Thursday, November 19, 2015

Motherhood & Culture

One of the things that really struck me about the readings was their focus on mother's and how they  navigate their world with their children. In "Who's Irish,"  I was really struck by the prose and how it was written from the grandmother's voice. I thought the grandmother's struggle of how to raise her grandchild as an authentic Chinese girl was very real and interesting. She is constantly at odds with her daughter, who has assimilated to American culture, and her husband on the best way to raise the child. Her understanding of child-rearing is in conflict with the American "progressive" understanding of rearing children. Her headstrong ways result in her being moved out of the home, losing access to the direct raising of her grandchild. She does not know how to bend her ways in order to adjust to her surroundings.

This reminds me of Okonkwo in "Things Fall Apart" who would rather die than adjust to the changing world around him. Or  in "Potiki," the image of the tree that bends, but does not break. It brings to mind for me this image of balance. A balance that the grandmother has failed to find. She doesn't want to relinquish her Chinese heritage, and fails to understand that her granddaughter, though she may not immediately look like it, nor act like it, is Chinese too. Caught between to worlds, the grandmother is still wrestling with expanding her definition of what it means to be Chinese.

In "Borders," we see another stubborn mother who will not give up her heritage. When asked whether she is American or Canadian, she calmly responds each and every time, even when the stakes get higher, that she is "Blackfoot." Told through the narration of her child, we can see how this bothers the child who would have probably just have chosen a side to get this over with. In this way, I think, we are presented with a different viewpoint that reveals the strengths of holding on to the essential parts of one's identity even in the face of opposition. The way that she chooses to identify herself does no harm to anyone around her, but still the officers insist on her changing her title to the one they have provided her. In this situation, I would argue that the mother is choosing not to let the officers break her.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Nationality vs Culture: The Inconvenience of Individuality in a Nationalistic World

          All three of these stories discuss the difficulty of embracing a "foreign" culture as part of you personality in a world hellbent on creating titles and divides between people.  Nations are the primary offender in regards to these stories because it is the issue of national borders that insist on the homogenization of nation and individual.  This issue is deeply rooted in colonial idealism, in particular it seems to be birthed in Enlightenment ideologies of the self.  Several Enlightenment thinkers did not think of individuals as truly individuals, but a cog in the nation-state.  Hobbes called it the Leviathan with the head of state as the literal head of this monster and the people making up the body.  Locke called for people to give up individual freedoms for the betterment of the whole, which is not an inherently negative idealism, but the idea of giving individuality to the nation in order to gain supposed societal benefits has been misconstrued to give the nation far too much power. Rousseau saw this trend of giving freedom of self up to the nation in his work, "The Social Contract", when he said that, "man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains".  The Enlightenment developed during the beginning of Colonization and the impact can be clearly seen where "foreign" countries became the feet of the Leviathan, caring the body and given nothing in return.  Borders came out of this, and the creation of nations in general, as a trophy to the head of state to show how much he owned, though in actuality these borders are arbitrary.  The system of border may work in Europe because there are defined cultures unique to the individual countries and within them even different sections will have divisions, like Italy has Rome, Lombardy, and Sicily which all have different sub cultures, but as a whole they can come together as Italians since these borders have existed for several centuries.  This, however, is not the case in many other parts of the world where borders really were not a thing.  Take the "Middle East" for example, it use to pretty much all be the Ottoman Empire, but for the most part cultures were tribal dictated from place to place, but they did not have an issue with this for the most part.  Then come WWI and Europe decides to carve the Ottoman Empire up as a reward for their supposed hard work and that is when many of the issues of the modern Middle East come into play.  How do you simply tell people of hundreds of different sub cultures that they are now Saudi or Pakistani or what have you when they do not have a huge concept of the European national culture.  To this day the governments of these nations have little overall influence over the people because they govern themselves for the most part by the laws that have served them for many many years.  Coming back to the stories, I believe that it is this forced homogenization that causes the tension in each story because this old world mentality that the nation must control the people instead of the nation being for the people.  In "La Conciancia de la Mestiza", we see how someone living on the border of Mexico and the United States handles the idea of nationality.  She does not consider herself of either nation entirely, but a breed in and of itself, mestiza, which is a way of embracing Mexican, American, and even Native American culture without compromising the self by chaining self to a single nation.  Similarly we have the native american protagonist in "Borders".  She refuses to claim either Canada or America as her place of origin, but instead embraces her tribal heritage as part of her being and the border guards cannot fathom this level of freedom as she refuses to chain herself to their conception of self as nation.  "Who's Irish" is a bit different than the other two, but still shares a similar strand of choosing ones culture instead of being forced into, or out of, it.  The main character believes in corporal punishment as it is more common in China and uses it on her granddaughter and is subsequently thrown out of the house and embraced as an "honorary Irish".  She stuck by her heritage because she values it as part of her individuality, but because she refuses to conform to this new country's standards, she is mistreated by the most important institution in Chinese culture, family.

Mothers in the Brave New World

I should begin by stating that I believe I read the works for this week in the wrong order. That is to say, I didn’t read Gloria AnzaldĂșa’s, relatively less lyrical but bitingly insightful “Towards a New Consciousness” first. Thus, coming to it, as I was with “Borders” and “Who’s Irish” on my mind, I was able to have some questions clarified but inevitably had to return to the King and Jen in order to crystalize the answers. The consequence is that I’m left that undoubtedly the most poignant aspect of these three works is the way in which they deal with feminism, or more accurately women and even more specifically, mothers, in the postcolonial world.
AnzaldĂșa speaks of the internal struggle that accompanies a severely mixed heritage, the guilt, the privilege and the ever threatening limbo one must push back against. However, she addresses the issue specifically as a woman (note her early declaration “I am a border woman” (AnzaldĂșa 3), something that I have not yet seen in this class. That isn’t to say that women haven’t played an important role but the one instance where a woman is the narrator (Potiki) her internal perspective, by virtue of both her intrinsically aloof nature and the fact that the novel does not set out to delineate Woman’s problem in the postcolonial world but a community’s, is heavily diluted. The reader is not granted access to what she feels specifically as a woman.  
That isn’t the case in the two works of fiction read this week. There are no men who are forced to assimilate in these stories and those who mentioned tend to function as distant, influential, white hands that unfeelingly nudge the action one way or another. Their perspective takes a back seat to the women’s and the stories that emerge are richly laden with what it means to be the ever patriarchal, postcolonial universe in a way that is (for this class) unprecedented.
Each story, notably, deals in some significant part with the relationship between a mother and a daughter. Each story is told by a somewhat naive, might I say dopey, narrator who often fails to notice things that directly involve her (and possibly him I’m not sure what gender is narrating “Borders”). Each story features a strong willed female who does her utmost to not capitulate to the demands of a foreign culture. Who is only drawn out of her own by another woman and this is where the two stories diverge. In “Borders”, the narrator’s mother visits Salt Lake City in order to see her daughter but eventually she returns home and there’s really never any question that she will. Her daughter too, remembers her home, doesn’t love Salt Lake City so much (though I have to say there are better places to utilize in order to give mainstream America a shot) and it’s implied that she will return home eventually. The culture remains autonomous.
By contrast, in “Who’s Irish” the narrator, she who stoically retains her culture in the face of her daughter’s abandonment, doesn’t so much abandon her culture as take on another and blur the lines between the two rendering the notion of cultural purity that are almost sacred in “Borders” seriously blurred.
Hence, the portrait of two different women are painted, one who is open minded but unwilling to capitulate, the other who is perhaps narrow minded but absolutely willing to the baby steps of assimilation.  This sparks the fascinating question of how the two cultures from which these women hail contributes to their own world views. But, as something that can be applied more universally, I submit that the mothers are able to leave their culture only as their daughter is. They fiercely protect the hearth as long as their young may need a place to return but if the cub flees and doesn’t look back, they then can leave. A poignant example of their dedication and their perception of their role in this, the brave new world.

Cultural Contact Points

The three readings assigned for this week illustrate the dynamic of cultural identity under circumstances where two differing cultures meet. The characters depicted in these stories represent cultural amalgamation and assimilation. Their mixed-ethnic composition prompts them to take ownership of their diverse heritage in spite of their culturally polarized society. The conceptualization  of "Homelands" in these stories consists of locations on the boarder of two differing cultures. Every character asserts their own uniqueness and refutes the notion of cultural singularity. Their stories contradict this notion by demonstrating the ethnic and cultural diversity prevalent at cultural contact points such as the boarders of a nation.

The United States/Mexico boarder consists of an integrated rather than polarized group of individuals. Gloria Anzaldua embodies cultural diversity and proudly expresses her mixed "mestizo" heritage. The pride she takes in her lineage correlates with the notion of diversity at cultural contact points. The Native American characters demonstrate similar degrees of adamant pride in their cultural roots. After the near obliteration of Native American culture, surviving Natives were given an ultimatum between opting for American or Canadian citizenship. Many infuriated Natives refused to give European's the satisfaction of claiming or "winning over" their Native American culture such as the protagonist Laetitia’s mother. When asked at the boarder what side she originated from, she replies, "The Blackfoot side." Her mother's pride in her tribal heritage in the face of a white man demonstrates her resilience in the face of the very men who steadily continued to ravage Native American culture. Sophie's grandmother demonstrates her cultural confusion and her disdain resulting from her family's amalgamation of Irish and Chinese cultures. Her feelings are indicative by her outburst and brutal punishments of her granddaughter Sophie. Only through Bess does she find solace in her mixed herratige when Bess calls her an "Honorary Irish." This title seems to alleviate the family's concern regarding their mixed origins and further facilitates their cultural assimilation.

Borders and Cultural Fluidity

The three readings for this week all touch on one important concept in defining cultural identity. Namely, that borders do not and cannot act as indicators of a person's beliefs, nationality, or values. Identity is fluid and has the ability to transgress all types of borders, both physical and imagined. These separate readings all contain examples of people who surpass physical borders and retain his or her own values.
            The first reading, Towards a New Consciousness, sets the tone for the articles that follow. The author makes the case that a third consciousness must be developed in order for cultures and identities to merge successfully. It cannot only be about one against the other; rather, it must be a collective effort to hone this new way of thinking to establish more peaceful and tolerant rhetoric between cultures. The mestiza consciousness occurs when a person stops merely reacting to situations, and instead acts of his or her own accord: “In attempting to work out a synthesis, the self has added a third element which is greater than the sum of its severed parts. That third element is a new consciousness—a mestiza consciousness—and though it is a source of intense pain, its energy comes from continual creative motion that keeps breaking down the unitary aspect of each new paradigm” (102). This third consciousness can act as a catalyst for change, but only when this perspective is developed out of a need to keep moving forward.
            The second reading, Who’s Irish?, by Gish Jen tells the story of an elderly Chinese grandmother who must grow and change after she is rejected by her daughter. As stated before, borders do not define a person’s cultural values or identity. The grandmother in these stories is living in a foreign country after fleeing from China with her daughter. She and her daughter often clash when it comes to discussing Irish and English culture, as the daughter believes her mother’s attitudes are backwards. Things come to a head when the daughter discovers her mother has been beating her granddaughter. After awhile, the grandmother has to learn to accept that her methods are no longer tolerated, and she must forge a new identity.
            The last reading, Borders, tells the tale of a woman attempting to cross the border from Canada into America. She runs into problems when the guard at the border asks her to declare her citizenship, and she simply identifies herself as Blackfoot. The guard is unsatisfied with this response, and the woman is forced to sleep in her car with her son on the border. She is desperate to retain her sense of identity, and she refuses to conform to the idea that a border defines the people who live in it.
            These three readings all deal with the problem of identity, and how to preserve it when physical borders are removed. To the characters in the stories, leaving one border to enter another does not mean that they give up values and beliefs. To them it is the people within a border that should define the area, and not the other way around.

The Preservation of Identity

                The characters in all three works we read this week face the same problem of having cultures which conflict with their surroundings, but throughout all of their struggles they remain true to who they are. Anzaldua discusses in her chapter “La Conciencia de la mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness” the struggle of being a mestiza and not feeling entirely at peace in any single group. She explains that “the mestiza’s dual or multiple personality is plagued by psychic restlessness” because of her inability to reconcile the opposing races to which she belongs (Anzaldua 100). However, she embraces her mixed heritage, and she declares it to be an advantage in her pursuit for unity. She sees herself as a potential mediator between two peoples, a transition from ignorance into understanding, because of her identity.
                In Gish Jen’s “Who’s Irish?” too, the narrator is out of place in her surroundings, but she steadfastly holds to her beliefs and her customs. Her daughter Natalie is ashamed of her failure to assimilate to life in America, but the narrator insists on keeping her heritage with her. She criticizes the American (and specifically Irish) way of living and pines for China. She is bitter and mean to her Natalie and her husband’s family, but she defends her Chinese values at all costs. She is distressed by her granddaughter’s lack of modesty because it goes against Chinese propriety, and she corrects it using methods familiar to her from her life in China. She cannot understand why the others refuse to accept this, and laments the American culture they try to force on her: “In China,” she says, “daughter take care of mother. Here it is the other way around” (Jen 5). Underlying her stubborn and disagreeable nature is a deeply rooted sense of disappointment at the reversal of her beliefs. In this instance, her stubbornness becomes a detriment to her, but she adheres to her values to the end, protecting her Chinese identity from the obstacles of America.
                Finally, in “Borders,” Thomas King gives us a Blackfoot woman who wishes to cross the border from Canada into America without compromising her identity. Every time the border guards ask her to declare her citizenship as either American or Canadian, she simply announces that she is Blackfoot. She is unfazed by their frustration, and when they refuse to let her pass until she declares her citizenship by their standards, she simply stays on the border between the two countries, sleeping in her car with her son. She is desperate to preserve her identity, and to nurture her son’s cultural pride. While they are trapped between countries, she tells him Blackfoot stories about the stars, “repeating parts as she went, as if she expect[s him] to remember each one” (King 144). She wants him to feel the same pride she does, so that he too will defend his background against those who try to define him on their terms. She refuses to have her identity stamped out by those for whom it is inconvenient.

                From these three stories, it is clear that identity and heritage are closely intertwined. All three of these works stress the importance of defending one’s identity. In some cases, like Jen’s narrator’s, the adherence to tradition can be detrimental, and in others, like Anzua’s and Laetitia’s mother, it can be positive. In any case, it is always admirable: they stay true to their convictions, even when the rest of the world opposes them.

Borders and Homelands

       The three excerpts for this week brought all of the reading that we have done together by representing the way in which homelands clash in the United States and the different ways people adapt and assimilate. In "Who's Irish?", a hardworking Chinese immigrant is forced to accept her daughter's rejection of her "old-fashioned" parenting techniques and subsequently her culture and ancestry. "Borders" tells a story of a Blackfoot woman who will not define herself as anything but Blackfoot,even if it means she and her son have to sleep in their car. Finally, the "Borderlands" excerpt by Anzaldua, defines the "alien consciousness" or "la mestiza", that is created by borders. Each of these stories and excerpts comments on the way in which human beings adapt to being in a new place and having a new homeland. In "Who's Irish?", the grandmother must accept that her daughter has rejected her but also must realize that she cannot generalize about Irish people, as her son-in-law's mother is extremely kind and accepting. In "Borders", the young boy witnesses his mother standing her ground for her home and her culture. She refuses to define herself as American or Canadian, even though it is only a formality and attracts so much attention that she is given what she wants. It is interesting to see the story through the young boy's eyes as he does not understand why his mother won't just give in. Once again, this shows the way in which the younger generation can be more willing and susceptible to adaptation whereas for older generations, it is harder to let go of their beliefs and former home. Finally, in the "Borderlands" excerpt, the author sums up what it is like to cross a border and become a new person and create a new home. It is about how at some point, when one crosses a border, one has to leave behind some things that characterized their past. It is hard to let go of some parts of your past home but as Anzaldua writes, "Rigidity means death....La mestiza con­stantly has to shift out of habitual formations". In addition, i think that the ideas expressed in the readings for this week can be applied and compared with the ideas about home and homelands that we have experienced already.