Lilia, Matt, Flora, and Cultural Adaptation

“For Halloween I was a witch.  Dora, my trick-or-treating partner, was a witch too.  We wore black capes fashioned from dyed pillowcases and conical hats with wide cardboard brims . . . and my mother gave us two burlap sacks that had once contained basmati rice, for collecting candy.” [1]

“He wouldn’t draw bamboos or goldfish or landscapes with a brush; instead, he produced merely bands and lines of ink on paper, calling them abstract paintings.” [2]

These quotes demonstrate the almost seamless incorporation of Indian culture into Lilia’s life against Matt and Flora’s rejection of their Chinese traditions.  Both short stories feature children born in America but with entirely different experiences and emotions about their cultural backgrounds.  The comparison of Asian children’s assimilation to American culture in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” and Ha Jin’s “Children as Enemies” highlights a conflict of acceptance and love versus open hostility and rejection.  How are these differences created based on the environment portrayed in the stories?

Each families’ relationship to their original country and economic factors seemed to play a heavy role in how Lilia, Matt, and Flora viewed their own cultural heritage.  Lilia’s family pushed her to learn, to watch the national news, to remove her shoes inside the house, and to eat their cultural food.  Matt and Flora’s parents instead laugh at their children’s classmates mispronunciations of their own last name, in essence encouraging the other that the two experience. [3]  Additional tension exists in “Children as Enemies” because while the grandparents come from a culture where the elders are the head of the household, in America the economic providers are – and in this case, that’s their children.  How does this cultural tension effect family relationships and values?

Neither school environment is accepting of Lilia, Matt, and Flora’s Asian background, but Matt and Flora’s classmates seem openly malicious and belittling.  Lilia learns exclusively about “American history, of course, and American geography” in school, even getting chided by Mrs. Kenyon for reading Pakistan: A Land and Its People (to be fair, when she should have been working on an assigned Revolutionary War report).  [4]  But as her father points out, why do they focus so much on solely American history and neglect the larger world?   Matt, formerly Qigan, and Flora, or Hua, endured enough peer pressure at school that they wanted to change their traditional names to American ones, and their mother Mandi allows them to.  [5] What does it mean that Matt and Flora’s mother encourages them to forget their Chinese heritage and fully assimilate to their new one?  If Mandi had treated the grandparents and their traditions with respect, how would the children’s opinions have changed?

In both “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” and “Children as Enemies,” the parents’ incorporation of their culture and background shapes how the children respond to their traditional heritage.  The similarity, however, ends there.  Comparing these short stories actually highlights the nuanced and complicated experiences of Asian American immigrants – rather that there is not one single story of Americanization and assimilation, but many varied experiences, levels of acceptance, and methods of adaption to a new place.  Each experience is valuable in its own right and essential to the broader story of immigration to this country.

[1] Jhumpa Lahiri, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” in Interpreter of Maladies: Stories (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), 36-7.

[2] Ha Jin, “Children as Enemies” in A Good Fall (New York: Pantheon Books, 2009), 81.

[3] Ibid, 83-4.

[4] Lahiri, 33.

[5] Jin, 83.

2 thoughts on “Lilia, Matt, Flora, and Cultural Adaptation

  1. I like your point that each experience is different. In my reading of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, I started thinking about how immigrants from warring nations are affected once they arrive in the U.S. Obviously, in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” Lilia’s parents and Mr. Pirzada were from India and Pakistan respectively, and those nations constantly clash. Yet when they are in America, the closest thing to “home” is a person from a neighboring (and warring) country. This just shows that any nation’s people do not necessarily agree with its government. Even if immigrants continue ethnic customs, might they separate themselves from any sort of national prejudice of another nation? I wondered to myself, would this story be the same if it were an Israeli and Palestinian family?

  2. I wonder how Matt and Flora will feel about eschewing their Chinese heritage when they grow up. Personally, I feel like someone has just as much of a right to reject their cultural heritage as they do to embrace it–one’s personal idea of identity isn’t any of my business.

    That being said, Matt and Flora are at that age when “just being one of the crowd” is incredibly important to many kids. As they mature, however, most people tend to develop their own interests and identity separate from “the herd.” So…will they discover a new appreciation for their Chinese heritage, or will they find contentment in being mainstream, middle-class Americans?

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