LITR 4333: American Immigrant Literature

Sample Student Final Exam Answers 2002

"Large Question" (45 mns-1hr) on Asian American and Middle Eastern Immigrants.

Assignment / Question: Asian American and Middle Eastern immigrants may face two especially acute problems in assimilating to American culture.

  • The first potential problem is that Asia and the Middle East are home to highly traditional and hierarchical cultures, while American culture is committed to rapid change and equality (at least ideologically).
  • The second problem is that a number of conflicts have marked the history of these regions--a history that is shared by either the United States or its allies.

Identifying one or two aspects of either or both problems in popular culture, history, and/or our texts. Focusing on our literature, describe some of the ways immigrants from these regions have faced, managed, or overcome such conflicts.


[complete essay from email exam]

Asian and Middle Eastern Immigrants to America have always faced unique issues to assimilation.  Aside from the language barrier, these immigrants are not of the European background, so their appearance alone separates them from the dominant culture and forms a basis for discrimination and hostility by Americans, as seen during World War II’s internment camps for Japanese people, even those who had been American residents and citizens for years, or during the Desert Storm and post-September 11th times when Middle Eastern people are scrutinized as potential terrorists and threats to the American way of life, even those who were born American citizens and have never been to the Middle East.  As seen in Monkey Bridge, the interviewer finds Mai’s background as a Vietnamese national interesting small-talk conversation, based on her appearance and her cultural background (125).  Like immigrants of African background, the physical appearance of Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants has historically made their assimilation and acceptance into American culture more difficult than other, European immigrants.  And while this issue is difficult, it is only one of several that effect the Asian or Middle Eastern immigrant upon arriving in America.


For many Asian or Middle Eastern Immigrants, the differences between their Old World highly traditional and hierarchical cultures and the rapid change and social mobility in New World America cause barriers to their assimilation and happiness.  Throughout our readings, however, the characters have found creative ways to face, manage, and even overcome some of the conflicts caused by the differences.  In Monkey Bridge, the ethnic enclave offers immigrants a way to hold onto the Old World while experiencing the economic benefits of the New World.  Some overcome obstacles by ignoring them, such as the “grouping of elderly women and men too unattached to the ways of the United States even to be aware of their differences” who “[continue] to represent themselves as reproductions from the tropics” (146).  Another coping mechanism for the Asian immigrants within the ethnic enclave is the continuation of traditional titles, like “the ‘aunt’ used to address my mother signified great respect […] although she had been managing and cleaning the vegetable supply seven days a week, ten hours a day, in a Vietnamese grocery store for the past four years, her identity was that of a professor’s wife” (145).  Though the people realize that their situation has changed, they also cling to “what one used to do in Vietnam” as a way to rank the class and status of these Asian-American immigrants.  The technique used by Mai to overcome these differences, though, was to move forward from them and accept her assimilation into American culture as a way to rid herself of these cultural markings.  She realized that her assimilation would make her an outsider in her ethnic community, but wanted more to fit in with the whitewashed atmosphere of Uncle Michael’s and Mount Holyoke, so she made the conscious choice to leave her cultural background behind. 


Another example of attempted conformity or assimilation as a means to overcome cultural differences may be seen in “Lost Name Woman” by Shirley Geok-lin Lim (UA 124).  Striving to fit-in with mainstream American culture, this woman, presumably the author, continuously changes herself to mirror her surroundings, attempting to escape her ethnic and cultural background.  Changing from the “Mississippi China woman” with blue jeans and dreams of the west to the “San Francisco China woman” drinking Coca-cola instead of tea to the “Massachusetts China woman” whose haircut cannot hide her almond-shaped eyes to the “Arizona China woman” with perfect language whose past still haunts her, Lim seems to be telling the woman that assimilation will not allow her to escape her past and that her identity will still be evident in her features.  These attempts at assimilation as a means to overcome the differences seems to have failed because the woman is unable to leave the past behind and fully assimilate into mainstream dominant culture.  There is a hint, however, that total assimilation is not the answer, but that holding onto aspects of a cultural past allows for future remembrance, such as the children who will “feed you when you die” (124).


Other textual references show how some characters embrace their past while using creative means to partially assimilate into American culture.  In “His Grace,” Abu Assaf clings to the ideas of hierarchical society by treating the Bey reverently and allowing him to eat free meals in Assaf’s restaurant.  Owning his own business, a tenet of the American Dream, Abu Assaf realizes that As’ad al-Da ‘waq’s American experience has not been the glorious one of which Da ‘waq must have dreamt.  In his generosity to this poor old man, Assaf embodies the ideal of Old World customs continued in the New World.  “‘I just can’t bring myself to disillusion him.  It wouldn’t be right.  He’s nothing if not a Da ‘waq,” says Assaf, who realizes that the older generation of immigrants needs the continuation of the Old World customs to feel validated in the mobile and ever-changing world of America (116).  This means of dealing with the differences between the Old World culture and the New World structure is repeated in several texts as a means for older generations to feel dominant in the American society that stresses equality.


Another way in which immigrants cling to the past while utilizing means of the New World is seen in “Thank God for the Jews” by Tahira Naqvi.  Fatima, a partially assimilated Islamic woman living in the suburbs of New York, must find Halal meat on short notice to feed to a traditional relative, Aunt Sakina.  While Fatima realizes the incorporation of modern trends into religious ceremony and instructions, she realizes that “we’re all creatures of custom and habit” (227), so Aunt Sakina must have her halal meat.  Calling on a friend, Fatima realizes that the kosher meat available at her local market is similar to halal meat, so she decides to substitute it for the halal meat.  While not strictly traditional, her dream relates her fear of leaving too much tradition behind lest her child not recognize her, Fatima as an assimilated woman is willing to use more conventional means to accomplish her goals.  This woman enjoys the modern practices available to her in America and uses the meat available to feed her traditional relative in the hopes that she will be able to satisfy Aunt Sakina’s traditional customs.


Throughout our texts, we can see examples of the various ways that immigrants from Asian and the Middle Eastern countries overcome the differences between their traditional, hierarchical societies and the rapidly changing, mobile American society.  Each group and person find a way that works best for them and the modes of adaptation change with the successive generations.  This question poses interesting challenges to the American mindset that all immigrants should become “Americans” and shun their past; some groups successfully integrate portions of the dominant culture and retain the importance of their cultural backgrounds as well. [CR]



[excerpt from email exam]

            In Monkey Bridge, Mai and her mother were faced with such obstacles when trying to assimilate into American culture and one weapon they knew would be needed would be receiving an education as the mother stated on page 31, “You will have the best education in America.”  Mai knew attending college was also important as she explained to her mother going off too school was like a martial artist attending the Shaolin Temple to become a master (31).  Arming oneself with an education and attending school is the ideal place to assimilate into the dominant culture by not only learning about one’s field of study, but also by meeting and mingling with other educated people and professionals allowing for simple observations of the dominant culture.  One aspect of being part of the dominant culture is having an education.  College is the ideal place to be to become a part of a larger group and for Asian immigrant such as Mai it was a way for “slipping in”.  Plus a college tends to be more liberal in thinking and actions, which can aid in rapid change when considering one’s views on worldly interests.  A college is always changing as to stay up to date in its teaching methods, and Mai seemed to follow this trend as well, while her mother was still clinging to the Old World, however torn by war, with her traditions.  This would attribute to Mai feeling like an outsider because she assimilated rather quickly.  There were however flashes when Mai’s mother displayed glimpses of assimilation as when she would watch the “Bionic Woman”.  From a culture rooted in tradition, watching the “Bionic Woman” seems as far away as possible from the ancient beliefs considering the show was about a woman with robotic enhancements representing human kind moving into a future where electronics dominate.  Adhering to such American ways, Mai’s mother manages to attempt to hold the old ways, but can’t completely shut out the New World around her.

            Assimilating into the American culture, while clinging to tradition can definitely be overwhelming, and while some resist others fall fully, even recklessly, into it.  In "A Wife's Story", Panna's husband comes for a visit from India to see her in New York.  He is described as organized and watches money very closely, but when entering the busy streets of New York with all the shops, it is as though he is losing his mind, or rather he becomes overwhelmed by so many choices.  Panna is even surprised because he is purchasing everything from electronics to cheese wiz.   She is more so amazed because she has never seen a side of him like this.  For one, they had an arranged marriage, and she still did not refer to her husband by his first name.  In the end, he wanted her to go back to India with him, but she wished to remain in New York.  For her husband this presents a problem because Panna has discovered a new freedom that she will not give up.  At times she felt guilt, which in the end she gives in as she prepares to have sex with her husband before he leaves.  She has learned to deal with the rapid change, and he of course has not. [JB]


[complete essay from email exam]

As Asian American and Middle Eastern Immigrants venture into a new world, the markers of the immigrant model are most noted in the effects of immigration and assimilation on American cultural units or identities.  Most changes are observable in family, generation, gender, community, and religion.  There is a constant fluctuation in reflection upon the old world and the awareness of the new world.  Immigrants dangle on one extreme or the other, sometimes keeping a foot balanced in the present and in the past, as they make analytical decisions on their chosen path.  Changes in the way immigrants assimilate are also affected by intermarrying as a means of becoming the dominant culture and committing to the change.  Gender changes are noticeable as the tradition loses validity in a modern American culture.  The traditions no longer serve purpose in a culture with different expectations.  The trend of equality in America is with the goal of achieving balance in gender roles.  As assimilation takes on, generational tensions develop because the older generation resists and hold on to old expectations.  The family unit in the new world becomes more nuclear, while in the old world it included the extended family.  The different pace of life creates a society of strangers.  The community arena changes as family laws lose to the overriding autocratic and democratic laws regulated by state.  Probably most profound to the immigrants are the changes in religion as the old world religion has ties to political and cultural, while the new world promotes a more private secular practices. 

The change in assimilation that is probably the most painful is the change that occurs in the family unit.  Typically the family unit is a structure of stability and comfort, but as members open up to outside influences, the differences begin to create distance.  In Monkey Bridge, Mai and Thanh encounter painful adjustments with the changes and individually must come to terms with their own struggles.  The new world has community of individuals, society of strangers:  meritocracy factors in as merit based judgment rather than gender and ethnicity.  Difference in family structure is seen through Bobbie in Monkey Bridge:  “Bobbie had received her driver’s license a mere week before, and already we were making full use of it.  We had been driving since her parents left for their Florida vacation this morning, and were actually hundreds of miles from Virginia and from my mother” (13).  The immigrant family structure erodes in America.  Asian Americans tend to have west coast experience.  The family structure and gender hierarchy marks the old world for immigrants.  Responsibility to family is also a factor that varies from the old world to the new world.  In The Land of the Free by Sui Sin Far, Lae Choo had to serve her parents and her parent in-laws:  “After my son was born my mother fell sick and my wife nursed and cared for her; then my father, too, fell sick, and my wife also nursed and cared for him.  For twenty moons my wife care for and nurse the old people, and when they die they bless her and my son, and I send for her to return to me” (IA5).  It is tradition of the OW to care for family, while in the NW people believe everyone should take care of him or her self, including the elderly, and if they are not able to, then there are nursing facilities.  Their son was being cared for in a mission, raised by white women, after a month he was able to forget his parents and assimilate.  The second generation typically assimilates easily and quickly, especially young children.  A more modern outlook to the family structure occurs in “Love Me or Leave Me” the difference in the gender role of her father contrasted that of other men in India because he “wanted education and independence for his three daughters … he was a progressive man in a traditional context; he saw in Doris Day and empowered woman” (VA188).  American influence had made its way into other countries, filtrating the influences for a different way of life.  She came to America because she didn’t want to disappoint her father, thus indicating the hold on traditional expectations, however, this was in no way a hindrance because she desired to come to a new world with new opportunities.

Assimilating into a different world has varying difficulties depending on the generation.  At the end of the story, In The Land of the Free, the change is marked by the pain the parents, first generation, feel as they lose their children in to the assimilation in America, and the child tells his mother to go away.  The first generation is deluded by the thought that the children will not forget or that they will hold the same endearment.  Common markers of assimilation are noted when the child is given a culturally more acceptable name that is easier to pronounce, Kim.  He was considered the “pet” of the place and “his little tricks and ways amused and delighted every one” (IA10).  This is the typical view of the dominant culture to not see immigrants as people like them but as pet, or this may even allude to the monkey metaphor with the description of amusing tricks.  He also was dressed like a typical American in blue cotton overalls and white-soled shoes.  The parents that have not so easily assimilated become targets for schemes in the American system.  They remain blind and unaware to the distrustful characters that take advantage of their unknowingness of the dangers in the new world.  This is seen in their interaction with the lawyer who scams the father into paying more money while he withholds information.  He makes propositions that take advantage of their innocence.  Assimilating into a different world, the dominant world is full of fresh newness, a type of whiteness that never seems obtainable for those who are by nature, full of color.  This contrast is a major symbolic marker for the struggle to be something that by one’s identity as an immigrant or minority can never be:  white.

It is the desire to be a part of the new world, to fit in, and to be considered an American that causes the non-resisting immigrants to scour their colorful world – clean.  In Monkey Bridge, the dominant culture is uncluttered and there is an absence of flamboyance.  The office environment at Mount Holyoke is unobtrusive and nonthreatening.  However, beneath the plain uncluttered surface, there lies a layer of complexity.  There is power in the dominant culture, and in the interview, the power lies in the tall blond woman who will make a decision as to whether or not Mai will be accepted into the dominant world.  Though Amy Layton, the interviewer, discretely and potentially violates the ethics of the interview, Mai must too be discrete in her maneuvering.  Ironically, she does not utilize the American way of psychology to get her through this situation, as she did with the apartment manager, instead, she resorts to Asian Tradition, which turns out to work successfully.  Perhaps this is to suggest, though the immigrant wants to be all American, their roots do serve purpose, however, it must too be under the surface and discretely done.  If Mai had openly displayed her Asian beliefs, she would not have achieved the desired outcome. Similar to Bread Givers, attending college allows the immigrant an opportunity to learn how to act a certain way with luxury and privilege.  They learn in terms of the way things in work in America just by being a part of the college culture.

In “Thank God for the Jews” by Tahira Naqvi, Fatima observes in the kitchen the clutter of baby food jars and cans of formula, she saw them “huddling together as if seeking safety in numbers – didn’t help either” (IA223).  This symbolically represents the different cultural groups of immigrants that come together to America, but even in groups they were not safe or immune to changes.  There is also pressure on retaining respect for the older generation.  Fatima experienced this as she tried to find meat that is culturally acceptable according to tradition.  She discovered through her friend Samina the availability of kosher products.  This is indicative of the strong traditional Jewish culture, which was able to change the American market of products available in abundant quantity.  Mixing of beliefs and willingness to open her mind to different cultures shows that Fatima is becoming more and more like multi-culture America as she accepts the Jewish ordinances.  Furthermore, in excitement she exclaims, “Ali, our troubles are over.  Thank God for the Jews” (IA229)!  Rather than thanking Allah in ritual she thanks God.  She has assimilated to a degree:  she watches television and shops for American products, but she stays at home.  She is ambivalent and feels pressures to balance in the middle.  Fatima’s experience is representative of anxiety caused by assimilating and feeling guilty for abandoning tradition.  Also, she was worried about how others who have not assimilated so fully would judge her for her lost ways.

Experimenting with changes in identity and gender expectations ranges in degrees of stress.  Immigrants may experience problems similar to the minority culture in discrimination (racial and cultural) as long as the differences are noticeable.  In the poem, “When I was Growing Up” by Nellie Wong, the adjustment to be like the dominant culture was traumatic.  With interest lying in achieving justice, Wong’s work typically reflects oppression, exploitation of workers/women/minorities/and immigrants (WF).  In the poem she expresses the struggle with identity and the turmoil of not only appearing different, but feeling different as a second-generation immigrant.  Her desire to fit in and become the American girl as modeled in appearance by the blond white skin women.  Here there is no struggle with holding on to the old world.  The poet wants “in” with full force, only in spite of her enthusiasm, she is not being accepted as she had hoped.  The poem is about coming to terms with what cannot be changed no matter how great the change is desired.  At times, the immigrant, and even minority, must accept what cannot be denied – their ethnic culture, and you can still be American while you are your culture.  Through the poem, Wong seems to achieve justice with herself.  She gives rest to her own exploitation and perhaps realizes her indifference was self-inflicted.  Taking a different view of the experimentation with identity, in “A Wife’s Story” by Bharati Mukherjee, the gender differences are noticeable in the first generation immigrant friend, Imre, as he held Panna’s hand.  He’s been in America for over two years, yet he still holds onto “old-world, very courtly, openly protective of women” (IA66).  Immigrants change America through intermarriage, but many of the first generation immigrants come to America already married.  There have been trends in the anthology pieces of this generation making friends in America with the opposite sex of different races.  There is a harmless flirtatious curiosity of interest as if to tamper with the taboo of choosing a partner from a different culture, but their life commitment remains with commitment to a marriage within the same culture.

Intermarrying usually occurs in stage three of the immigrant narrative.  Least willing to accept this change is the Jewish American culture, and not until recent years have this trend begun to change.  Another grand contributor to change in America is the changes that occur in gender roles.  Reflective of gender change, Panna’s gender position in that she’s making something of her life; she left home to get a Ph.D. in special education.  Both of their spouses are in their homeland countries while they are in the United States.  The old world male gender model as the narrator’s husband comes to America to visit her, he stands out like a “displaced child, or even a woman, looking for something that passed him by, or for something that he can never have” (IA68).  In the new world, things have different meaning.  Panna observes the concept of love in America as “a commodity, hoarded, like any other” (IA68).  She said, “affection, love.  Who can tell the difference in a traditional marriage in which a wife still doesn’t call her husband by his first name” (IA69)?  She also realizes the trade off for assimilating and following her dream as she feels lonely for her husband, but she bounces back with “I’ve broadened my horizons” as to say she is willing to accept the sacrifices.  The husband is trained in his country to accept changes as part of his profession as vice president for a Bombay company, but in America he seems disoriented and lacks any ability to accept the changes he sees occurring with his wife.  In America everything takes on a type of reversal as her husband shops and picks out the hair rinses and high-protein diet powders, and the wife handles the money.  Changes in perception of the community in that America is a society of strangers working on a system of trust.  Panna allows a man to possess their camera to take a picture of her and her husband because he tells them he is a photographer.  The husband claims he could have been a camera thief, but she “somehow” trusted.  Coming to terms with gender and the variations of freedoms in America exposes a new world for many women.

In “Love Me or Leave Me” by Bharati Mukherjee, elective affinity becomes a view of love that the immigrants see as a privilege taken for granted by the dominant culture.  The narration sees the freedom to chose a mate as a way to assimilate in to the American culture.  In America she experienced a happy time “when every song and film about love seemed to speak directly to me” (VA188).  She said, “I fell in love with, and married, a man who happened to be an American citizen, and scrapped all plans for ever going back to live in India” (VA188).  Intermarriage is a mark of the immigrant culture that is different from the minority culture because the minority culture tends to resist assimilating.  The narrator learns independence and the exuberance of exercising her rights as a woman in America.  She explores her options to choose a career also and talked about her desire to be a writer.  The American role model, Doris Day, helped her come to terms with her identity as a woman and the vast possibilities that awaited her in America.  She observed, “the woman artist combined smart-cookie-ness with integrity and innocence” (VA193).  She notes the old system of Caste in India does not apply in America and that the differences in class and gender could be overcome.  Exposed to a vastness of newness, immigrants see what Americans take for granted as Fatima, in Thank God for The Jews, “envied the women in Lahore who didn’t have to torment themselves with such absurd doubts when they were planning a feast for a husband’s friend’s mother” (IA227).  Surely Fatima posses respect tradition in a far greater capacity than her non-immigrant counterparts.  She is still not completely free from the past and has not been able to fully escape it.  This is probably due to the traditional teachings in the Quran on gender:  “Women shall have rights similar to those exercised against men, although men have a status above women” (IA227).  Evidently her husband still exercised some authority or else she would not go through so much trouble to please him, and moreover, she is a stay at home wife which also indicates some old world views. 

As in all terms of the immigrant experience, the expansiveness of the changes is felt in all areas.  The community is the second family, so the change in the community is also a sensitive adjustment.  In “His Grace” by Mikhail Naimy, the new model of immigration is represented in the frequent travel back and forth.  The narrator tells about the former tenants that “emigrated to America, came back rich and brought a large part of the land that belonged to the Da’waq estate” (IA112).  The travel made changes possible by the American economy.  He goes further to tell, “this Bey was a former servant of the Sheikh” (IA113).  This is the type of changes in status that can occur in America because of the economy.  This affects the old world of religion, tradition and respect, as the Sheikh is bumped out of the ladder of status, “all he had left was the title and astronomical debts” (IA113).  Before, with tradition, this was all that mattered because the community held respect for those in certain titles.  The narrator eventually immigrated to America and opened a restaurant in New York, he was able to pick up on the trends for money making and entrepreneurship in America, while ‘His Grace the Bey’ resisted and remained at the bottom of the labor ladder selling newspapers and polishing shoes.  He also slept on a bench, and remained homeless.  Those that live in the OW and refuse to accept change, accept the NW and assimilate, live in a delusional state.

Even the old world is subjected to change and one must change even within those perimeters.  In Monkey Bridge, there is a type of social dislocation among Americans who served in Vietnam and among the Vietnamese in America.  Little Saigon as an ethnic enclave houses immigrants that never feel at home in America.  Even the Vietnam veteran, Bill, does not feel at home in America.  The intercontinental migration is similar to the immigrant experience.  In the enclave, they “fabricated a familiarity for our own comfort, which had strangely also become a source of consolation and familiarity for former GIs” (64).  They had products and food from the old world.  It is observed that the ethnic enclaves, “Chinatowns and Little Italys sustain the will to maintain a distance” (37).  Immigrants essentially found they could pick up the old world and place it in the new world, but it changes.  Freedom to make up past occurs, “our ghosts could roam unattached to the old personalities … righteousness in this transformation … came a clatter of new personalities” (40).  The reality is complicated and adjustable once the American freedom catches on.  Whether or not travel outside the enclave is possible depends on the individual’s ability to communicate with the English-speaking world.  Immigrant switch in language acquisition is easier with children.  Mai talks to the apartment manager and her mother becomes like a child dependent on her.  The heroic generation falls to the mercy of the ambivalent generation.  Mai grows up in American culture and her mother regresses.  At the end, the generations reverse as Mai becomes less sure of herself and asked “unanswerable questions” while her mother and Mrs. Bay “continued to create a new reality – a courtly, entrepreneurial future for themselves in the here and now of America” (166).

Religion in a sense, teaches people how to live.  It creates a model for people to mimic in moments of crisis.  In terms of Asian myth, Karma is very different from Christianity.  Karma, as defined, is the law of moral causation.  From the handout, “it is action and reaction the ethical realm.  It is natural law that every action produces a certain effect … the effect of one’s past karma determines the nature of one’s present situation in life.”  The custom of the Tet is for promise to acknowledge past offenses so that “a new karma would be ushered in with the new year” (73).  Karma can be contrasted with Christianity in that Christianity allows room for forgiveness of sins.  America is a land of new beginnings, whereas in Karma is something that carries over to the new world.  Mai’s mother “believed in the infinite, untouchable forces that made up the hidden universe:  hexes and curses, destiny and karma” (24).  There was no escaping the karma in Asian terms.  Every action had to be proceeded with caution so as to avoid “one wrong move.”  Being in the middle of two worlds, it was difficult for Mai to make the distinction between what her father called: “one wrong move, which was to be avoided at all costs” (25).  According to her father, the mistake could change the course of history.

Asian myths as story patterns translate stories in terms of previous stories.  In describing the adventure to Canada, Mai tells:  “Bobbie’s Chevy could become an elephant, and I a sword-wielding Trung sister, the greatest warrior of all Vietnamese warriors, fearlessly defying danger and death to lead a charging army against a brigade of Chinese invaders … a history of defending, not crossing boundaries” (29).  Mai also blends two myths, American and Asian, into her own translated version of the Bionic Woman:  “The Bionic Woman was a little bit of Shaolin kung fu mixed with American hardware, American know-how” (9).  In the old world, the Confucian system is built on respect for authority.  Mai describes her grandfather, “he was a traditional man, a devout Confucian …” (5).  Mai, already losing the Confucian ways makes an analytical observation in her treatment towards her mother.  She said, “a month ago, I would have handed (the cup) to her with perfect Confucian etiquette – clasped in both hands.  The right hand would have been too flippant, the left hand an insult, but both hands were perfectly, exquisitely polite” (8).  Instead, Mai forced her mother to pick it up her self.  As an outsider, Bobbie is able to influence Mai by telling her to let her mother do it herself.  In another instance, Mai wants to defy obedience when her mother commands her to settle matters with the apartment manager, however “thirteen well-bred years of Confucian ethics had taught (her) the fine points of family etiquette and coached (her) into near-automatic obedience” (21).  Americans are trained to adapt and Asians usually follow authority.  The old world has formality and the new world has informality.  The old world is not supposed to question or deviate, while the nature of the new world is to ask Socratic questions.

Roles in generation expectations reverse as life in America quickly transfuses into the immigrant young, roles reverse and Mai becomes the mother.  Letting go of the old world religion is not difficult for some.  For many American immigrants, the thrill of the new world is candy for consumption.  Fatima, in Thank God for the Jews, is comfortable with the views of the new world.  Though for the sake of the visitor she is having over for dinner, she feels pressure to retain the old world out of respect for the older generation.  Not seeming to mind the lack of structure of the old religion, she still recalls from her memory a traditional teaching as she recited to herself as she rinsed the meat, “there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet” (IA224).  Fatima does not directly identify herself by her religion any longer in the new world, however to “undertake that little ritual made her feel pious and wise beyond her years” (IA224).  She is an immigrant that willing made changes to assimilate, but there seems to be a trend of comfort in the old familiar, in the traditions gone but not forgotten.  Though the immigrants are in the new world, retrieving back to traditional beliefs in privacy is elating.  However, she is able to see through the un-usefulness of strictly living by practices that are not a part of living in the new world:  “all this nonsense about bleeding the animal, or pronouncing the name of Allah at the time the poor animal is put to the knife – it’s ridiculous” (IA224)!  The ambivalence of feeling pious and ridiculous at traditional practices and yet observing the contradiction is humorous.  As she watches television she sees the dominant culture appear in her old world.  She watches from a distance the conflict of the Jews and the Muslims fighting again in the Middle East.  She now has the choice to watch from the safety of her American home.  She buys into American commercialism as she adds to her grocery list “detergent – Fab” (IA226).  Her shopping is affected by the internal debate on the tradition of the Quran and the convenience of shopping.  In reflection, she “felt guilty for not having offered prayers or read the Quran in what was surely a very long time” (IA226).  Even though many immigrants are comfortable with their transition, the immigrant in stage five will tamper with rediscovery and partially glorify with what was given up.

To conclude, the effects of immigration and assimilation on the cultural units or identities appear in family, generation, gender, community, and religion.  Immigrants change America in many ways, but most considerably they change American in gender roles and by intermarrying.  As people intermarry the differences blend and decrease.  The cultural variations in America create a challenge in categorizing people (which is good!).  Managing to face and overcome obstacles in their experiences, immigrants expose the diverse nature of humanity.  Breaking away from tradition is difficult since tradition is the foundation of moral and ethical behavior for many.  For many, tradition (religion) was influenced in the formative years (of childhood), so it is no surprise that the cultural changes in religion disrupt the inner balance for many immigrant Americans.  America is a place where the rigidity of cultural identification becomes soft.  There is a fusion of many different cultures and practices and what was once familiar is no longer as effective in an environment that may or may not recognize its validity.  Culture defines religion and religion defines culture.  Divinity for many is a reflection of the self and it is a means of feeling connected.  Given that understanding, there is much admiration for the immigrants that overcome such conflicts. [DR]


[First half of essay from email exam]

            The Asian and Middle Eastern immigrant experiences seem to differ somewhat from the national migrations of the Jews and Pilgrims.  Immigrants from these areas often come to America with religious belief systems and customs that are very different from those of the WASP dominant culture of the United States.  First generation immigrants often come to America to escape political unrest in their home country or to take advantage of the economic freedom that America has to offer.  They think that they can simply transplant their families, religious beliefs and all, into America.   These first-generation immigrants, however, often find out that the cost of economic or political freedom is higher than they expected.

            In the short story, “In the Land of the Free,” Sui Sin Far symbolically captures the extreme price immigrating parents pay for economic opportunity.  Laae Choo and Hom Hing, Chinese immigrants, are forced to hand over their infant son to customs agents because he was born after their immigration documents had been processed.  After hundreds of dollars and ten months later, the boy is finally returned to his parents, but not before he has been “Americanized” by missionaries.  When finally they meet again, the toddler, dressed in the navy blue of the dominant culture, shrinks from his mother and hides “himself in the folds of the white woman’s skirt.”  He tells his mother to, “Go ‘way, go ‘way!” (11).  The Americanization and “emotional theft” of the Chinese child here symbolizes the phenomenon that immigrating families often experience.  Parents think that they can transport themselves to America and keep their original belief systems and ethnic identities intact, but children who are impressionable and have the need to “fit in,” often estrange themselves from the ethnicity of their parents.

            One reason that adolescent immigrants tend to break away from their parents’ Old-World-traditional values lies in the opportunities America offers women.  In “Love Me or Leave Me,” Bharati Mukherjee explains that she chooses to stay in America because she “was happier in Iowa City than in Calcutta.”  She married a man with whom she had fallen in love, rather than agreeing to a traditional arranged marriage.  American influence, however, had begun to affect Mukherjee, changing her core values, long before she left Calcutta.  At fifteen years of age, she sees a Doris Day film.  Just as Day’s character in the movie allows “the end to justify the means,” Mukherjee takes advantage of her father’s desire to educate his daughters to escape to a land that offered women more freedom.  The American way of life entices the child away from the parent. [JS]




[Excerpt from email exam]

The U.S., built, at least in its ideals and goals, on a foundation of equality, often poses challenges to those from a culture in which gender roles are strictly defined.  Maxine Hong Kingston writes of the uselessness girls were made to feel by their traditional Chinese culture in “The Warrior Woman.” The sense of powerlessness, due to gender and ethnicity, further complicating Kingston’s sense of impotency.  Not only was she suffering as a second generation immigrant whose parents did not encourage her education, education functioning as an effective assimilator, but she could not succeed by Chinese standards, in which a woman would avenge her family’s dishonor by any means. 

Sometimes conflict between Old World and New World roles can be partially resolved by a dramatic event that reveals the strength in Old World gender role development.  For example, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s “Restroom” features a woman from rural India who journeys to the U.S. only to discover that her working-class husband has been hospitalized as the result of a shooting.  The narrator, at first overwhelmed by the new sights and rendered unable to even go to the bathroom by her shyness, eventually makes her way to a bathroom.  There she feels the water as it “flows and flows over my hands, warm and full of light, like a blessing.”  This hopeful ending signifies her resolve to stay in the U.S. and tireless work at the convenient store, as she had originally planned.  The final images of her are contrary to that of a submissive woman, rather she must draw on the strength which was fostered while performing back-breaking labor among other women in India. 

In Bharati Mukherjee’s “A Wife’s Story” she writes of an immigrant woman from an upper-class background.  Although educated, Panna must adapt to the freedom the West, which she does with relish.  Not only does she wear pants, but she forms a close friendship with a man and walks the streets of New York confidently.  However, she feels conflicted about her role as a wife when her husband visits.  She fears her new liberation means that she has lost touch with her husband and their old way of life.  Panna’s husband proves to be receptive to her new confidence and even falls in love with New York, hopefully signaling a happy ending for the couple.  In addition to her fears over assimilating too rapidly, Panna must face the discrimination or insensitivity commonly encountered by first generation immigrants.

Often the temptation is to classify Asian or Middle Eastern women as subservient in their native cultures and therefore overwhelmed by the new equality they encounter in America.  This sentiment was, or is, common in many progressive movements in America, like the women’s liberation movement of the 1970’s.  The characterization of Asian/Middle Eastern, and some Hispanic cultures as oppressive to woman alienated many minority an immigrant women from the mainstream feminist movement.  There are certainly differences, such as the American emphasis on individualism, which contrasts the Asian tendency to define identity through familiar relationships.  Asian women often do not find it confining to define themselves primarily as “daughter,” “sister,” “wife,” and/or “mother.” While Western women often feel that their culture is “liberating,” other cultures do not always equate Western values and traditions with freedom.  In fact, they often view American culture as de-emphasizing family and community.  For example, the extended family, long portrayed a bane for young Asian brides, prevents the type of social isolation common among Western youth. Few young people in traditional Asian societies suffer the alienation common in the West, although the cause of this phenomenon can be debated.  In a more topical example, women in some societies, such as Egypt, have voluntarily returned to veiling after wearing Western dress for several years.  They may very well feel more liberated than an American woman and appreciate the benefits of their traditions.  In any case, the difficulties in gender roles that Asian/Middle Eastern immigrants suffer cannot be simply attributed to the idea that America provides greater “equality” any more than one can attribute such difficulties to the idea that America is anti-family.  America does provide a very different environment, one that is, for one reason or another, difficult for immigrants to assimilate to. . . . [AS]


[Complete essay from email exam]

The Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants share many characteristics with the immigrants from other parts of the world as they try to assimilate into American culture. However, their assimilation is more difficult because of their native familial structures, religious practices, and their views of women.

            “In the Land of the Free,” by Sui Sin Far, illustrates how filial piety resulted in devastating circumstances for this Chinese man and his immediate family. He sent his wife back to China to give birth to their son. Immediately afterwards, his parents became ill so she stayed in China for twenty months to care for them. The obligation he felt for the welfare and care of his parents overrode any desire he may have had for his family’s return to America.  Another example is found in “Thank God for the Jews,”  by Tahira Naqvi. When a young woman’s obligation to feed her aunt only “halal meat” sends her into a tailspin, Her anguish is relieved only when she realizes kosher Jewish food is equal to the halal meat of Pakistan. In similar situations, the more “selfish” American would give less consideration to the extended family’s needs and/or desires.

            The religious differences are seen in Monkey Bridge and “After the Funeral Mass of Assam Hamady.” The Vietnamese religion (as portrayed in Monkey Bridge) was “[…] Confucian and believed in the worship of spirits and the sanctity of the ancestral land” (83), and the Muslim faith is illustrated as being rigid in its practices in “Funeral Mass.” In this poem Muslim belief required a carload of men traveling on the highway to stop when it was time to pray; the elders took a prayer blanket to the side of the road and commenced to pray and sing. Americans are mobile to the point of placing virtually no importance on ancestral land and they want to fit in as shown by the speaker of the poem who had become Americanized just enough to feel awkward and too self-conscious to publicly participate in his family’s prayer ritual.

            Another difference between these cultures and American culture is the way women are perceived. Women view Middle Eastern women as severely oppressed and they in turn view American women as exploited sex objects (this was learned in my Cultural Anthropology class). Bharati Mukherjee touches on the female issue in “A Wife’s Story” because the protagonist, Panna, has a traditional Hindu marriage until she leaves India and moves to the United States. Once in America she experiences the freedom America offers women and she befriends a very sexual young woman (Charity Chin). Later, when she contemplates India she thinks, “That part of my life is over . . . the way Charity Chin and her lurid love life have replaced inherited notions of marital duty” (69). This passage implies that she finds American life more appealing and that she will forsake her husband and her cultural traditions.

            The tensions between Americans and the people of the Middle East continue to escalate, primarily over religious issues that have become political. Our value systems are completely opposite, our cultural perceptions are often erroneous and both cultures believe their way is the right way; therefore reconciliation between the two cultures is unlikely in the near future. One way of diffusing the problem is to study their culture through literature, and hope they do the same.[TStJ]





[Complete essay from email exam]

I am having trouble understanding/interpreting the second problem, but will try my best…

With such traditional cultures, such as Asian and Middle Eastern peoples, it is difficult at best for Americans to understand the customs and affinity these people have for these customs, such as the hierarchical nature of the Eastern power structures, which are much more male dominated and rigid than those of the Western world.  When Easterners move to the United States, it is usually for economic reasons, with no interest in culture or customs, or even the eventual “corruption” of tradition and customary ways of acting and thinking.  With this reason in mind, it seems tragic for the first generation to lose their children to the very appealing way of life of the American people.

First, there is the new egalitarian way of thinking (whether one agrees that it is actually egalitarian in practice is another problem).  In the traditional Asian/Middle Eastern societies, the male dominates the entire public and private sphere.  So, female liberation and independence seems to be the first step away from tradition.  There is also the diversity of cultures within the American “culture,” and the bombardment of messages promoting this lifestyle in the media and people surrounding the immigrants.

In Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge, Mai is faced with this dilemma.  She is sure that she would like to participate in the American life, but is unsure of her obligation to her heritage.  Her mother tries to at least instill a part of this past into Mai, hoping that she will not forget.  Mai wants to stay close to her mother, but she also wants to attend college, which will mean that she must leave her mother for her own benefit.  Whether or not Mai wants to be independent is not in question, as she knows that she wants to be on her own.  Her obligations to her culture, though, pose a continuing problem with her aspirations, as a sort of internal struggle between independence and codependence.  She knows that if she stays with her mother that she cannot realize her “full potential.”

Eventually, her mother dies just in time for Mai to leave for school, but leaves her with a resonating reminder of her past.  Lessons learned, she grows up knowing that only through moderation between acknowledging her heritage and gaining her independence from the traditional culture from which she comes is the life she needs to lead.  Though a Romantic notion to retain and practice her traditional culture’s customs and beliefs, it is an unrealistic way of living, especially as a woman, in the American society.

There is also the notion of honor and truth in the Asian cultures.  These values were very strong with these peoples and meant life or death.  In Sui Sin Far’s “In the Land of the Free,” the main characters have trouble (culture shock, if you will) understanding why their word is not good enough for the American legal system.  They soon learn that it revolves around money, and that, if one has enough of the green stuff, they can get anything or manipulate anyone they wish.  This is realized in their dealing with the lawyer in the attempt to reclaim their only son.  The trouble that is had is that they cannot understand why the American lawyer will not help them without the money he requires (at least right away.  The husband gives the man his word that he will be paid in full, just that there is not enough money at the moment in question).  Their pain in understanding resembles the struggle most immigrants from their part of the world experience in assimilating into American society.  Though they do reclaim their son at the end of the story, there is still a feeling of disappointment and incompletion, thus resembling the ongoing struggle of these peoples.

In Mukherjee’s A Wife’s Story, the main character faces adversity in trying to retain her customs and beliefs.  She witnesses the fully assimilated person through her roommate’s actions and words, that there is a resemblance between that of her old world in the Asiatic countries, with the oppression/repression of women in society, and the expectations men have of women in American society.  Though she does participate in some of the activities of the new land (movies, opposite-sex friendships, etc.), she does remain faithful to her traditional customs and husband.

That she has overcome the repression of women in her society while remaining faithful to her beliefs and her husband is realized when she somewhat defies her husband’s wishes for her to return to India with him.  She remains loyal, though not only to her husband but to herself as well.  This is a very powerful image of retention of culture while overcoming the negative aspects of the old ways.  By the end of the story, she realizes her own value while continuing to respect and hold dear the customs of her people.  Perhaps this is the way that an immigrant is able to achieve her highest potential in America while retaining her identity, without trying to blend into society while gaining its benefits.  She sets the example for future immigrants to follow.

As far as interaction with the dominant culture, difficulties still emerge as a major oppressive force.  This is the focus of Nellie Wong’s poem, “When I was Growing up.”  The expectations of women in both the traditional Asian cultures and the new American society are oppressive in their own distinctive ways, and Wong’s piece addresses the American side.

If one only wanted to “exist” alongside the dominant culture and not concern themselves with what they thought of them, this could be done without a problem.  It is when one wants to “fit in” or feel somewhat equal that problems arise.  In the poem, the narrator explains that she once longed to be white.  She explains that she was bombarded with the societal expectations of beauty in women, the ways to go about obtaining this beauty, and the difficulty in trying. 

“Those with fair skin being praised…”

This line shows that there was/is certain criteria for obtaining this beauty, one in which the expectations are shallow and impossible.  There were also the popular cultural icons, all of which were fair skinned beauties who wore makeup and participated in fashion culture.  The narrator felt that it was impossible to win the admiration of these people as long as she was Asian and, more importantly, looked the part.

She was also faced with the stereotypes of her people.  She overcame one to fall into another.  The poem was a very introspective look at the difficulties one must overcome in the move from the old world into the new.  By the end, though, the narrator sees the futility and absurdity in trying to be something she is not, and transcends the popular culture’s expectations, finding that their values are what should change, not her physical appearance.  This is another example of one overcoming the struggles of the immigrant in the New World, showing even the dominant culture the necessity for change, and that there is value in the things that immigrants bring from their old ways, and, that one can become themselves and move beyond fulfilling old expectations and creating an entire set of new ones. [WF]