Melting Pot or Mosaic?

Posted on Monday, May 02, 2016


Do you know the difference between assimilation and acculturation? You might. What if, instead, I told you to envision the contrast between a melting pot and a mosaic? Our nation is all too often referred to as a cultural melting pot, but, at least in my experience, that certainly does not describe the cities I’ve lived and loved in.

I once heard a keynote speaker refer to our nation as a mosaic of cultures, and I was absolutely fascinated by the visual of multiple cultures captured in unique colored glass pieces radiating in the sunshine and held together by an unwavering and common bond. As Americans, we are all bound together by shared societal customs and everyday experiences, but, rather than a conformist fusion, a beautiful distinction exists that allows for the preservation of cultural values and traditions. Washington, D.C., as the heart of our nation, is a thriving reflection of this mosaic.

Walking just down the road from my apartment complex, I can encounter the most accessible and vivid expression of this diversity --food. On just one side of the street, I can choose from an Arab, Indian, Filipino, Mexican, Italian, Thai, Japanese, or American restaurant. Each place exists as a doorway into the comforts and ambiance of another culture, but only those willing to open themselves up to new experiences fully benefit from the opportunity. Walking into one of the kabob eateries with the sole intention of exploring, my roommate and I were instantly welcomed-in by classic Arab hospitality. Speaking openly with the man at the counter, we discovered he and his wife were from Afghanistan and had just opened up the restaurant a few months ago. As if their friendly demeanor weren't enough, they then extended their hospitality further and offered us a free taste of their "grandma's soup". It was absolutely delicious, and I could not have asked for a better way to warm up from the cold weather. I even had the opportunity to practice a little Arabic with them.

Similarly, I was able to help a touring Argentinean woman find her way to the National Mall using our common language of Spanish. Although she did speak some English, it was great to practice Spanish and learn about her city of Buenos Aires. We parted with a hug and a kiss, and, playing the part of the guide instead of the guided,  I finally felt like a little bit less of a visitor myself.
Every inch of Washington, D.C. is carved from people with different backgrounds and  different experiences, and, usually, these encounters occur in the most unexpected places, such as a terrorism hearing on Capitol Hill where I happened to sit next to a fellow Texan and Aggie now working at NASA. However, regardless if someone is from another country or just another state, like Texas, every person here experiences the same fickle metro, the same struggle to network and find employment, and the same suspenseful excitement of being surrounded by so many incredible and often internationally significant happenings. Whether it's a trip to a new Asian or Greek market, or perhaps the simple pleasure of trying genuine vegetarian enchiladas (not just cheese!),  D.C. thrives because of the ability of its people to exist as distinct communities and as unified Americans sharing the same problems and the same successes. It is a wonderful phenomenon to witness, and I would encourage others, especially those from smaller cities, to come experience it as well.

Nancy Kuri
Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute

Spring 2016, Washington D.C.