Thrity Umrigar’s main characters in her novel The Weight of Heaven are American. She writes from their perspective, and although it sometimes comes across as slightly didactic at times, she generally portrays Frank and Ellie sympathetically. It is clear, for instance, that these are two people who find it difficult to truly communicate with one another, and this is reflected in several other couples presented in Umrigar’s novel. Indeed, the first few words of the novel highlight this schism in their marriage engendered by the death of their son Benny. Soon after, the couple finds themselves in India, where Umrigar takes the opportunity to mirror this interpersonal shortcoming in the larger field of transnational understanding. The reflections compound as if the relationships are co-metaphors, with either reflecting the other. As Umrigar introduces more interpersonal relationships, this hall of mirrors becomes more complex, revealing the complexities in transnational relationships in a globalized world.
Anh Hung Tran’s film, The Scent of Green Papaya, is full of slow continuous shots which move easily between indoor and outdoor settings. These shots serve to conflate the two settings, and reflect Mui’s ambivalent standing within the family. Mui is held both within the family and without, as the mother views her in her daughter’s place and the two sons strive to keep her out of the inner family. Although the movie is set at the end of French colonial power in Vietnam, and before full American involvement, very little mention is paid to these two outside powers, except that Mui’s place in the family may be read as a metaphor for the experience of a colonized people. In other words, just as Mui occupies an ill-defined, liminal space within the family, a colonized country occupies an ill-defined, liminal space in relation to itself. Such a country lay well outside the central power of the colonizers, and yet is unable to self-determine in such a way as to be a successful society. It is not until Mui escapes from the family she serves that she begins to occupy a self-determined space in the world, and even that space takes time for her to create.
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Bich Minh Nguyen writes about the intermingling of cultural desire through food in her memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. The obsessions with unobtainable foods and everyday foods come across clearly in indexes of American junk foods and experientially local family foods. Nguyen’s childhood – at least as indicated in her memoir – was filled with a cross-cultural desire that at first was met by her father, yet later restrained by her stepmother Rosa. Although this restraint of junk food induced a certain resentment, Rosa also introduced her family’s foods to the Nguyen family. Food experience and culture are intimately linked to common family experiences of mealtimes and celebrations. And as with any childhood, Nguyen was exposed to desires outside her control, as well as culture to which she had to adjust. Unlike Americans generations deep in the U.S., however, Nguyen’s father did not have the cultural awareness to ground her new experiences, as many of them were new to him, as well. Nguyen’s ambivalence for this liminal state of being pulled in two (or even three) cultural directions is represented by the nostalgia with which she writes about the various food obsessions she had as a child. As many American writers, Nguyen writes about her obsession and her family, creating a space in the literary tradition for her multivalent existence in a multi-cultural immigrant family.
One primary shortcoming of film is the reduced ability to fully convey a cultural milieu. The need to compress content to fit within the confines of a film necessitates removing many scenes, easily conveyed in novels, which are able to present the kind of cultural environment which promotes understanding across unfamiliar audiences. This reduction can be managed, but in the environment of study across textual mediums, still becomes readily apparent as evidenced in Picture Bride. Kayo Hatta’s film centers on the immigration experience of Japanese to Hawai’i’s sugar cane plantations. While many aspects of culture are exhibited in the film, they are often forced into reductionary examples rather than consistent themes.
Beyond the reading of colonial oppression (or subjugation) parallelism between Akiko’s marriage and the Japanese occupation of Korea in Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman, resides the important parallel results of the same. The effects of the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945 (Mukherjee, 197) are mirrored in the experiences both Akiko and Beccah have in the United States. Keller’s representation of Akiko’s life in the “public restrooms” (108) (or comfort camps) helps to pull the stitches tight between these two images by presenting the reader with one character who experiences the results of both occupation and immigration. Keller reinforces the immigrant experience parallel through Akiko’s daughter, Beccah, who observes her mother’s unraveling. In addition to witnessing her mother’s “craziness,” Beccah manages to experience much of the immigrant condition despite living in Hawaii. If the reader were to understand Akiko and the other women and girls of the comfort camp as embodying the Korean nation, Beccah quite literally combines Korea and the U.S., resulting in a young woman who cannot quite locate her place of belonging. Although not as savagely abused as her mother, Beccah also experiences a dislocation, ironically only discovering place after Akiko dies.
In Bontoc Eulogy, Martin Fuentes addresses a relatively unknown chapter of American history through a mock-documentary search for family history. This fictionalized account of the search for roots takes viewers back to the Philippine-American war, which as the narrator states, comes across as a “dream muted by the dailyness of life’s events” (Fuentes). The disappearance from history is the subject of the eulogy referenced in the title, and Fuentes capitalizes on early film and photographic documentation of the time to emphasize the forgetting. By centering his camera on archaic representation, Fuentes pulls off the shroud surrounding the treatment of Filipinos in the United States during the earlier part of the twentieth century.
Before you start reading, this post seems to be perpetually popular in my traffic statistics. The question this brings up for me is whether this is one of the few commentaries on these specific texts / films, or if there is another reason. I would appreciate insight, if you care to leave a comment. If not, you should probably read my statement on plagiarism. Thanks! On to the reason you’re here:
Both Who Killed Vincent Chin?and The Cheat should cause a modern audience to cringe. Because these cringes may be for two different reasons, the visceral reactions to these films deserve some investigation and explication. In the earlier movie, The Cheat, the orientalist approach to the representation of the villain and the exploitation of popular prejudices against Asian people serve to drive the narrative. Looking back on this film from 1915 offers a chance to examine the unquestioned prejudices and expectations of Asian people during early 20th century America. Who Killed Vincent Chin?, on the other hand, is a much more recent production and offers an examination of both the similarities and differences to those prejudices and expectations in late 20th century America. That the changes displayed between the two films mostly offer only superficial effect offers commentary about the distance still remaining to be traveled in treating prejudice and racism in America today.