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Lahiri and the Immigrant Experience

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Here’s an NPR interview with Jhumpa Lahiri concerning the connection between her writing and her family’s experience as immigrants.  I found it interesting how she talks about her parents not wanting to be ‘American’ despite their status as American citizens, which appeared mostly the result of alienating behavior on the behalf of standard ‘Americans.’  She mentions “confronting the truth of her life,” which leads me to question if most of her books are written for a cathartic effect.  All three: Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake and Unaccustomed Earth concern Indians or Indian immigrants.  Although what I both liked and disliked about Lahiri’s writing, in particular in the stories dealing with immigration, is that the characters’ ethnicity seems at times minor or even irrelevant to the plot and could be easily replaced with another cultural identity.  In fact, her greatest strength as a writer seemed to lie in creating and exposing realistic, complex relationships, except maybe for The Third and Final Continent.  I think her universality can apply to a range of readers but her writing sometimes struck me as impersonal for the same reasons (I know my thoughts are contradictory here).  In the interview, Lahiri speaks on the messiness of her immigrant background and how the fact she didn’t fit neatly in to one box has plagued her throughout her life.  Yet her stories often share the same focus with slight variations and I’m wondering whether or not her, and possibly the other authors we’ve read this semester, have given us an overly generalized sense of the immigrant experience… or otherwise, if all these voices have felt distinct….  We’ve somewhat touched upon the issue of the immigrant experience a few times over the course of this semester.  I have to admit I hate the phrase ‘immigrant experience’ because it’s reductive and vague.  It’s sort of along the same lines as the ‘coming-of-age’ story.  I mean, most stories are about learning and discovering that contribute to a character’s growth or decline in some way.  And just when the hell do we come-of-age anyway?  I might just have to burn the next book that includes ‘coming-of-age’ on its back cover. These phrases express the basic idea of a concept but give you nothing of the compelling, individualistic details

Newlywed Game

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Our class discussion brought up the concept of love when comparing arranged marriages vs. marriages that we choose ourselves. The most important part of a marriage (I am guessing, since I havent put a ring on it yet) would be an intimate knowledge of your spouse and what makes them tick. I think an interesting concept to explore would be couples actual knowledge of one another. I feel like people who choose marriage believe they have already figured their spouse out, hence the reason they fell in love with them. But they might not be willing to or open to the idea of learning more about their spouse since they have already married. However, arranged marriages often put together two people who have very little if any information about their spouse. Marriage is almost viewed as a way to learn and understand your partner, as opposed to a conclusion you make after getting to know your spouse. Either way, it would be interesting to place arranged marriages and marriages by choice on a game of the newlyweds and see who would win.

Foreign and yet Familiar

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

I was looking through a Pei Wei menu during Thanksgiving break and I noticed a line that I’ve seen before. They have the line on their website menu as well:

“Discover something foreign yet familiar”

This reminded me of the Watanna story and the use of mixed-race characters.

Do you think that this “foreign yet familiar” element also resonates with “Asian fusion” restaurants? Or maybe not Asian fusion but more “Americanized” restaurants? When Kevin Shea came to our school, he mentioned how there was a place that served eggrolls with cheese in them. Do you think these kind of concoctions are problematic or innovative? Or simply a matter of business? When my dad complained about some Korean barbecue that was apparently “too sweet” (aka too Americanized), the waitress said that they had to make it this way to please the American customers. Does this suggest a power dynamic between the American customers (dominant) and first-generation restauranteers (…non dominant)? In order to appease the American customers, who may or may not know the culture’s “authentic” cuisine, the non-dominant restauranteers have change the presentation of their culture’s cuisine.

Doesn’t this go against the idea of striving toward “authentic” ethnic dishes?

The Third and Final Continent // Yekl?

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

I just finished Lahiri’s “The Third and Final Continent” and during my reading of it I had begun to see a lot of similarities between it and Abraham Cahan’s short novel Yekl.  I read Yekl (as did a number of other people in this class) last spring in Professor Rigsby’s American Realism class.  To briefly sum it up, Yekl is a Jewish immigrant who has left his wife in Europe to start a new and promising life in New York City’s East Side.  He eventually becomes very accustomed to life in America; he’s found a source of income, meets some women, and even changing his name to (correct me if I’m wrong) Jake.  Eventually, however, his wife travels to America to finally be with him and his world is turned upside down.  Yekl isn’t used to her “Old Country” way of life anymore and is actually embarrassed by her presence.  He doesn’t take the time to explain to her how different life in America is and is easily frustrated if she refuses to change anything.  Eventually he divorces her because he has become so incredibly altered from his experiences in America.

Obviously the stories aren’t completely the same, but there are a large number of parallels.  In “The Third and Final Continent,” the main character has come from a foreign nation to an American city due to employment opportunities.  Though married, he travels alone in order to first establish himself before his family follows.  In both stories the man becomes very Americanized and accustomed to living in America; in the Lahiri, the man character eats cornflakes night and day while carrying around “The Student’s Guide to North America, a paperback volume that I’d bought before leaving London,” (174).  When his wife is scheduled to come live with him, the narrator witnesses an incident on the street were a small black dog attacks an Indian woman/her sari on the street one day.  He realizes that when his wife comes he must “welcome her and protect her” (190) but when she comes he isn’t quite accustomed to her presence.  He chooses to speak to her in Bengali for the first time since he’s been in America, and he critiques her sari.  The narrator had become so used to developing his own way of life in America that he doesn’t quite know how to deal with the entrance of his “Old Country” wife.

The parallels in these two stories are really interesting to me in that they highlight different eras of immigration to the United States and how they are so very similar.  Though the men in each story are at least 100 years apart from each other historically, they are both facing similar experiences in their moving to an urban American city.  The comparison of these two stories also really emphasize some of the information we were discussing earlier in the semester in regards to Angel Island v. Ellis Island; the first wave of immigration being from Europeans (Ellis Island) and the second being from Asian-Americans (Angel Island, though this isn’t necessarily relevant to the Indian-American stories by Lahiri).

Flashbacks to my childhood

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Remember the show Hey Arnold? It was sort of a weird show, but I loved it. There was a huge cast of characters, including  two immigrant characters who lived with Arnold–one is eastern European and one is Vietnamese, Mr. Hyunh. I think that this was my first introduction to Asian American characters in the media (and possibly real life, as there were not a lot of Asian Americans at my elementary school in Atlanta) I ran across the Christmas episode lately and I thought that it was made for our class to discuss. There is the usual subplot about Helga’s thwarted attempts to get Arnold to love her, but the main plot of the episode focuses on Arnold’s search for Mr. Hyunh’s daughter, who he was separated from in the Vietnam War.

It’s all very “My First Immigrant Story” in a lot of ways. It glosses over a lot of unpleasant information, but since it’s a kids show, I don’t see how it could have gotten into discussions of US intervention and the treatment of Vietnamese immigrants. However, I think it’s a really different topic for a children’s show to take on. They could have done a plot along the lines of  “He’s not from around here and he gets things wrong!” but instead they confronted a real issue. It has an unrealistically happy ending, but it’s still an unexpected plot to be seen on television.

For whatever reason, the episode won’t embed, so you can watch the episode here.

I’d be really interested to know what you guys think of this. I don’t think I can be very objective since this was something that I found really moving even as a kid (it has the “It’s raining in my heart” effect on me).

“Closing” the Blog

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Though the blog will technically always be here for you to love, read, and post, certain ugly demands of the semester’s end—namely, your grades—require that I set a time at which I will stop assessing your contributions to the blog.  That time will be midnight on Saturday, Dec. 4, which gives you more than 24 hours to post/comment after completing your excellent writing events, and more than 24 hours afterward to finish your brilliant final exams for Monday morning.

Jackie Chan Serenading You

Monday, November 29th, 2010

I think all of the -isms in Disney’s Mulan are rectified with this magical video.

I tried to find the video with the lyrics so you could sing along but I have failed, unlike this video.

Fun fact: There’s a part where Jackie says “ddong cham ji”–in Korean, that sounds like “holding in…fecal matter.” Coincidence???

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Anyway, going along with the hate parade on Mulan, I heard from a Taiwanese-American friend that they get some of the cultural aspects wrong in the movie as well. For example, when they paint Mulan’s face white for the meeting with the matchmaker. My friend said that this is not part of Chinese culture. Also, she said something about how matchmakers were rare or the procedure wasn’t correct–but I was too distracted by Jackie Chan’s melodious voice to really pay attention to her.

Edit: I just noticed that I sort of exoticized Jackie Chan with the comment “magical video”–Jackie Chan is not magical–he is a real human being that eats, poops, and sashays through still water, just like you.

Edit: I just portrayed Jackie Chan as hyper-sexual with the term “sashay.” He lumbers across still water.

Edit: I just suggested that Jackie Chan was lazy with the term “lumbers.” He sprints across still water.

Racism and Exoticism in “Sexy”

Monday, November 29th, 2010

I didn’t get a chance to say this in class today, but I found the suggestion that Miranda experiences some kind of cultural or racial enlightenment during “Sexy” to be a little problematic.  Not only is Miranda’s childhood reaction to the Kali statuette  at the Dixit girl’s birthday party a troubling one–she avoids walking on the same side of the street as the girl and holds her breath when she walks by her house afterward–but it is persists into her relationship with Dev, particularly in the scene mentioned immediately after the Dixit recollection, when they have sex and she closes her eyes and sees “deserts and elephants, and marble pavilions floating on lakes beneath a full moon.” (96)  Here, the racism of Miranda’s childhood manifests itself as exoticism in her relationship with Dev.

Lahiri demonstrates the consequences of this exoticism in the scene at the Mapparium, where Dev attempts to explain the political and geographical situation surrounding India, but all Miranda can remember later is the feel of his breath under her skin when he whispers to her that she’s sexy.  Lahiri later goes on to link this scene to the one where Rohin’s mindless recitation of capitals  jars Miranda’s memory of the Mapparium.  “Malawi. Lilongwe. She remembered looking at Africa in the Mapparium.  She remembered the fat part was green.” (103)   Here, Lahiri seems to be suggesting that Miranda’s understanding of cultural geography is something less than a child’s, and nothing more than a blob of color on a map or some words that she looks at on a menu at an Indian restaurant.

The story even ends on a note of exoticism, when Miranda sits down by the Mapparium, “gazing at its giant pillars and massive domes, at the clear blue sky spread over the city.” (110) This scene calls to mind the picture that Laxmi shows Miranda earlier in the story, of her and her husband at the Taj Mahal, which Laxmi describes as “the most romantic spot on earth,” and “an everlasting monument to love.” (92)  Although I get that Miranda might have gained some sense of agency in terms of  coming to terms with her own solitude, I’m having trouble buying that her understanding of Dev’s culture has yet to reach beyond a childish, romantic exoticism at the story’s conclusion.

Matching Stories

Monday, November 29th, 2010

I liked the idea of matching/complementary/mirroring stories, but I thought that the stories “Ms. Sens” and “A Real Durwan” could also be paired up. Ms. Sens and Boori Ma both find their current lives unsatisfactory, both feel helpless in their situations (though whether or not they are helpless is up to debate), other characters dominate them (Mr. Sens, everyone else in that apartment of Boori Ma), and both live in the past. Also, both characters seem to have romanticized the past; they don’t seem to acknowledge the negative memories along with the positive ones. As for differences, Boori Ma relishes the (alleged) wealth she enjoyed and how people served her, while Ms. Sens enjoyed the sense of community in her hometown. So Boori Ma seems to enjoy how separated she was from other people (in wealth), how she was elevated above people, but Ms. Sens likes that she was a part of a group. However, this could also be turned into a similarity in that Boori Ma could relish the inter-dependence–the wealthy rely on the servants, while the servants rely on the wealthy for wages as does Ms. Sens, since she appreciated the cohesiveness and cooperation in a community.

Magnum, P.I.

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Over Thanksgiving break I returned to my family’s house and enjoyed some great family bonding time while perusing our 4 television channels. We ended up watching Magnum, P.I., which I had never seen before, much to my mother’s chagrin, and much to the detriment of my eyes upon being forced to watch male booty shorts and ridiculous acting for 45 minutes. The episode we watched (Season 5, Episode 17, The Love for Sale Boat) Mac ends up stealing a boat to save 3 Japanese women from slavery to be a much kinder master to them. Over the course of the show Mac’s friend, horrified at their apparent brainwashing to be content with their slavery, teaches them about the Magna Carta and American Democracy until they see that they should be the masters of their own fate. I was rather taken aback, but also highly amused by the ridiculous racial stereotypes portrayed by Asians in the episode. The 3 women were of course very attractive and sexualized and happily gave out massages to their new master’s friends; The assassin that comes after them is an angry ex-sushi chef who swings a huge butcher’s knife around dangerously. However, I found it interesting how they chose to portray acclimating the women to American Democracy and culture, while still managing to make the women look stupid. I couldn’t find the whole episode online for free, but here’s a clip from the climatic scene. I love the “MAGNA CARTA!” battle cry. Enjoy.