Migratory Labor Identity in Exile essay

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Never cold. an'fruit ever'place, an' people just bein' in the nicest places, little white houses in among the orange trees [...] an' the little fellas go out an' pick oranges right off the tree. They ain't gonna be able to stand it, they'll get to yellin' so."(Steinbeck, 95) Their conviction is enhanced by the stories they hear and by false advertisements they are sent. These false advertisements may very well stand for the archetype of contemporary commerce which is dependent on advertisement. California may moreover be a symbol for America itself, which was once seen as a heavenly continent, an unspotted, holy land. Steinbeck thus drafts at once a story of migration and tries to settle and capture the archetypes of the modern world. The story thus focuses on the fall of human life from wholeness into fragmentation: "Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all these, but he is much more, much more; and the land is so much more than its analysis. The man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch."(Steinbeck, 128) the Grapes of Wrath portrays thus the dissolving of an entire community but also of a long stage in the history of humanity, and its replacement with new coordinates for life, such as the ones brought by capitalism.

Another story that tackles identity in exile is that of Jyoti/Jasmine / Jane, the main character of Bharati Mukherjee's novel. While Steinbeck's story focused largely on the panorama of a huge change and the migration of an entire community, Mukherjee's story is restricted to life of a few characters, Jasmine being naturally the most important of them. However, the purport of the book is similar to that of Steinbeck: by setting two very different ways of life up against each other, the novel captures history at its crossroads, with identity wavering between the old and the new. The story of Jasmine is very important for this, as it is a miniature image of this great transformation as well as of the contrast between the East and the West. The name of the novel is very significant as 'Jasmine' is the name that best symbolizes the moment in which the character is at the very crossroads of her identity. Jyoti, her actual name, is the symbol of her old, conventional and superstitious personality that is ingrained with the Indian old customs, while Jane is the name she acquires when she is already in exile in the United States. Jasmine on the other hand is the name that her first husband had given her as an endearment and as a way of breaking her old conceptions: "He wanted to break down the Jyoti I's been in Hasnapur and make me a new kind of city woman. To break off the past he gave me a new name: Jasmine. He said, 'you're small and sweet and heady my Jasmine. You'll quicken the whole world with your perfume.' Jyoti, Jasmine: I shuttled between identities."(Mukherjee, 77) it is in her short first marriage to Prakash that Jasmine thus first gets a glimpse of the contrast between the old, Indian way of life and the 'modern', Western one. It is also at this point that her sense of identity first wavers, since she is caught between her ingrained sense of duty and a new and freer way of thinking. An eloquent example for Jasmine's shaken sense of identity is her confession that, although not yet fifteen years old, she felt envious of other friends of hers who had remained pregnant at even earlier ages: "I didn't dare confess that I felt eclipsed by the Mazbi maid's daughter, who had been married off at eleven, just after me, and already had had a miscarriage."(Mukerjee, 80) Here, gender identity is obviously questioned as Jasmine wavers between the way she was trained to think of herself, as a passive object, someone who has to obey the male figure, and the new ideas she receives from her husband.

Her impulse after his death, of going to America to sacrifice herself in a college campus in Tampa where he had once dreamed of going is a symbol of the voice of ethnicity and cultural background in her. In the Indian tradition, a woman that was widowed has no right to enjoy life anymore. This obviously denotes the fact that identity is obliterated by gender definitions. Like in the Grapes of Wrath however, people are forced to begin a process of adaptation once the change has taken place, so Jasmine eventually is mechanically included in a process of 'Americanization.' This cannot take place without a painful and dramatic identity rupture: "There are no harmless, compassionate ways to remake ourselves. We murder who we were so we can rebirth ourselves in the image of dreams." (Mukherjee, 25) Jasmine does not manage to kill herself as her mission had purposed. This act would have symbolized her conformity and compliance with tradition and the prescribed gender roles. Instead, she manages to 'kill' her old self and adapt to a new way of life. Once again, the story has a certain mythical quality. This is obviously especially at the moment in which Jasmine spots the new land from the ship that is carrying her forward. The description obviously recalls the impression the first explorers might have had of the virgin continent: "Then suddenly in the pinkening black of pre-dawn, America caromed off the horizon. The first thing I saw were the two cones of a nuclear plant, and smoke spreading from them in complicated but seemingly purposeful patterns, edges lit by the rising sun, like a gray, intricate map of an unexplored island continent, against the pale unscratched blue of the sky. I waded through Eden's waste: plastic bottles, floating oranges, boards, sodden boxes, white and green plastic sacks tied shut but picked open by birds and pulled apart by crabs." (Mukherjee, 95-96) What is interesting here is that the process is inverted: while Jasmine is the one that is more 'primitive', America is a false Eden, the cradle of civilization with its filth and waste, the tokens of the consumerist society.

Thus, Mukerjee's novel is also the story of a migration process, seemingly focusing only on one individual who crosses the ocean from East to West, but actually symbolizing the gradual contamination of everything with the marks of civilization and change.

Maxine Kingston's China Men is in many ways similar to the other texts discussed. Again, the East and the West are opposed and the focus is on the hybrid identity acquired through migration and exile. The literary technique the author uses here is a very complex and important one. The story is meant to be an autobiography of the author's grandparents and grand-grandparents but this autobiography is mingled with a lot a fictional facts as well. Kingston thus blurs the border between the historical account and fiction, intending to shake the claim that the dominant civilizations have made over the objective history. By dividing her book into a number of separate stories that mix fact with fiction, the author intends to focus on the status of the Chinese-American identity. Also, Kingston blends the Chinese history of her family with that of America artfully pointing to the fact that these identities have evolved together and that the Chinese have therefore contributed actively to the American history and not merely arrived as an immigrant people that had to be incorporated in the mainstream culture.

The motif of the Gold Mountain that had appeared in the Grapes of Wrath is also present here, as well as the exalted image of America as the Promised Land. The Chinese people who dream about emigration have an altogether idealized image of the American continent: "susceptible to the stories men told [about America, the Gold Mountain],...plausible events not fairy tales.... In their hunger men forgot that the gold streets had not been there when they'd gone to look for themselves.... The hungrier the family got, the bigger the stories, the more real the meat and the gold."(Kingston, 41-42) the people who had already been there are also seen as superheroes that have achieved incredible deeds: "He was...an incarnation of a story hero, returning during a night of stories, a six-foot-tall white gorilla with long hair and white eyebrows that pointed upward like an owl's, his mouth jutting like an ape's, saying "Huh! Huh! Here I am," he roared. "I've come back." He threw down his bags. "Help yourselves! Ho!" His sister's relatives scrambled for the gifts. Nobody asked where he had won these prizes. He threw off his coat and unbuckled pistols and silver knives.... He was the biggest man in the known world, and there was no law." (Kingston, 40) a number of…[continue]

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