Tsiang- And China Has Hands

First of all, what do we think about the title? I haven’t finished the story (I’m almost done), but I have no idea what to make of it. I noticed throughout the story the use of the same sentences, “Wong Wan-Lee was working in his laundry. While he was working, he was thinking of Pearl Chang” and “Pearl Chang didn’t come”.  Why do we think the author purposely repeated these sentences throughout the text/what does the repetition do?

When the old Chinese man comes into the laundry place and begins to converse with Wong he states, “America is an evil land and once you sink in you can never get out” (p 55).  At what point in the story does Wong perhaps begin to agree with this statement? It isn’t until later on he states, “I, Wong Wan-Lee—the descendant of the first Emperor, the great Huang Ti, the great- greatgrandson of the Han Dynasty, the great-grandson of the T’ang Dynasty, the grandson of the Sung Dynasty and the son of the Ming Dynasty—was exiled to a savage land, first as a waiter and then as a laundryman” (p 99). What do we think about this?

I can’t help but laugh at Pearl Chang and her almost naive-like behavior towards Wan- Lee Wong at times. She is convinced at one point that Wong was a prince; her prince.  “And she was thoroughly convinced that Wong Wan-Lee was a prince of certain validity, and she wished that she had a Five-and-Ten grandfather, for then she would be able to buy ponies for Prince Wong Wan-Lee as a wedding present so that he might ride them in polo games” (p 99). What can we take from this passage?

Another thing I found to be interesting was when Pearl Chang lost her job in the Chinese restaurant in Chinatown because she was not purely Chinese, but she got a job in the cafeteria because ‘the owner thought that as long as Pearl Chang looked like a Chinese, that the Americans would not know whether she was genuine or not’ (145). Also, I find it ironic that when Wan-Lee Wong and Pearl Chang went to the Chinese New Year celebration in Chinatown that they saw more Americans than Chinese (73).  I find it rather comical that Pearl Chang is Chinese (and would you say, proud to be it?) when she can’t even read the language, doesn’t know how to use chopsticks, and thinks Chow Mein and Chop Suey are authentic Chinese dishes.  Lastly, what can we take from the passage where she takes a look at herself in her pocket mirror, is glad she is Chinese and then throws away a small picture of a white movie actress? (97). I think the character of Pearl Chang definitely adds a lot of depth to this narrative and creates an important dynamic between Chinese immigrants and American-born Chinese. 

H.T. Tsiang’s And China Has Hands: Precursor to Literature of New Arrival?

While I have only read the first half of the H.T. Tsiang’s And China Has Hands (1937), I am already surprised by how much the novel seems to be ahead of its time. Namely, it reminds me of “Literature of New Arrival,” the genre that Bharati Mukherjee considers to be the current trend in immigrant writing. One trait of this genre, according to Mukherjee, is that its authors no longer work to ingratiate themselves with their American readership by presenting themselves in sympathetic terms; rather, they challenge Americans to work to understand them on their own terms. In brief, Literature of New Arrival “bites back” (Bharati 687).

Wong Wan-Lee is not a charmer of the contemporary American reader. Repeatedly referring to Americans as “savages,” he clearly feels antagonism toward his new community. Furthermore, while Exclusion-era Asian American works tended to paint appealing images of the contemporary “Old-World” homeland that would draw in American readers, Wong Wan-Lee makes no effort to romanticize his contemporary China (Miller 203-204). On the contrary, he reveals very little about the current state of the land from which he emigrated, except for that China exiled him. Rather, he seems to seek refuge in remembering the glory days of past Chinese empires and in his boasts of royal lineage. These memories and boasts, however, rather than capturing readers’ imagination and eliciting their empathy, arguably come across as rants that serve only to mock the protagonist as jaded and out-of-touch with the times. Wan-Lee also might unsettle American readers by challenging the stereotype of Chinese as a collectivist people: he is remarkably self-interested. When celebrating the Chinese New Year in Chinatown, for instance, he attempts to cheat another immigrant at the “finger game” (80-81). Even his Chinese names, Wan-Lee and I Pen, evoke curiously capitalist notions of seeming personal fortune and investment (11).

Immigrant Narratives

What is an immigrant novel? As I read And China Has Hands I was constantly struck by the idea that I was reading two immigrant novels that were reflected through a great deal of irony. One story was  Wong Wan-Lee’s and the other story was Pearl Chang’s, yet both immigrant stories were very different. Wong Wan-Lee’s immigrant story was one of someone who had just arrived to the United States. He came with the hopes of striking rich; however, his inability to assimilate to American culture and his overall marginalization as a Chinese man ultimately led to his demise. As I read And China Has Hands I felt as though some information about Wan-Lee’s experience was getting lost in translation. With further reflection, I thought this may be the point. Throughout the book Wan-Lee never gets a full understanding of the situations he is faced with. These situations range from personal (his relationship with Pearl-Chang) to business (his relationships with the loan sharks and possible mafia related men.) Wan-Lee took on the form of a traditional immigrant novel, talking about the strife and struggle he faced.

Although Pearl Chang is an American citizen, seeing that she was born in the South, I still read her story as though it were an immigrant novel. Even though she was biracial she felt a closer connection with her Chinese heritage due to her ability to speak the language. In fact, Pearl Chang tried to appear Chinese rather than Black to her community. This may be due to a variety of reasons, but one of them may have to do with the assimilation of Chinese people into white culture (as narrated by the novel.) Pearl Chang’s story was ironic because she was obsessed with fame and in the end of the novel the spotlight is on her, as Wan-Lee says in his final words. I find it ironic that movies are at the root of Pearl Chang’s story. The only things she knew about China and Chinese culture was through the cinema and she assumed these things to be true. Throughout the novel she makes references to the movies and she is shocked when Wan-Lee explains to her that her knowledge is not how Chinese life works. I still consider Pearl Chang’s story to be an immigrant narrative even though she is a US citizen, because she still suffers from the plight that immigrants faced at that.

A Question of Authenticity

In reading the first half of Tsiang and China Has Hands, I was struck by the negative tone and language used to describe the people and lifestyle in America. Americans are often referred to as ‘foreign devils’, savage-like creatures with no understanding of or appreciation for authentic Chinese culture. The narrator, whose identity is unclear, portrays the American as manipulative, with their only intention to take advantage of inferior immigrants. For example, the narrator describes Wong Wan-Lee’s dream of returning to his original place of work if he ever becomes successful and bossing around the people who had once been his demanding superiors. This situation is described as the perfect revenge, which shows his disgruntled and bitter attitude toward the structure of social hierarchy in America.

Furthermore, throughout the novel, there is a recurring theme of authenticity of culture. In many scenes, readers sense a struggle between Wong Wan-Lee’s desire to maintain authentic Chinese culture and the reality of ‘Americanized’ Chinese traditions. In a discussion about food, Wong Wan-Lee claims, “We Chinese eat not Chop Suey. We Chinese eat no Chow Mein. We eat genuine Chinese food” (100). On the Chinese New Year, after Wong Wan-Lee leaves the club intended to be a haven for the ‘real Chinese’ from the swarms of Americans crowded in Chinatown to witness a cultural experience, Wong Wan-Lee comments on the swarms of tourists crowded around a building advertised as a Chinese Temple, but was really a Metropolitan Museum of Oriental Art in Chinatown. Throughout the novel, there is also a tension between American born Chinese people and Chinese immigrants. An interesting question that this novel provokes is: how can foreign cultures be vibrant in America but not be somewhat influenced or changed by American society? Isn’t it inherent that traditions will be ‘Americanized’ if practiced in America?

The Non-Immigrant Narrative

Through my first reading of My Ántonia most of my initial reactions centered around the notion of a man analyzing a female immigrant’s experiences with American society. I’m not sure how this work will compare with others that we read, but I found it most interesting that there is actually contention for the role of protagonist. Jim certainly transforms throughout the novel, but alongside an entire plot surrounding a dynamic Ántonia. We discussed filtering in class and I always wonder how others define immigration as they see it at a personal level. Every day in the media we are exposed to objective observations on a particularly personal subject. But in My Ántonia’s we see personal growth through simultaneous protagonist development over a lifetime of friendship. The experiences I found most fascinating were those regarding gender. When our common perceptions of immigration are objectified through any lens, I think we often overlook gender as an important identity in immigrant narratives. Even in insignificant moments, like the argument between Jim and Ántonia where she repeats her mother’s justification for emigration, “American big country; much money, much land for my boys, much husband for my girls.” (98, Cather) gender norms influenced their movement. Again, Cather stresses Ántonia’s strong or brutish demeanor with constant reference to her physical appearance and work habits, and then describes her migration to the city as a form of gender assimilation. Meanwhile, Jim develops as a young man in school learning to, “…fight, play ‘keeps’, tease the little girls, and use forbidden words as well as any boy in [his] class.” (128) We see a family’s immigration experience contextualized by American working class during a time when societies of most cultures had strict gender roles for working people. The division is apparent on a broad scale in the first half of the book, but it’s not until Ántonia comes to the city when the roles become anecdotal. Her experiences with the pavilion and Cutter show the difference between working as a female and male immigrant.

My Ántonia

I’m really enjoying this narrative so far. There are a few scenes within the story that have caught my attention. The first time I notice Jim acting hostile towards the Shimerda family is when Mrs. Shimerda pleads with his grandmother to gift her a kitchen pot. “I thought it weak-minded of grandmother to give the pot to her.. She was a conceited, boastful old thing, and even misfortune could not humble her. I was so annoyed that I felt coldly even toward Ántonia and listened unsympathetically when she told me her father was not well” (Cather, 98). Ántonia expresses her concern for her father and Jim goes on to say, “People who don’t like this country ought to stay at home. We don’t make them come here” (98). This is the first time I notice Jim acting aggressive and annoyed towards his dear friend. Despite wanting to believe that Jim, his grandparents (The Burdens), Jake Marpole, and Otto Fuchs are utterly saintlike people for their hospitality and care towards the Shimerdas (from the very beginning), you are reminded that they still regard them as immigrants and don’t fully accept them in their society. “They ain’t the same Jimmy, These foreigners ain’t the same. You can’t trust ’em to be fair” (120).  Often regarded as ‘the foreigners’ or ‘the Bohemians’, the Shimerdas are looked down upon as insignificant beings. It isn’t until later on in the story once Jim has grown up a bit that he explains his thoughts on the attitudes of his fellow townspeople. Although foreigners could have been very well respected in their home country, he concludes that the townspeople saw no difference, being that “All foreigners were ignorant people who couldn’t speak English” (158).  (On a side note, even a drunk tramp who jumped into a thrashing machine said, “My God! So it’s Norwegian’s now, is it? I thought this was Americy” (145). I’m not sure what to think about ‘americy’ and what it means? Randomly on pg. 170, Jim says, “Her warm, sweet face, her kind arms, and the true heart in her; she was, oh, she was still my Ántonia!” I believe this is the first time I see ‘my Antonia’ written out not just in the title. Another interesting passage, different from the ones above, is where Jim describes his neighbor Mr. Harling and the apparent power he holds over his family and wife. “Mr.Harling had a desk in his bedroom… in which no one else ever sat… Mrs. Harling paid no heed to any one else if he was there… his wife made coffee for him at any hour of the night he happened to want it”. Jim further says, “Mr. Harling, therefore, seemed to me autocratic and imperial in his ways. He walked, talked, put on his gloves, shook hands, like a man who felt he has power” (134). I know this passage holds significance and I look forward to discussing it in class.

My Antonia: Whose immigrant narrative?

One might suspect that in an immigrant novel, it is clear who the immigrant is and which immigrant experience is being narrated. In My Antonia, these lines are blurred as multiple experiences of relocation are conveyed and ideas of what constitutes an immigrant, and by extension an immigrant novel, are explored. Jimmy states, “She often reminded me, when she was preparing for the return of the hungry men, that this country was not like Virginia,” (pg. 85) effectively referring to Nebraska as a different country than Virginia, and entering into conventions of what is typically considered immigration. Furthermore he says, “I read ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ aloud…and I felt that the Swiss family had no advantages over us in the way of an adventurous life. I was convinced that man’s strongest antagonist is the cold” (pg. 85). In this passage, the author is pulling from common themes of struggle and hardship that immigrants encounter when settling in a new land. On the other hand, the narrator acknowledges that in addition to the aforementioned hardship that Jimmy and the Shimerdas alike are exposed to, they must also cope with other challenges of cultural and linguistic assimilation. Jimmy states, “We were willing to believe that Mrs. Shimerda was a good housewife in her own country, but she managed poorly under new conditions” (pg. 66).

Based on this seemingly double-layered immigrant narrative, to what extent can My Antonia be considered a first person immigrant novel and to what extent does it qualify as a third person immigrant novel? Although Jimmy considers himself an arrival to a “new country,” he also refers to many of the other characters, including the Shimerdas and the Russians, as foreigners. Can Jimmy refer to others as foreigners (in contrast to himself) while also making genuine claims of being an immigrant?

Initial Impressions of My Ántonia

Though Jim has not traveled as far geographically as Ántonia, he, too, is a type of immigrant; he arrives in Black Hawk, Nebraska from Virginia after the death of parents and is pushed to carve out a new identity in a foreign land. His travels are described as ‘interminable’, echoing his anxiousness and insecurities about his destination. It is incredibly poignant the way in which Cather vividly describes the Nebraska landscapes, and how the author compares the rhythms and the movement of nature to Jim’s emotional state of mind. Once in Nebraska, it seems as though the landscape mirrors Jim’s feelings about coming to a new land, about Ántonia, and about his journey of self-discovery. Cather writes, “I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin…I could see all the tall grasses wave. The earth was warm under me…I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and did not want to be anything more. I was happy” (60). In a moment of sadness, Jim describes his wish to “walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world”, disappearing as if he were a tawny red hawk that flew up above (59). Perhaps in likening Jim’s emotions to the ebbs and flows of nature, Cather is providing a commentary on the volatile and fluid immigrant experience of the time.

Another interesting aspect that is unique to this novel is the layered structure of narration. In the introduction, readers become aware that the bulk of the text is Jim’s impressions of Ántonia as described to an unnamed narrator. The fact that we never hear from Ántonia directly is puzzling, and quite frankly engenders feelings of immigrant women’s inferiority to man. I often found myself asking, “Would Ántonia have described this situation differently if she was given the agency of narration?” Furthermore, to touch on the theme of filtration that we discussed during class, how does Jim’s narration reflect the bias of his own storytelling? I’m not sure we will ever find the answer, but it does allow use to vie the text in a different fashion.

 

My Ántonia

As I read My Ántonia, one reoccurring theme I noticed was how vulnerable the Shimerdas became once they arrived to Black Hawk, Nebraska. Due to the Shimerda’s lack of support system in the United States, they were taken advantage of by the only townsperson who shared their common language, Peter Kraijek. Jim highlights that the Shimerda’s reliance on Kraijek became problematic. Even though Kraijek cheated the Shimerda’s out of a lot of money, they had to keep him around in order to survive in Nebraska. Without Kraijek’s help during the Shimerdas’ first few months, the Shimerdas would have had no land, no home, and no way to communicate with the village. Even though the Shimerdas were vulnerable, Jim demonstrated the family’s intelligence and perseverance. They desperately wanted to grow prosperous in the United States. Although this is a novel, vulnerability and lack of support is something that real immigrants still face in present day.

We eventually learn through Ántonia’s account that the Shimerdas came to America after Mrs. Shimerda begged her husband. The land was supposed to make her family rich and her daughters were meant to have many prospects for marriage(98.) However when the Shimerdas arrived in Nebraska they realized that the American Dream was more of an American Nightmare. This “nightmare” is what led to Mr. Shimerda’s depression and presumably his suicide. Even after Mr. Shimerda’s death, the family wore on. Through the creation of a new house and the tireless days ploughing the fields,  I found that Mrs. Shimerda still believed in the American Dream.

The idea of the American Dream aligns with what we have been discussing in class these first few weeks. Through discussion and our readings (specifically Boysen)  we explored the idea of immigrants coming to this land with the knowledge that they would fail, but with the hope that they would create a better future for their children. I believe that this can be one version of the American Dream. You start from nothing to eventually become rich with knowledge and resources. You start vulnerable and become powerful. Parents (such as Mrs. Shimerda and the late Mr. Shimerda) make sacrifices to eventually better the lives of their own children.

Immigrant Identity in Narratives

After reading both, “The Immigrant Novel,” and “Immigrant Writing: Changing the Contours of a National Literature,” a common theme emerging in immigrant narratives revolves around the idea of identity. Often times the experiences of the immigrant are troubling and include many obstacles, but also moments of clarity and success. These rough, conflicting experiences force clashes between the original identity and with the forced new character. The result is that many immigrant narratives produce a stereotypical image of a struggling character- both internally and externally.

Although there are numerous similarities that can be drawn between immigrant narratives, such as themes of assimilation, struggle, or bildungsroman, a defining feature of many immigrants experience is the shedding of their old identity to form a new conformed and adjusted character. In “Immigrant Writing,” Mukherjee writes that immigrants and immigrant narratives often work to deliberately erase the past and form a new identity (681). This transformation of characters can result in an internal conflict where new identities are forced on an immigrant. The struggle of the internal character revolves around this idea of conflict between the old and new. The common idea is that in order to assimilate and develop a new identity, the old one must be removed. Miller also echoes in, “The Immigrant Novel,” a similar idea that in order to be included in society, there is a sort of consensual amnesia that needs to occur, including shedding of individual pasts to join a collective identity of the new nation (209). However, is it possible to maintain both identities in tandem? Can immigrants truly merge both their native and new characters together as a result of the experiences they portrayed in immigrant narratives?