Perhaps the greatest challenge of adjusting to a new home is the gaining the acceptance of those with whom you must share it. People who have lived in a particular place for their entire lives become accustomed to a specific standard of behavior to which they hold all others. Those who outwardly express differences encounter the greatest resistance from these people, because they begin as outsiders, and their transition becomes more difficult as a result.
A common image of home is a place where one belongs, and where one is understood. It is difficult to admit strangers, those who do not fit the mold, into such a place. One naturally comes to expect what is familiar, and deviations from those expectations can be jarring. In my New Jersey hometown, which is more diverse than many, there is a large Indian American population. I grew up with classmates whose parents moved to America from India, and I became acquainted with their culture and customs. Most of my peers at home consider this blending of cultures the norm. Our parents’ generation, however, grew up in a different context – there was far less diversity in the area when they were young. To them, people of color remain strange and inscrutable. They still subscribe to unfair stereotypes, and they treat members of other races with mistrust, particularly those “exotic” races to which they had no exposure for their entire lives.
Jasmine wants desperately to be accepted into American society. She has been so deeply scarred by her past, which she equates to India, that her only apparent escape route is complete assimilation in America. In Flushing, where she lives in a bubble of desperate cultural preservation, she “was spiraling into depression behind the fortress of Punjabiness” (148). The sameness is oppressive to her. And yet, when she tries to become fully American, she discovers that others make it difficult. Wylie and Taylor try to be accepting and unbiased, but occasionally slip and reveal that they still consider her different from them. When they she first meets Jasmine, Wylie assumes that Jasmine is “probably tired of Americans assuming that if you’re from India or China or the Caribbean you must be good with children” (168). Firstly, Jasmine has never heard this stereotype, and so by exposing her to it Wylie inadvertently alerts Jasmine to the differences that native (and Caucasian) Americans perceive between themselves and foreigners. Moreover, Wylie subtly categorizes herself and Jasmine, placing herself into the “American” category and Jasmine into the “other” category. For Jasmine, whose greatest desire is to become completely, undeniably American, this distinction is a massive obstacle to overcome.
Wylie and Taylor eventually become accustomed to their caregiver, but they are not the last ones to ostracize Jasmine. Dr. Mary Webb, with whom Jasmine eats lunch at the University Club, approaches her under the assumption that because Jasmine is Indian, she must understand her spiritual dabbling. She says that the idea of reincarnation “can’t be new or bizarre to [Jasmine]. Don’t you Hindus keep revisiting the world?” (126). She assigns Jasmine a belief system and personality based on how she looks. She even comments that she assumed Jasmine was a vegetarian. Jasmine, even with her Indian background, wants to be considered American, but others refuse to accept this because of her appearance.
Jasmine is not the only character to encounter these challenges: Du is also treated differently because of his race. Though Du is more attached to his cultural background than Jasmine is to hers, he wants to adjust to America on his terms, and native citizens do not try to understand or respect those terms. Du’s teacher compares Du to other Vietnamese children he has encountered, and tries to speak Vietnamese to him, which horrifies Du and Jasmine. She comments that “this country has so many ways of humiliating, of disappointing,” because those who do not understand them assume that they know everything about them (29). Jasmine observes that all immigrants, legal or not, start letting go of their pasts eventually, and all at once “the rest goes on its own down a sinkhole” (29). And yet, it can never go away entirely, because those who do not accept them and instead fall back on stereotypes will continue to bring them back to the pasts they have left behind.