Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book 56: On Culture and Language.

A very large part of me is glad that I am rereading this. I am pulling far more out of it than I can remember my tenth grade self understanding.

For one, I am learning to appreciate the cultural significance of this story in a way that blew over my head at fifteen. This has made me realize why this must be deemed a modern classic. It is a novel that truly captures what it means to be an immigrant to the white-dominated United States.

I was most likely ignorant reading this as a high schooler. I grew up in a suburb north of Detroit and while there were students of other races scattered in my classes, it was mainly white, middle-class. It was simply something that I accepted and paid only slight attention to.

Throughout college, I had more ethnic diversity in my classics, but in my subject areas, it was heavily Caucasian. My college has a reputation for being very diverse and home to a large international student body, but I never found that in my own classes.

Now I realize that diversity and culture are everywhere around me, and rereading this has shown me that I do need to make an effort in the future to read more outside of my comfort zone. I need to read more Asian literature, as well as pieces from Africa and everywhere else that isn't close to what I call my own culture.

I guess I owe Tan for showing me what I am missing in bettering myself. But, in the meantime, I can enjoy and love what she does to show me what I am missing.

Tan does have a gift for capturing her culture and language in this novel. Through the voices of the seven main characters, I am appreciating their struggle and strife as part of a minority here. Here is an example:

"And then it occurs to me. They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English...They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation," (31).

While I knew all that-the struggle and pain of seeming to lose culture from generation to generation, I never really experienced it. This made it more real for me, more tangible.

This is why I think Tan's novel is seen as a modern day classic. It captures the thoughts of a new wave of immigrants that are not MY forefathers. My ancestors came over around the turn of the 20th century, or maybe a little after. America as a cultural phenomenon was nothing like it is now. This novel, it captures the power of an American culture, and shows how those who live here and who do not follow that culture can appear to be isolated, and to forget the place where they came from.

I am not an expert on any kind of literature, and I do not know enough about diversity in literature to say anything more than my opinion on this, so bear that in mind. But I find we need more of this publicized for us to grab for. We are not all the same, and we should celebrate our differences in all aspects of our lives and literature is no different.

Anyway, I am sure I am rambling by this point, so I shall cut this stream off. But if you are looking for something to capture the feeling of trying to find a place to belong, I might steer you this direction. For me, it is worth the time and energy to read it.


  1. Funny, I had the opposite experience in college. The student body (and faculty) were very white, but the reading lists weren't so much. In fact we were required to take a "cultural diversity" class to graduate (I took Buddhism). And I was later annoyed by the diversity of my reading lists when I was studying for the GRE and found whole English classes where NOTHING we had read was on the GRE reading list (which included everything - even wrong answers - that had appeared on the last 10 English Lit GRE tests.) Actually, I wasn't annoyed with my college about that - I was annoyed with the GRE. But it's interesting that a school that wasn't as successful with attracting diversity in its students was adament about showing diversity in its courses.

  2. PS. I read The Joy Luck Club in college as required reading. And at the time, it wasn't on the GRE list!

  3. Have you read The Arrival by Shaun Tan? It's completely wordless, a picture book/comic of sorts. But it does the same thing: captures the essence of being an immigrant.

    It's geared toward middle schoolers, I think, but incredibly appropriate for adults!

  4. Amy Tan does capture her culture so well. I never read any Asian authors until I discovered her. She definitely broadened my cultural and racial horizons in my reading life.

  5. I always find books about cultural diversity interesting, because I actually grew up as a white minority in both areas that I lived in. I didn't live in a white majority until after I was 20 years old and I found it weird and uncomfortable. It took me a long time to get used to it.