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When I Immigrated, TV Taught Me How to Be an American

"It was through American media where I learned how people act in different scenarios, how people talk. That's where I learned everything."

'Friends,' a model for how Americans behave. Photo via IMDB

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Even before my parents told me that we would be moving from Taiwan to the United States in 2000, I was already learning how to be an American. After all, American media was everywhere: My sixth-grade group dance performance was to Janet Jackson's "Together Again," and my earliest movie theater experiences were films like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Jurassic Park, and Titanic.

Looking back, I see how those products of American entertainment shaped my perspective of the United States—and of what it meant to be an American—more than almost anything else.

At its most basic level, television helps immigrants overcome the language barrier. While English is taught as a second language in much of the world, the ubiquity of American media has made it possible for immigrants to immerse themselves in the language before even setting foot on American soil. A 2012 study of more than 8,000 immigrants in the United States found that "pre-immigration uses of English language TV, radio, and print media, and post-immigration use of English language print media, were associated with higher English proficiency."

Madisyn Li, who moved to the US from China in 2013, said watching television shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother taught her the language in a way she couldn't have learned in school. "When you learn English in class, you don't learn slang," she told me. "When I came here, I was already familiar with American conversations because of those shows and movies."

As a preteen, I used to rewind my VHS tapes of Mary-Kate and Ashley films to play back certain phrases until I could pronounce the words in the same way. Now, instead of a "foreign accent," most people think I'm from Los Angeles: I adopted the accent of the Olson twins.

Beyond language, television provides a model for immigrants to understand who Americans are—how they dress, what they eat, and how they behave in various situations. Jack Song, whose family immigrated to the United States in 1991, told me his mom obsessively watched The Golden Girls and used its characters as a template for their new life in the US. "She decorated the house a bit like the show," Song told me. "She would say things like 'Oh, this is how Dorothy would do it!'"

"When you watch an American show like Full House, you're able to see how they have conversations at the dinner table, how they greet their kids or spouses when they come home," said Jason Wong, who immigrated to the US from Hong Kong in 2005.

Of course, representations of the United States in popular culture don't always set realistic expectations about what life in America is like. Mindy Lo, who moved to the US in 1998, recalls watching Baywatch and Beverly Hills, 90210 and thinking everyone in America was "blonde and super fit." But they do provide valuable reference points for immigrants to begin to immerse themselves into American life.

Wong, for example, told me that watching popular television shows and movies gave him something to talk about with other Americans, which made him feel like less of an outsider. "I pulled jokes from TV and movies that I watched," he told me. "And people were like, wow, you're making these references, you're making these jokes I understand. Understanding American culture [through popular media] really helped me be part of the community."

For Suzy Ryoo, who moved to the US from Korea in 1992, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air offered a relatable narrative of an outsider trying to fit in. "I like Will Smith's character," she told me. "He was the new kid on the block and different from everyone else. It's a comedy about family and new differences, and it felt comforting."

The imagined characters and stories in pop culture also give immigrants insights about American society at-large, and the subtle differences between norms here and in other countries. One of my favorite shows growing up was Boy Meets World, whose preteen protagonists were close to my age, but acted nothing like my classmates in Taipei. Watching the characters on Boy Meets World flirt with one another, talk back to teachers, and wear outfits more revealing than what I'd see any of my peers wear back home helped me adjust to my seventh grade class in California after I moved to the United States.

The very American concept of freedom of expression also comes across its pop culture for many immigrants. Jonathan Chung, who immigrated from Korea, told me his favorite American show, Sex and the City, gave him a window into American norms toward sexuality. "It was really nice to see the main characters interact with gay people," he told me. In Korea, those scenarios were rarely portrayed on television. "Culturally in Asia, people are a lot more proper. You don't talk about stuff in that kind of manner. I admire that and sort of expected that in the States."

Consuming American media isn't fully about assimilating to American culture. In her book Reinventing the Melting Pot, Tamara Jacoby argues that "we may need a new definition, or new understanding of assimilation—a definition that makes sense today, in an era of globalization, the internet," where immigrants can adopt the culture of their new host while still maintaining their native culture.

"It was through American media where I learned how people act in different scenarios, how people talk, [how Americans use] body language. That's where I learned everything," Wong told me. But knowing how to fit in as an immigrant in America isn't totally about assimilation. "I am an Asian guy living in America in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood, and I like African American music. What do I choose? I've decided that I don't have to give up one culture to enjoy another."

Follow Chin Lu on Twitter.