Intimacy in Cha’s Dictee

Despite its cryptic and avant-garde manner, Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha makes powerful statements about the role of women in heterogeneous romantic relationships. Much of the language in the beginning of the book refers to female characters as she and her, which simultaneously places women as the main character yet fails to ever attach any form of identity (name, background, individuality) to these characters, perhaps alluding to the neglect or inferiority women felt in Korean societies. It is not until one hundred pages into the book that readers get a glimpse into the strict expectations of women and see how she interacts with he in a marital relationship.

Passages such as “One expects her to be beautiful…You are shown the house in which she lives, from the outside” suggests that women are often judged and treated differently based on their physical appearance (98). This passage also reinforces the idea that women are not valued as multi-dimensional, emotional women, but rather as repressed and domesticated wives, mothers, and providers.

Furthermore, there is lack of intimacy in the marriage between husband and wife. On page 102, Cha writes, “He is the husband, and she is the wife. He is the man. She is the wife. It is a given…You only hear him taunting and humiliating her. She kneels besides him, putting on his clothes for him. She takes her place. It is given.” Here, the wife assumes a slave-like position, responding without contention to her husband’s every wish. While the husband has freedom to taunt and humiliate, the woman shows no speech, a theme that runs throughout the novel as a symbol of women’s oppression and disenfranchisement. Cha continues, “Perhaps she loved him…Perhaps she loved him inspite of. Inspite of the arrangement that she was to come his wife. A stranger. A stranger to her….It was given. She took whatever he would give her because he gave her so little. She takes she took them without previous knowledge of how it was supposed to be how it supposed to be. She deserved so little” (110). In this passage, Cha vacillates between whether she loves her husband out of obligation, expectation, desperation, or sincerity. Cha implies her self-confidence has been diminished down to so little that she believes this is what she truly deserves. No where in a chapter entitled “Love Poetry” is there any mention of intimacy, closeness, or warmth, yet there is mention of sex, which suggests that love serves as a strategic tool for economic, political, and religious reasons rather than romantic reasons.

It is also interesting to consider Cha’s repetition of what is “given”. Throughout the book, I find myself asking, who is the giver and who has laid the foundation of what is given? Who is the receiver—is it always women or are men also susceptible to what is given?

Growing up as Guálinto

While reading Part 1 and 2 of George Washington Gómez, I was captivated by the relationship between Feliciano and his nephew, Guálinto. Feliciano serves as a father-figure, mentor, and teacher for this young child, and it seems as though Guálinto takes many cues from his uncle about how a Texas Mexican man should conduct himself in an Anglo-American dominated environment. There is a clear and tangible debate over the owners of the Texas land, and which community of residents came first. Furthermore, there is a sentiment of inferiority amongst the Texas Mexicans, as if the optimism and golden opportunities promised in the new world do not extend to them. These feelings eventually take a toll on one’s psyche, and readers see instances of violence and emotional breakdown in Guálinto (for example: when he pretends the plants and vegetables outside are the bodies of rinches). Feliciano exclaims, “Just wait till I grow up! Just wait till I’m a man! I’ll get out land back. Shoot them down like dogs. I’ll kill all the Gringos and the rinches too, and drive them away from here” (103). However, Feliciano was charged with the duty of raising Guálinto into a peaceful man and not sharing the truth about his father’s gory death, so the struggle becomes, how does an elder teach the next generation to peacefully advocate for his identity without knowing the truth about his past? If violence is all around and minority inequality is not solved by unarmed protest, isn’t violence the only way to survive? How is that communicated to a child? I’m interested to see how this story develops over the course of the novel.

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?

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.

 

The theme of Order in ‘The Good Anna’

While reading Stein’s piece, I kept a red pen close to my paper to mark up the text, and kept finding myself writing down the word ‘order’. After finishing the short story, I realize that the presence of ‘order’ had more than one dimension. Stein uses a certain order to introduce her plot line and her characters; she begins by giving life to Anna and Miss Mathilda’s relationship, and only then retraces the past employers and the different steps that Anna to her beloved Mathilda. This shifting between time periods reminds me slightly of the migrant experience, moving temporarily from place to place, and I wonder if Stein used this literary technique consciously to mimic the life of her characters. Furthermore, Stein characterizes Anna in a way that focuses on Anna’s need for cleanliness, morality, and control over every situation. In countless different scenes, Anna is portrayed as taking leadership of the household, taking joy in providing for others, scolding bad behavior, and establishing order in an otherwise un-orderly environment. For example, one of the first introduction to Anna’s personality reads, “Anna has always a firm old world sense of what was the right way for a girl to do… girl was a girl and should act always like a girl, both as to giving all respect and as to what she had to eat” (15). When Anna feels as if she had acted poorly or when she herself in a precarious situation, Anna quickly takes measures to regain this order, and doesn’t feel content until she has done so. For example, when Anna visits the medium for advice, she soon after feels the guilt for acting against the Church and “Anna’s temper grew irritable and her ways uncertain and distraught. Everybody suffered and her glasses broke” (40). Anna’s need for order speaks to a larger message about the immigrant experience; though immigrants lacked complete control over their social, economic, and political status, perhaps they felt the need to assert their control in any other situation they could personally shape.