After finishing the novel there are a few things I want to reiterate from discussion last week. I think it’s interesting that the characters throughout the text are never officially identified. Why do we think this is? Also why do we think the text transitions between first and third person? Why do we see an unidentifiable ‘she’ throughout the text as well as read Cha in the first person? Interestingly, there is not any dialogue in the text. What might be the purpose of this? Lastly, one theme I notice is that of language and the silence/speaking binary. On page 75, Cha writes, “One by one./ The sounds. The sounds that move at a time/ stops. Starts again. Exceptions/ stops and starts again/ all but exceptions./ Stop. Start. Starts. / Contractions. Noise. Semblance of noise./ Broken speech. One to one. At a time./ Cracked tongue. Broken tongue./ Pidgeon. Semblance of speech./ Swallows. Inhales. Stutter. Starts. Stops before starts./ About to. Then stops. Exhale/ swallowed to a sudden arrest./ Rest. Without. Can do without rests. Improper/ to rest before begun even. Probation of rest./ Without them all./ Stop start./ Where proper pauses were expected./ But no more.” These one word sentences resemble a constant pause like in a speech. Why do we think she includes this passage? Clearly language is important to Cha but what about speech is also important? What else can we conclude besides it being a form of power and a way of communication?
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?
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.
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.