Many of the stories we read in my Asian American Transnational Literature class this quarter focused on the issue of immigration. I found myself particularly intrigued by this topic and the ways in which people were treated and felt once arriving in America. As someone who is very interested in history and race relations,I started to notice that the ways that folks were treated upon arrival often varied depending on the social and political context of the time. With each piece of literature that we read there were underlying historical conditions that seemed to shape the way the character’s immigration stories played out. While many immigrants share similar experiences and struggles upon arrival, the reasons why people make the choice to come to the United States are very different. For this reason, many immigration stories are told in the first person through an autobiographical or semi-autobiographical form. There is something inherently very personal about the process of immigration and I would like to explore the way that the literary form of these works helps to convey their message.
As someone whose family has been in the US for a long time, I don’t have much personal experience with the issue of immigration, however, I think that is why it interests me so much. I’m not seeking to claim any special knowledge of this topic, only looking to share my journey of discovering knowledge. The fact that so many people have stories and pasts that are often obscured when they come to the US is really fascinating to me. I want to use this blog to explore this topic further, hopefully learning new things about my society and my peers through research and analysis of the subject.
Author Younghill Kang’s piece of work East Goes West is a great example of the way in which an author’s personal story and the historical conditions of the time influence the writing they produce. Kang came to the United States from Korea in 1921, making it in just under the wire before the Johnson-Reed Act and Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. These laws limited the number of immigrants allowed to enter the US to 2% of the current population. This was inherently bias towards Europeans who were already a much larger percentage of the population. Additionally, the Asian Exclusion Act completely cut off immigration to the United States from the Middle East, East Asia and India. These restrictions represented the strong anti-asian and anti-immigrant sentiment that was prevalent at the time. It is important to recognize that this is the general mood of the United States when Kang came over. He was automatically marked as an outsider before he even got to the states. Life in New York and life in Korea were very different and the shock of transitioning was not easy.
One of my favorite lines from the except we read of “East Goes West” is where Kang is describing his bathing as a metaphor for washing away his past. He says “Now I had washed everything. Everything but the inside. If I could I would have washed that as thoroughly, I suppose, and left a shell. But the inner felt the echo of the outer (Kang 27).”
Water is symbolic for renewal and rebirth, making Kang’s bath representative of his transition into his new life. In order to exist in America, he needed to wash away the parts of his past that were holding him back and keeping him from acclimating. Later on he says “…all my old life was passing through my brain as if I had not been able to wash out the inside at all (Kang 28).” I feel like this statement is very telling regarding the experiences of immigrants to America. The United States is not very welcoming of people who don’t fit the supposedly “normal” mold of what it means to be American. In attempt to become included in part of American society, often times immigrants feel the need to erase their culture and unique history in order to fit in.
Because the text is a first-person narrative, we are able to see the way that Kang is thinking and we are exposed to the emotional and highly intimate aspects of immigration. It is easy to forget about the human component when studying laws and history regarding issues such as this one. However, the truly wonderful fact about literature is its ability to humanize issues and give a voice to those who may not otherwise have theirs heard.
Although national legislation is not mentioned in Jhumpa Lahiri’s autobiographic piece, The Third and Final Continent, it is evident that it plays a role in the narrative. The story is told in the first person, detailing Jhumpa’s journey in England after leaving India. Lahiri moved in 1964, one year before the United States passed the 1965 Immigration Act, which essentially invalidated the 1924 Immigration Act’s exclusions. It is interesting to consider that while Lahiri was able to move to England with relatively minimal difficulty, he would have had a near impossible time trying to move to America due to the restrictions that remained in place until the following year. Eventually Lahiri moved to America in 1969, taking advantage of the newly available opportunities for immigration. Transnational is defined as ‘extending or operating across national boundaries,” which is in essence what Lahiri is doing. Though the process of moving from India to England to America, he is extending himself across the world. In doing this he must change and adapt along with his surroundings. Immigrating from one place to another is a peculiar experience if you think about it because it isn’t as if you instantly change your perspective and personality. It is a gradual process but our environments do shape who we are and what life we live.
Lahiri’s work is simple and honest, detailing the ways in which he adjusted to life in America. He makes no grandiose claims about his struggles or lifestyle. But somehow, by presenting the details of his daily routine and explaining his thoughts, the reader is left with a greater understanding of what it means to immigrate to the United States from India. Essentially, it is the little things in life that add up to create a larger meaning and experience. There is no sudden and dramatic transformation of the self that occurs when one moves to a new country and a new continent. The process of adaptation is slow and may not even be noticeable to outsiders. That’s why the autobiographical form of The Third and Final Continent is so appropriate in catering to the transnational aspects of the text. Lahiri is the only one who can accurately convey to readers what his story involved and where he was mentally along the way.
Author Frank Chin argues that the autobiography is not an ethnic form of literature, but rather one rooted in the Christian tradition of Confession (Chin 400-401). I, however, strongly disagree with Chin’s claim. First of all there is nothing wrong with telling about what one has experienced. It is important to share, regardless of if the tale is good or bad. I feel that the autobiography is a strong way to tell such a story because it reveals the interiority of the author. Stories told though autobiography are usually seen as true and therefore the events that take place appear to be all the more meaningful. The personal narrative is extremely useful for telling one’s history of migration and revealing insights into what life is like as an immigrant. Because of the personal nature of these issues, the form allows for the mental state of the character to be conveyed easily. Autobiographies are often more accessible to readers as well as potentially being easier to write. This means that more people are able to tell their stories and more people are able to read about the stories of others.
The power of many “ethnic works of literature” comes from the reality surrounding them. Autobiographies allow writers to tell their exact stories or to present their life through the lens that they see it through. The form serves as a sort of testimonial in which the author utilizes their agency to share their experiences with the rest of the world. Ethnic works of literature typically deal with issues such as racism, immigration, or cultural practices. One’s relationship to these complex subjects is often highly personal, however the process of writing can not only be cathartic for the writer, but also educational for the reader. Much of the public is unaware of the personal experiences of minorities in the United States, so exposure to those issues through autobiographical literature can be greatly beneficial in terms of avoiding ignorance and gaining understanding.
A main theme of autobiographical ethnic literature is exclusion from the mainstream and the experience of being an outsider. “Ethnic American autobiographies are narratives that highlight the intersection of consciousness of cultural difference from the mainstream and personal development (Project MUSE).” Due to the prevalent racism in the United States, anyone who doesn’t fit the image of “American” can feel “outside” in many aspects of life. The U.S. does a poor job of welcoming people from other countries, as evidenced by the xenophobic immigration laws of the 1900s. Ethnic literature helps to reshape the meaning of what it means to be American by revealing the diverse perspectives and experiences of people living in this country. “…the fundamental issuein ethnic life writing becomes the occasion of the ethnic subjects’ appropriation of the primaryAmerican mode of self-representation that entitles them to tell their own histories, name themselves, and depict alternative versions of U.S. Culture and society (Davis 164).” Changing the prominent discourse is a necessary step in reforming the way that we think about about outsiders in this country.
“Furthermore, when ethnic subjects write autobiography, they control the representation of the American subject, instead of allowing themselves to be passively represented by the received scripts of the dominant culture (Davis 164).” The ethnic autobiography gives agency to the author and allows them to control the way they are presented and how their story is told, a right that is too often denied to people of color. The ability to use your own voice to tell your own story is empowering and prevents any sort of misrepresentation like those that have historically occurred. The incorrect telling of history has placed us in a position in which we need alternative narratives to be told in order to truly understand the historical and present truths that exist for many Americans.
The United States is not a country made up of just white people. It is comprised of a diverse population, 5.8% of which is classified as Asian American. Although this number is not enormous, it is significant none the less. The included graph shows the break down of the Asian American population by country of origin. Together, the Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese populations total 18,205,898 total U.S. Asian Americans. Too often Asians are classified together as one homogeneous group, rather than being identified by their country of origin. This improper labeling doesn’t account for the drastic cultural differences between various Asian communities. In fact, there are conflicts that exist between countries in Asia and even between different areas within each country. Lumping all people of the Asian race together ignores these differences and cultural backgrounds, promoting improper representations of Asian Americans. It isn’t fair or accurate to assume that all Asian ethnic groups experience things the same way. Americans seem to feel the need to constantly be able to define and classify other people into groupings. This categorization often perpetuates the widespread ignorance about race and ethnicity. People are so afraid to talk about race that there is little understanding as to the role that it plays in our lives.
“The infinite variations of ethnic autobiography are always on a single theme-a hyphenated self’s attempt to make it in America (Boelhower 133).” Something is peculiar about the fact that any non-white ethnic person in America has to refer to themselves through the use of a hyphenated term. If a Vietnamese-American, for example, were to just refer to themselves as American, people would most likely ask“yeah, but what are you?”, because we assume that anyone who isn’t white can’t simply be just “American”. But then at the same time they may feel like they are forgetting their cultural heritage if they don’t recognize the country that their family is from. This dilemma is one faced by many people of color in America, even if their families have lived here for generations. Interestingly, in researching this topic I discovered that both Conservative and Liberal figures are pushing for the elimination of “hyphenated-race” terms as descriptors, however they have very different reasons for doing so. Conservatives claim that if you are going to live in America then you need to essentially forget about your other “culture” and just BE American and go along with that way of life entirely. Liberals take the stance that by defining people by hyphenated terms, we are keeping them on the outside. However, I feel like people should be able to define themselves however they want. If someone wants to call themselves Vietnamese-American, Vietnamese, Asian-American, or just American, any and all terms are accurate and should be accepted by thecommunity. Mainstream American society continually tries to tell people what they should be like and what they should call themselves. It isn’t anyone’s place but the individual to name them and tell them what part of their culture to identify with.
The great thing about the “ethnic autobiography” is the opportunity that it presents authors to define their existence for themselves. There are so many personal narratives that are missing from the mainstream story of American history and we have come to a point in history where those stories are finally starting to be able to be told. Personal narratives put the power in the hands of the writer. They can construct how they are labeled and represented to the public. They can finally tell their story the way that they want it to be told. For this reason I feel that the ethnic autobiography is a truly unique and interesting literary form that was very well utilized by Lahiri and Kang for the purposes of their writing. It allowed them to tell their personal stories and transnational immigration experiences in an accessible manner that could be well received by the American people. They saw an opportunity to tell their story and took full advantage of it. Too often students are only exposed to mainstream stories that only reinforce their preexisting conceptions of American life. It is time to change what students are being taught and expose them to a greater array of information regarding other cultures and the people that make up the diverse composition of society that we live in.