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?
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.
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?