Who Are You?

U.S. Government Photo

Children almost always push back against the identity their parents assign them.  There were three short stories we read for this week in which children struggled with older generations to define their identities, both as Americans and as immigrants, as well as their notions of success and a good life.   Although each story addressed these issues, they all came to different conclusions.  While reading these stories, I could not help but think back to Sara Smolinsky in Breadgivers, and her generational struggle.  When these narratives are viewed side by side, one can see the wide variety of immigrant experiences. Some of this difference can be ascribed to the various cultures that the immigrant families are coming from: Chinese in “Children as Enemies” and “Two Kinds”, Pakistani in “Mr. Pirzada Comes To Dine”, and Jewish in Breadgivers.  However, class is equally important in determining the shape of the narrative in each story.

Ha Jin’s story “Children As Enemies” shows how younger generations can pressure more traditional members of their family into accepting American values.  It illuminates the progression from the traditionalist grandparents, to the more progressive parents, to the children who push for a wholesale rejection of their Chinese heritage, asking to have their last names changed.  It

is with resignation that the grandfather says at the end of the story “This is America, where we must learn self-reliance and mind our own business.”[1]  The economic circumstances of the family are key to this revelation, as it happens after the son rents his grandparents their own separate apartment.  The family’s money provides them with a simple solution to this generational clash.

The child in Amy Tan’s story “Two Kinds” is similar to Sara Smolinsky in Breadgivers in her resistance to a domineering parent.  The narrator in Woo’s story fights back against her mother’s plan for her to be a “prodigy.”  Unlike Sara Smolinsky, her resistance is not the result of a drive to succeed and pull herself out of poverty, but rather from her assertion of her American right to laziness and individualism.[2]  The middle class circumstances of “Two Kinds” means that the struggle for emancipation from a controlling parent takes a very different form than in Breadgivers with its setting of grinding poverty.

Rather than fight to reject up her heritage, the child narrator in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” searches for connections to her parents’ culture.  She is thoroughly Americanized, and is mystified by the television reports about Pakistan that her parents watch every evening with Mr. Pirzada, and is desperate to learn more.  She attempts to find out more from books in her school library, but is unsuccessful.[3]  Eventually, she finds a connection in the piece of Halloween candy she eats every evening in Mr. Pirzada’s memory.[4]  This story is completely unique in comparison to Breadgivers and the other short stories.  There is no inter-generational turbulence, and the child is actively seeking a connection to her heritage, rather than rejecting it.  However, since the themes are the same it shows us that there are a practically infinite number of possible experiences for immigrants.

With these stories, I feel as if we have come full circle from our reading of Breadgivers earlier this semester.  When considered together, these stories show that there is no such thing as the “Asian Experience” or the “Middle Class Experience” or the “Immigrant Experience” or the “Jewish Experience”.  The characters in all of the stories wrestle with similar issues, but their reactions are motivated by a wide variety of factors including ethnicity, class, age, and gender.  This shows just how many factors go in to determining who we are as human beings.

[1] Ha Jin, “Children as Enemies,” in A Good Fall (New York: Pantheon, 2009), 86

[2] Amy Tan, “Two Kinds,” in Joy Luck Club (New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1989), 134-135 and 142-143

[3] Jhumpa Lahiri, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” in Interpreter of Maladies (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 33

[4] Ibid., 42

5 thoughts on “Who Are You?

  1. I think this is a nice encapsulation of what we’ve talked about all semester. There are so many factors that define the immigrant—and, subsequently, human—experience that it’s difficult to generalize. This blog also comes to a refreshing conclusion; outside of class, we’re often offered the simplified narrative of immigrants pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. This class and this blog have allowed us to challenge that narrative and discuss the complexities and nuances of class, race, and gender. So, where do we go from here? How might we apply the ideas we’ve discussed to make a difference in the communities we serve?

  2. I like your inclusion of class in your analysis of these stories. Too often, we see stories of class being reserved for “white” people, while minorities are only considered in terms of the struggles of their race and ethnicity. But class plays into the equation here and in life in subtle ways that have large implications, as you’ve pointed out. Throughout this semester, we’ve learned that in order to truly understand a person or a community we must accept these layered identities as the norm, refrain from forcing antiquated parameters around different communities, and really delve deep to uncover stories that may not always reach the surface or become the passively accepted face of a community.

  3. Jacob, you’re multi-dimensional approach to explaining the human experience resonated with me as one of the reasons that this course is so relevant to museum studies. Though convenient, it can be counter-productive to simply label something as the Asian experience, the Jewish experience, etc. Taking into account the many elements that steer our day-to-day lives, we can tell a human story that resonates with both individual cultures and the global community.

  4. I disagree with your last point just on semantics. While we are all defined by the multiplicity of our experiences, I think we can’t minimize the significance of any one aspect including culture. For example, Jung Mei comes from a family and cultural background where she is expected to not only succeed, but be exceptional. On the other hand, Sara Smolinsky’s family does not support her pursuit for education, expecting her to marry instead. These are differences defined by class and time, but also by cultural experience.

  5. I do think there is something to be said about the universality of the human experience and in many cases of the American experience. However, I think these stories really show the clash of the way two different cultures think. For immigrant families it is the children that have to come to terms with these two cultures. The unfortunate truth in America is that your skin color and accent make you the other.

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