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Language and Culture in Autobiography
Language, Culture and Identity in the writings of Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodriguez and Alfred Kazin: degradation of culture, family and self"
Through the three autobiographical works, "Talk," by Maxine Hong Kingston, "Hunger of Memory," by Richard Rodriguez and "Brownsville School Days," by Alfred Kazin a reader can plainly comprehend the difficulties associated with immigration and language learning and how those difficulties interact with a developing child's mind. Though the cultures and languages of all three of these authors are vastly different and the severity of internal and external reactions they have to the circumstances their emotional and intellectual responses to their challenges are strikingly similar.
The simple voices of these three children of different cultures become complex words and ideas issued forth through the phenomena of growing up as an outsider and immigrant and most importantly a non-native English speaker. In these three works it is plainly evident that the difficulty of immersion language training is strikingly similar no matter the culture. The authors share commonalities in experience through the intellectual degradation of their native culture, their parents and most plainly the degradation of self.
In the essay, "Talk" Kingston develops a childhood disdain for the one child who exhibits all her own perceived failings. Through this cruel relationship she demonstrates anger toward her own inability to belong to the larger culture, her disdain for her own culture and her disdain for her parents. In leading to the childhood story Kingston expresses both her feelings of foreignness and her assumption of superiority over her past. The opening ideas of the piece make clear that newer immigrants are not only foreign they are,
How strange the emigrant villagers are shouters, hollering face-to-face. How strange that the father asks, "Why is it I can hear Chinese from blocks away? Is it that I understand the language? Or that they talk loudly?...You can see the disgust on American faces looking at women like that. It isn't just the loudness. It is the way Chinese sounds, chingchong ugly, to American ears, not beautiful like the Japanese sayonara* words with consonants and vowels as regular as Italian. We make guttural peasant noise and have Ton Duc Thang names you can't remember. (14)
In response to the rejection of the loudness and brashness of her culture Kingston feels that Chinese girls adopt a very quiet docile existence.
We Chinese-American girls had to whisper to make ourselves American-feminine. Apparently we whispered even more softly than the Americans. Once a year the teachers referred my sister and me to speech therapy, but our words would straighten out, unpredictably normal, for the therapists. Some of us gave up, shook our heads, and said nothing, not a word. At times shaking my head no is more self-assertion than I can manage. We invented an American-feminine speaking personality, except for that one girl who could not speak up even in Chinese school. (14)
It was through Kingston's hatred for self, parents and culture that her relationship of hatred toward that one girl who just couldn't "make it" developed and played out.
In her anger toward her own softness, she rejected the little girl by seemingly unknowingly comparing the other girl to her own perceived faults. "I hated the younger sister, the quiet one. I hated her when she was the last chosen for her team and I hated her when I was the last chosen for my team. I hated her for her china doll haircut." (15) Kingston grew her hair long so people would not see her neck in case it was weak like the stem of a flower, the way the quite girl's was.
The relationship culminated into an explosive violent abusive scene where Kingston tried to force the girl to speak with cruel words and physical harassment. Played out in the whole scene Kingston expresses her hatred for the authority of her parents and reiterates her hatred for her culture.
A kept wiping my nose on my arm; my sweater lost somewhere (probably not worn because mother had said to wear a sweater). It seemed as if I had spent my life in that basement, doing the worst thing I had yet done to another person. "I'm doing this for your own good, " I said. "Don't you dare tell anyone I've been bad to you. Talk. Please talk." (20-1)
Then when she had been unsuccessful in getting the girl to issue forth even one word and they were both weak with tears the girls older sister finds them and as they are walking home Kingston again expresses her disdain for her own culture by expressing her disdain for the protection the girl has been given by her parents, "Then we found my sister, and we walked home together. "Your family really should force her to speak." I advised all the way home. "You mustn't pamper her." (21)
In "Brownsville School Days," Kazin expresses a similar response to his feelings of inadequacy when facing the necessary learning of "proper" English he develops a stammering inability to express himself clearly and finds himself nearly unable to speak publicly in English.
There was my secret ordeal: I could never say anything except in the most roundabout way: I was a stammerer... I could never seem to get the easiest words out with the right dispatch, and would often miserably signal from my desk that I did not know the answer rather than get up and stumble and fall and crash every word...The word was my agony. (7)
Just as it was for Kingston it is especially clear that the focus on getting it right and being heard speaking properly is so fundamental, that if gone unlearned the worst would surely happen.
Anything less than absolute perfection in school always suggested to my mind that I might fall out of the daily race, be kept back in the working class forever, or -- dared I think it? -fall into the criminal class itself. I worked on hairline between triumph and catastrophe. Why the odds should always have felt so narrow I understood only when I realized how little my parents thought of their own lives. (6)
This spat out class distinction of working class was not only the location of his own possible failed existence but it was already the home of his parents and all the other Jewish Immigrants who spoke a different language at home and rested all their future hopes not in their own ability but in the success of their children.
I was the first American child, their liberation from the shame of being -- what they were. And that there was shame in this was a fact that everyone seemed to believe as a matter of coarse. It was in the gleeful discounting of themselves-what do we know?- with witch our parents greeted every fresh victory in our savage competition for 'high averages," for prizes, for a few condescending words of official praise from the principal at assembly. It was a sickening invocation of "Americanism"- the word itself accusing us of everything we apparently were not. (6)
Kazin seems to find no resolution as he ends the autobiographical tale with the realization that he will always struggle with his feeling of being left out and different.
I had never known. I knew instantly I would never in my heart again submit to, such wild passive despair as I felt at that moment, sitting on the steps...They had put me in the streets. I thought o myself; with their mirrors and their everlasting pulling at me to imitate their effortless bright speech and their stupefaction that a boy could stammer and stumble on every other English word he carried in his head, they had put me out into the streets, had left me high and dry on the steps of that drugstore staring at the remains of my lunch turning black and grimy in the dust. (8)
In "Hunger of Memory" Rodriguez expresses his feelings of isolation from the rest of American society, as being realized as soon as he and his family moved to a non-Mexican neighborhood. They existed in a world all their own. Where their home and culture stood out and wasn't entirely accepted. "I grew up in a house where the only regular guests were my relations. For one day, enormous families of relatives would visit and there would be so many people that the noise and the bodies would spill out to the backyard and front porch. Then, for weeks no one came by." (1) Rodriguez clearly felt as if his family was somehow completely different than anything surrounding him. Rodriguez describes the alienation he and his culture feel when he describes the look and feel of his home and the responses his neighborhood has to it and to he and the other members of his family.
Our house stood apart. A gaudy yellow in a row of white bungalows. We were the people…[continue]
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