America has always been described as a "melting pot" — as in this classic Schoolhouse Rock clip — in which immigrants from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds slowly simmer away their differences to become a big, homogenous, all-American stew.
But is that the way it really works, or how it should work? Is total assimilation the only way to be an American? And is it even healthy for individuals to abandon their cultural heritage in order to fully adopt the customs of their new home?
We spoke with Seth Schwartz, a professor of public health sciences at the University of Miami, who believes it's time to shelve the melting pot metaphor. Schwartz studies acculturation, the process by which a person's "cultural sense of self" changes after moving to a new country or being raised in an immigrant home, and the effects of acculturation on physical and mental health.
It turns out that assimilation is only one type of acculturation, and that fully assimilated Americans have some of the worst health outcomes. Contrary to the melting pot myth, immigrant families are most likely to thrive in America if they embrace aspects of both their native culture and their adoptive land. Public health researchers like Schwartz call it the "immigrant paradox."
"There's a whole literature that suggests that foreign-born Americans are doing better than U.S.-born individuals on many different health indicators: heart health, weight and obesity, diet, depression, anxiety, substance use, you name it," says Schwartz.