my classroom languages and history, and an arena for anthropological and linguistic research. Sometimes my students would throw a multicultural Thanksgiving party, where, along with the traditional American turkey and vegetables, a variety of Eastern-European, Caribbean, and Asian dishes would be displayed and enjoyed.

Every year, along with my students or on my own, I discovered more and more about American history and of the history of native Americans. With my traveling around the country, my reading of American literature, meeting with real people, trying out real food, I was learning more and more about American history. Every year the Thanksgiving story helped me to better articulate the beautiful myth reflecting the historical reality.

With time and learning, I felt I belonged to that myth as well as other immigrants, following the Pilgrims. The more I learned about American Indians, the more I felt detached from the image I had formed of them back in Russia, reading Cooper. Gradually the image of brave but wild warriors got substituted by the image of the real masters of this land, who disappeared with their rich mysterious culture, only to give people like me their hospitality: turkey, corn and cranberries. As an outsider, I felt the story was an attempt to cover what really happened after the turkey had been eaten, but as an insider, I was grateful for the happy ending of the story, because this legend helped perpetuate the American hospitality and openness to newcomers, which I myself had benefited from. I also felt that the story and the celebration, despite its Hollywood-like plot, makes Americans feel proud about their historical beginning, which was paradoxically someone else's ending. I strangely felt American: simultaneously feeling both like the Pilgrims and the Indians.

I thought about the people whom I wanted to thank for the food in my mouth that I had not earned. I thought about the Jewish organizations and charity. I thought about the devoted immigrant activists who helped us during this transition. I thought about my parents' friends who had offered us hospitality during the first weeks in the country. I thought about the people who had trusted my potential and had given me work. I thought about the people who had helped with information and advice. Thank you Nick, Flora, Ezia, Paolo, Mario, Olga, Michael, Jeptha, Marc, Frank, Bob, Tara, and Paula. Thank you God.

Thanksgiving has become MY holiday in essence and meaning, just like what it means to most American families: the connection to the past, to the present, to the roots, and to each other. This is the connection we strive for. It makes us feel at home, in a familiar environment rather than an alien one, and which creates the feeling of security and of peace--an absolutely necessary emotional foundation of well-being. It is this sense of sitting at a dinner table with our loved ones, lighting the candles, cooking an apple pie, drinking tea and smelling the familiar kitchen smells that we had been brought to life with, raised with, which come along with the primary sense of being alive: our mothers' milk and our parents' bed.

I feel all this now, discovering how my intellectual knowledge about this country has integrated my being via emotional channels. Perhaps we always start with the intellectual: reading, reflecting, and communicating our reflections to other people. The cultural information, along with the motivation to survive emotionally, to get out of the immigrant crisis and of acculturation-related depression, of loneliness and of isolation, works through the mind to the heart and together with real food and food for the soul, becomes the source of release and relief. We feel in place and we share experiences. We have arrived. We are home.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 12, December 2000