Absence of words in The Arrival

After struggling to attempt to put the puzzle pieces of Dictee together last week, I was incredibly captivated by The Arrival. The contrast between the two is interesting to me—in my interpretation, Cha uses language as a tool to convey the complexity of an immigrant narrative. We mentioned the slight edits in the translation exercises (that would most likely go unnoticed to all but readers who speak and understand French) and the inclusion of Chinese characters as some of the ways that she incorporates this. However, in The Arrival, Tan seems to be portraying a similar aspect of an immigrant experience with the opposite approach—including no words at all. It becomes clear that an absence of words does not mean an absence of language as a form of communication. The absence of words in these stories, for me, does exactly what I think it’s intended to do—it places the reader in an unfamiliar setting to create an intensified sense of empathy and understanding for the reality of an immigrant discovering his new home. Not being able to use words can bring a sense of vulnerability and weakness in a foreign place, but this doesn’t hinder the protagonist from developing a relationship with his pet or other characters, and it also doesn’t hinder the reader from being able to interpret this.

I also found the tools Tan uses for storytelling throughout the novel to be effective. I took the two entire pages dedicated to various shades and shapes of clouds as a way to convey the passing of time. The clouds alone portray a journey, which, in a sense, all immigrant narratives represent.

The Arrival

I really enjoyed looking through this book. For the most part I could easily understand what was happening. I found the frames that depict the man struggling to find employment really realistic and eye opening. So often immigrants travel to a new country for the chance of employment and better opportunities.  Since the job market is  so competitive these days, I can only imagine the struggle that immigrants face with finding a job when they first arrive. The idea that one travels to a new country in order to establish a better life for themselves or their family (like in this story) is really eye opening when you remember that starting off in that new country isn’t so easy.  Seeing the main character struggle to adapt reminds me how difficult it must be to not only adapt to societal ways but to also find employment when you don’t necessarily know what’s going on.  I also enjoyed looking at the part where the man and young boy are particularly hospitable to the immigrant man. This reminds you that hospitality is so important and always welcome.  I’m fascinated by the end where the young daughter is presumably pointing a refugee in some direction. The transition from the main character moving first to the new country, figuring things out, then having his wife and daughter come, and then the arrival of new immigrants in general is interesting because it shows how the family went through that initially but now they’re almost experts at this transition. Lastly, two questions I want to bring up are that of 1) the tentacles/rigid tails that we see throughout the beginning when the main character leaves his city of origin- what do we think this signifies? and 2) why do we think Tan includes 60 faces in a grid formation at the beginning and end papers?  All of the faces are very different  from one another, so is this trying to bring together each individual reader and connect us in a way?


Dictee kept reminding of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior Although Dictee is far more experimental and fragmented than woman warrior, both novels invoke other historical and familial female figures in order to tell their own stories.

Cha invokes Guan Soon,  while Kingston invokes Fa Mulan as a way to discuss sacrifice and heroism. In some ways, both novels take on historical figures mythify their lives.  Cha seems particularly aware of this, she writes that “from an early age [Guan Sooon’s] actions are marked exceptional. History records the biography of her short and intensely lived existence. Actions prescribed separate her path from the others.  The identity of such  a path is exchangeable with any other heroine in history”(30).  The description made me think that Cha could have in fact invoked a different revolutionary female figure and the text would have still worked. Besides the cultural connection of Guan Soon being a Korean figure, the themes of her life are those of any other dutiful daughter of a nation. If history cares to canonize a woman, especially by including her in the national narrative, it tends to give her story the same treatment. The description also made me think of the way history is passed on, and the way certain figures are clung to and emphasized over others. Similarly, retelling such a key piece of history becomes an act of coming home, of returning to a reassuring history in an otherwise fragmented existence.

I thought there was a strong tension between wanting to tear history and its fallacies apart and wanting to preserve one’s personal history and reframe it. The tension seems to be a big part of immigrant work. George Washington Gomez attempts to do the same thing by constantly referencing historical events while presenting a character who is pulled in two directions.


Language in Dictee

Cha’s use of language throughout this work was particularly interesting to me. For one, she includes a mixture of poetry and calligraphy various times (I ironically read the characters in Japanese and not Chinese), which also contributed to the discontinuity of the work that made it difficult to follow when I initially tried to read it as one linear piece.

Language is often the most easily identified burden that comes to mind when thinking about immigration or foreign countries, but Cha seems to interpret the idea of language as more than just this outward form of communication. The quotation at the beginning of “Unfaithful to the Original” by Frantz Fanon that states, “ [language] means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization…” explained this idea well. Cha describes language, particularly in pages 45-49, as part of the complex shift in identity that the Korean’s faced when having their own culture taken away from them. On page 45, she writes, “mother tongue is your refuge. It is your home.”This oppression of culture and language that the Koreans faced reminded me of the idea of being an immigrant in your own land that we discussed with George Washington Gomez. Although they are not in Korea, they are in a community of Korean exiles in Manchuria, yet at the same time have Japanese culture being forced upon them. She also includes that while all the teachers are Korean, they speak Japanese even amongst each other, which shows the extent of the marginalization at the time.

Dictee as Prose-Poetry and the Effects of Fragmentation

When I first started reading Dictee, I was immediately taken aback by the complicated and largely fragmented form the novel took place. It did not seem like any other novel I was familiar with, and thus I had an initial struggle interpreting not only the plot and meaning of the novel, but the overall point of the novel as well. As I continued to read the poem, I decided to stop reading the poem as a traditional novel (which even flipping through the novel, it becomes immediately apparent that this is not the case), and started to read the book as a sort of long-form prose-poem. In reading the book in such a way, I was able to decipher a lot more meaning form the book itself. Prose-poetry in essence is fragmented, disjointed, and at times quite unclear—all things that could be said about many immigrant experiences, and certainly could be said about the immigrant experience Cha presents.

In presenting the book as sort of a fragmented prose-poem, the book also highlights the fragmentation of language that is inherent in translation. This concept is most developed in the moments when Cha includes poems that are written in both English and French. However, the English version will often add lines that were not in the original French (or at least presumed original in that the French is often presented before the English) that will slightly alter the meaning of the poem. Thus, Cha emphasizes that meaning is often lost in translation just because of the nature of translating from one language to another. When one loses the ability to talk in their native tongue, they also often lose the ability to convey an intended meaning—especially when a language is new to that speaker. Thus, these moments of fragmentation—both in the presentation of Cha’s language and in fragmentation of meaning in mistranslated poems—Cha is, in a way, able to simulate the immigrant experience of language and meaning.

Possible Purposes of Dictee

While I have not read the entire novel yet, I wonder what purposes Cha might have wanted Dictee to serve:

On one hand, the narrator – and perhaps by extension Cha, if she is not the narrator – seems to portray the novel as a cautionary work the purpose of which is “to name [the painful past of her native Korea] so as not to repeat history in oblivion” (33). The act of naming appears to be of particular interest to the narrator, who proposes that that those have not personally witnessed or experienced the oppression suffered by Koreans cannot understand it; not due to a lack of empathy per se, but rather due to an insufficient vocabulary (32). The un-oppressed reader, the narrator suggests, is hindered by a “terminology” (“enemy, atrocities, conquest, betrayal, invasion, destruction”) that is “[n]ot physical enough. Not to the very flesh and bone, to the core, …to the point where it is necessary to intervene” (32).

This proposal suggests another purpose of Dictee; an intervention: that of giving the reader the language to comprehend the past of Cha and other Koreans. Indeed, the author seems to place great importance on the individual in her novel; a multiplicity of individuals, for sure, but individuals nevertheless. Dictee might well be “the missing narrative…[f]rom the multitude of narratives” to which the narrator refers somewhat enigmatically (81). In this sense, the novel might serve as a counter-narrative to whichever dominant narrative(s) cloud(s) the history (or, according to Cha, histories) of oppression in Korea.

How is Gualinto a leader?

The conclusion of George Washington Gomez is rushed and leaves more questions than answers for me. The biggest question that comes about from the conclusion relates to Gualinto as the leader of his people. Gualinto even questions multiple times who his people are, which foreshadows his loyalty in a way, and in the conclusion it look as if he finally decides.

One example of Gualinto’s disloyalty to his people occurs in the conclusion when it is mentioned that many community members and his school age friends are doing well. One friend received his pharmacy degree and is now a registered pharmacist, two friends run a successful restaurant, many are involved in local politics, and one is a dentist (289). Yet, despite all of these successes, Gualinto still only acknowledges the downfalls in his hometown and among the people. He even goes so far to stereotype his friends. When Leyton mentions if things continue as they are, the only jobs for Mexicans will be clearing brush and digging more ditches (294). Gualinto’s only response is, “’If that’s all they can do’” (294). Even though his friends have proved Gualinto wrong because they have successful jobs and want to improve their city, he still believes he is the only successful one. Many times throughout the narrative, Gualinto’s actions and remarks gave off the impression that he believed himself to be so much better than his peers and even his family, just because he was thought to be special. No matter what he does, even if he turns his back on his people, he believes he is better than everyone else.

The exchanges between Gualinto and his family and hometown friends in the conclusion overwhelmingly point to the fact he hides his upbringing and has actively chosen to support the American part of him and abandon the Mexican part. This is surprising even though he did battle with his identity throughout the whole narrative. After the conclusion, I am still left wondering though how Gualinto could be a leader for his people, except to show them what not to become. Yes, Gualinto is successful, but he was not loyal to his people, and loyalty to his culture and upbringing seem to be more important than money or success.

George Washington Gómez’s people

In this novel, fiction and storytelling is a way of creating a 3rd space in which marginalized subjectivities that can take revenge and, consequently, do justice. The last lines of the book follow the same logic: Feliciano imagines a limbo and a conversation with Gualinto’s father.  The limbo, as an imaginary space is a place where Feliciano can narrate and explain to Gumersindo, the fall of the hero, the fall of Gualinto. Under Feliciano’s eyes, Gualinto represents cultural and economic hegemony; he seems to be the white American man who will perpetuate the social dynamic of oppression and injustice in the Mexican-American border.

It seems clear that the text is proposing, in this final chapter, a resolution to a split identity. The conflict of being bicultural, of being an estranger in his own land, seems to come to an end when  Gualinto takes a side. Working in the army to defend his country, a “unique” country, as the 19th nationalist discourses: with one race, one language, one territory. There are no Mexicans, no Spanish and no places of cultural in-between. Although it is clear that Gualinto is presenting himself as a defender of this kind of nation, I consider that it is not clear if this is a reality or if it’s just a gesture to take distance from his Mexican heritage. I think that this last chapter could be explained under the logic of a way back home with a fake identity just to let “your people” know you are not one of them anymore. It is a way of breaking with the expectation of being the leader, a way of telling them “I can’t be your leader because I’m not like you anymore”.  In this sense, the conflict of being bicultural is not solved. Gualinton’s need of presenting himself as a cultural “other” is not a way of narrating the story of a fallen hero or as a traitor; this is only the Mexican (Feliciano’s) perspective. I think that the will of being different is symptom of somebody who couldn’t create a conciliatory narrative between 2 cultures and, consequently, who was not able to speak for the Mexican people they don’t represent his cultural identity but his contradictions.

Moving Borders Instead of People

George Washington Gomez is very interesting for the way we consider the outsider and the insider because of the way the outsider is created.  The process of othering in this scenario is one of a non-native acting in power, and manipulating borders in order to create the outsider.  Instead of people crossing borders, we have borders being re-situated to create an outsider.  Feliciano tells Gualinto, “They tell you, these gringos, ‘If you don’t like it here, don’t want to be American, get out.  Go back to your own country.'” (102)

The immigrants, in this novel, are situated in power, which creates an interesting dynamic.

So how did this different hierarchy develop?  The narrator remarks through Feliciano’s point of view, that “The American had begun to ‘develop’ the land.” (42) Once again we see the motif of the land itself coming into play.  The American acts upon the land, and this provides him with power.  There is a very active role in relationship to the land, and this entails the maneuvering of political borders.

This is reinforced when we learn that there are no white women or children in the city of Jonesville.  This reinforces the political aspect of the American’s relationship with the land and borders.  The occupation feels very unnatural and constructed because the white aspect of the town does not function as a human ecosystem (lack of reproduction) and appears more as a political construction.

And China Has Hands – Authenticity and Identity

One of the themes that is most apparent to me throughout the entirety of this novel is identity. Both Pearl Chang and Wan-Lee struggle with a sense of knowing and understanding not only how others are identifying them, but also how they see themselves. This plays an important role in their relationship with each other because each character contains an aspect of identity that the other craves. Pearl has difficulties with her identity as a Chinese American woman—her experiences are based on her exposure to solely American culture and an appropriation of Chinese culture, yet she is curious about what she sees as authenticity in Wan Lee’s character. Tsiang expands this internal battle to Pearl’s work experiences; he writes, “Pearl Chang had lost her job in the Chinese restaurant in Chinatown because she was not a pure Chinese, but she got her job in this cafeteria because the owner thought that so long as Pearl Chang looked like a Chinese, the Americans would not know whether she was genuine or not” (145). Wan-Lee, on the other hand, is simultaneously annoyed and attracted to what he sees as ignorance, or simply Pearl’s lack of understanding of Chinese culture. He has a sense of pride and superiority, not only with Pearl, but also more generally as a man, until losing all his money results in losing his laundry, and consequently losing the hope that it had represented.  I was taken aback by how abrupt and immediate after these events his death is, but I think it only accentuates the importance of the characters’ identity and ideas of success in this novel.