Namesake and American Born China Portrayal of the Experience ofAsians in America
Cross culture intelligence is a challenge for many people especiallywhen they move from one background to a new environment. As peopletry to settle, they are likely to find themselves torn between twosets of practices and they neither retain their original culturalpractices and social life nor adopt the new practices fully. TheAsian culture and the American tradition and practices are two of themost antagonistic backgrounds. Asians who move to America findthemselves in a twist as they settle in the new environment. “TheNamesake” and the “American Born” are exhibits ofthe experience of Asians as they try to fit in the American society.
As people experience a new environment, they become partly alienatedto their culture, and they try to adopt the contextual practices.However, they always find themselves in an internal conflict wheneverthey come across conflicting practices that are contrary to theirinitial practices. Gradually, they lose their initial socialprinciples due to the dictation and influence of those around them.No one can live in an alienated environment without physicalinteraction with the people from a different culture. From these twonovels, the themes of assimilations, whiteness, and white privilegesdominate through the characters.
The two novels use the same approach to bringing out the three themesin a different way. Both of them involve characters who findthemselves in the American soil but with an Asian background. Thecharacters in The Name Sake have an Indian origin that has a strongand influential culture. In “American Born Chinese,” the authorpresents the Chinese culture that juxtaposes itself against theAmerican culture,
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake provides immense insight intothe struggles that numerous families from other countries such asIndia go through in attempting to learn and adopt the Americanculture. The novel mainly focuses on the aspect of assimilation andwhiteness. The couple, Ashima, and Ashoke are hesitant to adopt theAmerican culture stick to their Indian traditions on foreign soil.The tendency makes their life in the foreign land extremelychallenging.
The author introduces us to the diet that Ashima was fond of duringher pregnancy period. She eats chicken and apple juice. The authorcontrasts this with the drinks that her mother is supposedly takingon the other side of the world. That is tea and biscuits. Even froman early observation we can deduce that the American food has gottenthe better part f her. However, her mind still recounts the food soldon the streets of Calcutta, and she misses them. Assimilation, fromthis point, appears to be a very gradual process especially forAshima, who moved to the USA while she was still an adult (Lahiri 2).
At the hospital ward, the author introduces us to the privilegesgiven the white women in the hospital. Contrary to the Indiancommunity where the hospital gets the depiction of a place wherepeople may visits and never come out again, the American Hospital isthe most hospitable. Patty, the nurse who attends Ashima, gives veryprofessional and quality services and even helps her to walk to allowfor an easy delivery. Whiteness comes in when husbands come to thelabor ward, and they appear to be very comfortable to support theirwives emotionally. Ashima, however, is quick to point an aspect ofwhiteness that she identifies as one of those things that would nothappen in India. The women in the wards were very comfortable withthe short clothes. The short gown reminds her of the bikini wearingwomen she met along the streets. Her behavior of wearing a Sareedepicts her as an Indian without the hurry to assimilate to theAmerican way of dressing. However, the author contrasts her dressingpreference with that of her husband. When he goes to Ashima’s hometo seek her hand in marriage, he wears American shoes. Ashima hadnever come across such shoes, and she is even in anticipation to seethe man who owns them. His father explains that Ashoke had spent sometime abroad in studies. The dressing code exhibits his inclination towhiteness (Lahiri 2).
Traditionally, her husband would have sent her to her parents todeliver and then return home. However, the American Society seemsvery strange to her especially when husbands accompany their wives tothe labor wards. When her first signs of labor show, she informs herhusband who, like an Indian man, acts as oblivious of the wholething. An American would have busied himself supporting the wife withencouraging words. Ashima had to repeat that she was in laborassuming that Ashoke ever heard (Lahiri 12).
Although he study’s one of the America’s finest college, thebehavior of a typical Indian man is still within him. Ashima is evenafraid of calling him by his first name. She could not believe itwhen she overheard a man publicly assuring his wife that he loved herin the maternity ward and wondered how it would be with Ashoke(Lahiri 7).
Since they were expecting a first born, the couple has numerousassimilation challenges such as naming the child (Lahiri 82). TheIndian culture held a name as sacred and could not be inherited. Anindividual bore a unique name unlike in America where names weresubject to inheritance. Assimilation crawls in slowly why their sonadopts a new name. It is evident that the name Gogol, which wassupposed to be a nickname for their newborn, ended up being the realname of their son. It is clear from the novel that the couplestruggled with language, and therefore communication was a problem(Lahiri 82).
The couple’s son Gogol is, however, getting assimilated to theAmerican culture quickly and this does not go down well with theparents. Initially, Gogol falls in love with a white girl, arelationship that his parents do not support. It is evident from thenovel that Gogol smokes cigarettes and marijuana, as well asattending parties. These are American cultures, which Ashima andAshoke opposed. It is abundantly clear that the son has adopted theAmerican culture while the parents are still practicing the Indianculture. For instance, when the parents opposed Gogol as an officialname, their son supported it (Lahiri 91).
He prefers the white culture since he lives in a context surroundedby all these practices. The white youths appear to be enjoying someprivileges that the Asian family is totally in opposition. They couldgo to parties without their parents raising issues. Gogol`s parentsviewed it as unacceptable. His behavior is evidence that he isgetting along with other Americans of his age, and his smokingbehavior may have been efforts towards fitting into a white socialgroup.
In the American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang provides the account ofa young Chinese boy who is the only Asian in school full ofAmericans. Jin Wang struggles to find a place in the American cultureand does not manage. Being the center of attraction due to hisphysical characteristics and language, Wang had to find a way ofgetting assimilated into the white culture and the only way to do sowas trying to behave like them. Jin struggles to learn and adopt theAmerican culture. However, his parents are seen as being more Chineseoriented than him. They still speak Mandarin and use some Chinesemedicines for curing some illnesses. The two authors use the sameapproach to depicting parental control as one of the hindrances to afast assimilation. Wang’s and Gogol`s parents still profess theirpractices in the new setting. The children bear the wrath of beingunable to be white with ease since they interact with the whitechildren who surround almost every aspect of their social life (Yang119).
Jin tries even to date a white American girl to no avail (Yang 121).He tries to find acceptance from the white students. He facesridicule and at times abused by the white neighbor’s children. Hisdream to wake up one day as Danny and be white is simply anindication of how much he desires to be white. Unlike his parents whoobserve the Chinese tradition as a matter of choice, Jin findshimself in an environment that almost dictates a change for him. Hecannot enjoy the privilege of dating a white girl just because hedoes not have an American background. Whiteness affects Jin, and hetries every measure to be white. It is clear from the novel that Jinand Danny avoid Chinese immigrants whom they believe will embarrassthem in front of the whites.
The white students have privileges in that they can get whatever theywant. For instance, Jin’s girlfriend, Amelia, who is a white,beautiful girl, is finally taken by a young white man after he findsher with Jin. The reason for losing his girlfriend to a white personboils down to the invisible but strongly felt barrier that existsbetween the natives and the migrants. Although Jin and his friendwant to get assimilated into the American culture, some of theirfeatures, like the physical characteristics, cannot change. Itremains as a scar that will deny them some of the privileges reservedfor the Native Americans only. The story of the Monkey King, Jin, andDanny are all dealing with the aspect of identity. The characters areattempting to search their identity in places where they feelrejected and oppressed (Yang 145).
In the search for a new identity, one cannot change every aspect ofhis/her background. The effects of the initial practices like accentsand physical characteristics will always betray a person in aprejudicial society. The most prudent thing is to accept theunchangeable facts and settle into an identity. The two books reachconclusions where both Gogol in The Namesake and Jin in American BornChinese accept their identities. It is evidently clear from TheNamesake that Gogol started hating his name at the age of fourteenand even changed his name legally to Nikhil Gogol Ganguli.
The key characters change their names since they realized that theywere living on a faked identity derived from two sets of practice.The ungrounded behaviors were the causes of confusion and feeling ifinferiority. However, it is essential to state that Gogol’s father,Ashoke had not shared the story that led to Gangulis naming himGogol. The name came about when Ashoke was involved in a trainderailment accident when he was reading a story book by Gogol.
It is worth noting that Gogol was more of American than Indian interms of exposure. Being born in American society associated him withthe American practices. Gogol did not sound Indian in any way.Whiteness was at its heights in him, and he wanted a name that wouldappear American. Ashoke’s son refused to acknowledge this namesince he did not have sufficient information regarding why he wasnamed Gogol. It is evident from the novel that the boy was rejectingthe name due to its oddness and the genius whom the name wasassociated. Since he wanted to be American, Gogol did not like theodd name and, therefore, the desire to change his name (Lahiri 66).The desire to change the name emanates from the fact that the namedid not sound American. Gogol wanted a name that sounded American,and that would help him assimilate and adapt to the American culture.He wanted appreciation and recognition by the whites as one of them.
In the conclusion of the novel, the author states that the young manaccepts the name after learning the story of his father in thederailment accident. Gogol regrets ever changing the name afterlearning of the story. The acceptance of the name is a move towardsaccepting his identity and appreciating other cultures other thanAmerican. It is a sign that he is no longer looking for appreciationand acceptance by the white people in America. Additionally, thenovel concludes when Gogol dismisses Maxine, a white girl that he wasdating. He gets married to a Bengali girl, although their marriagebreaks up towards the end. The dismissal of the white girl is anotherindication that the young man was no longer looking for recognitionand had recognized his identity.
The American Born Chinese seems to have a similar conclusion althoughin a different manner. Throughout the book, the author attempts toput Jin a fix where he is seeking appreciation and recognition by theAmerican white students (Yang 91). He hates anything to do with hisoriginal Chinese culture. Jin wants to date white girls and hisculture to change and get assimilated as an American. The stories ofthe monkey king and Danny illustrate the struggles that he wentthrough trying to fit in the popular culture. However, the conclusionof the book depicts a person who has realized his identity and who isready to be proud of his identity as a Chinese. Jin realizes thateven though he professes the American culture, there is somethingthat will always identify him as Chinese (Shankar and Floyd 71). Hisrace and skin color stand out amongst the white Americans. Theconclusion of the book has a basis on a journey of Jin’s redemptioninto his real identity.
Whereas the two novels have the same conclusion, it is clear thatthey do not conclude the in the same way. The Namesake involves someactions such as the dismissal of Maxine and the marriage and divorceof Moushumi by Gogol. In other words, Gogol shows that he appreciateshis identity through actions. On the other hand, Jin in American BornChinese shows that he no longer seeks appreciation from the Americanthrough words (Shankar and Floyd 101). However, the Chinese dinner isan indication of the appreciation of the Chinese culture by Jin. Itis the same place where he makes up his differences with Wei-Chen andthe book ends when they become friends.
Although the books end in different ways, the course of events in thetwo of them depicts the themes of whiteness, assimilation and theprivileges of the white. The authors use the characters to show howdifficult it can be to adopt new practices in a new socialenvironment. The Americans used in the novel who have negativeattitudes towards the foreigners represent the feeling of the biggersociety that appreciates people who only hail from their backgrounds.Jin and Wang finally settle down to their identities, and they ceaseafter living in the pretense of being Americans. They strengthen thefact that one may not always be at ease in a foreign land especiallywhen the physical characteristics are too pronounced to show thedifference. By accepting their backgrounds, they make peace withtheir old family members and also do away with their oppressive andprejudicial friends.
Yang, Gene. American Born Chinese. New York: FirstSecond, 2006. Print.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,2004. Print.