On Cultural Assimilation: Interpreting Literary Works of Chin and Alexie

On Cultural Assimilation: Interpreting Literary Works of Chin and Alexie

Literature has always been mirrors of any author’s philosophy, experiences and values. Sherman Alexie (Indian American) and Marilyn Chin (Chinese American) are two authors of distinct origins whose identities have impacted on the style and themes of their literary works. In particular, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” by Alexie and “Turtle Soup” by Chin both expressed significant parts of their lives and cultures in ways which are not direct for the reader to fully recognize. On one hand, Alexie might have simply been telling its readers a story about a Spokane Indian who is homeless and always drunk named Jackson Jackson on the quest to achieve nine hundred and ninety-nine dollars to retrieve his grandmother’s stolen regalia.

However one may be surprised that having known the author’s background, the story is actually more like a telling of his own life and a historical account of US assimilation of the Native Americans or Indian Americans during the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny. The latter is a term that was first used by the Jacksonian Democrats during 1840s to justify American expansion. If one could relate the name of the main character to the aforementioned fact, this is simply suggesting elements of symbolisms that Alexie was fond of in the entire story. On the other hand, Marilyn Chin whose Chinese roots made her knowledgeable of their traditions was able to translate too, in a poem her sentiments about a Chinese tradition of eating turtles turned into an act of consumption in the modern Western lifestyle. Chin is a first-generation Chinese American poet who was born in Hong Kong and was raised in Western USA. In both cases, the authors showed their readers the views where they are coming from in the most artistic and dignified way. Most especially, these two authors have presented a common theme of Cultural Assimilation, which I will to delve into in the succeeding paragraphs.

It is not difficult to understand why Alexie and Chin have brought the aforementioned theme into the world of literature. By definition, Cultural Assimilation is a socialization process that groups or individuals partake when they try to adapt to some or all aspects of a dominant culture. Sherman Alexie himself have resorted to this process being a person of Indian descent in America and Marilyn Chin who grew up in America as well. By pointing to some parts of these two literary works, I hope to reveal the feelings of the author toward their theme. First, it is noteworthy to present which cultures were assimilated into which culture in both works. It is a presumption however that American culture is the dominant culture from which all the rest have decided to succumb into.

In “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” Jakson Jackson’s narrative began when one day he spotted the regalia that his mother lost many years ago in a pawnshop. In a great desire to retrieve his grandmother’s memento, Jackson, went on a “mission” to gather enough money for the regalia within 24 hours. However, as the day progressed, Jackson seems to be finding better things to use his money for. In an interview made by David Welch with Sherman Alexie, the author mentions about a potlatch culture where the wealth of an Indian is determined by how much he gives away which he considers still a big part of him. Thus, the parts where Jackson Jackson has been spending every penny he gets, but only with or for other people suggests a specific tradition that was represented by the author. The author mainly referred to the regalia as the purpose leading the character to a lot of instances all of which for me reflected the author’s perspective on colonialism and assimilation. The regalia was reminding Jackson Jackson about his family’s history as it has been associated with the lives of his grandmother who was a nurse at a military camp in Sydney Australia and his grandfather who was a cop and was killed by his own bloodline. These images represented ideas of war and violence, which transpired during colonialism making people of the same color particularly the brown kill each other for the sake of the white’s domination. This feeling was manifested in the scene where the Maori soldier tells his grandma how funny it is how brown people are killing brown people so that white people will remain free. At the same time she mentions about her brothers who were soldiers too assigned in Germany and Okinawa- both of which are significant in US history of colonialism.

What has truly been a quest for Jackson Jackson was not the retrieval of the regalia but the journey to remembering the past, which was the cause of his own assimilation. Thus in the end, the pawn broker gave him back the regalia because he was able to restore more than what money can buy- a sense of pride for one’s race. The pawnshop became a symbol of things that were stored in their history before assimilation. Had they not been colonized, they would have been able to maintain a stronger, powerful position in the society, not deprived of their own homes and lands. In the late 18th century, the idea of “civilizing” Native Americans was conceived by George Washington and Henry Knox and assimilation became a consistent policy in line with this endeavor. Native Americans of the American Deep South in the early decades of the 19th century were removed from their homelands to accommodate American expansion. The American Civil War had relocated Native American nations west of the Mississippi River. This illustration makes sense to the opening line of the story, “one day you have a home and the next day you don’t.” The main character himself is homeless and has told blatantly about the same “homeless” conditions of other Indians in America, spread across the country in the same places history dictates.

Is the author happy about this homelessness? I suppose not especially since his (Jackson Jackson) own drunkenness symbolizes a need for imaginary strength to conquer what he was made to encounter in the new culture- liberalism, capitalism, poverty, racism, and prejudices. Alexie reveals to us much of his ideas on the present conditions of the Indian Americans. He used the characters of Irene (aggressive woman) and Honey Bear (a bisexual) whom he hanged out with at a bar named Big Hearts to show how Indians like him embraced the new culture of sexual freedom. Prejudice was evident too as a theme in the story. Big Hearts represent a ghetto for Indians. Jackson Jackson takes pride in being secretive against the hungry white folks. In addition, Alexie indicates how other nationalities have immigrated to the United States in the image of the Korean grocery owner Kay. Capitalism and Institutionalism too were seen as contemporary conditions in America embraced fully by all citizens- the establishment of 7-eleven and Big Hearts Organization.

The poem “Turtle Soup” just like the story of Alexie showed the struggle of two cultures in the same space and time or more particularly how the American consumerism has assimilated Oriental traditions. In the poem, the author reminds her mother of what should still be sacred from the old country. Turtle is a representation of a revered Chinese mythological symbol, which is longevity, patience, grandeur and antiquity. The irony however is that turtle became nothing more but a swirling soup distant from its ancestral home and poached by her mother. Her mother showed no interest in the turtle as a cultural symbol instead treating it as a consumable resource. Marilyn Chin’s haunting question: “Is there nothing left but the shell? Represents a sense of hurt and sarcasm toward those who refuse to return to their meaningful traditions because they preferred to clinch into the profit of capitalistic interests. The Chinese just like the Indians are major nations, which found refuge in America for centuries already. Although both coming from rich cultures, their citizenship meant a bow to American policies and a welcome to their becoming second-class identities. This has been referred to as the sacrifice in Chin’s poem. America is a country of proclaimed democracy and extolled capitalism. Chin reveals this in her expression, “Made in Hong Kong”. Cultural assimilation has been presented in both Alexie and Chin’s works as also political and socio-economic assimilation. Their general feelings are the same, which is a combination of melancholy for the forgotten past and hope for those who take time to remember. Jackson Jackson in Alexie’s story and the poet in Chin’s poem both expressed love for their traditions however reprimanded by other people and the mother, respectively.

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