Representation of Self and Communication in The Arrival

I was very eager to read (examine? look at?) this text, and it was just as thought provoking as I anticipated. Two aspects of the book that I found very interesting was how the main character was presented, and the modes of communication present in the text. I thought that the overall style of the book was very fascinating. While it’s presented in the form of a wordless graphic novel, it definitely does not take on many of the tropes of that form and uses an artistic style that’s somewhat elevated for this medium. Typically, graphic novels use a very cartoony style, and often when the subject matter of that book is more serious, that cartoony-ness is more amplified (like Persepolis, or Palestine, or Maus). However, Tan uses a very realistic style that’s even more detailed—and at times even photo-realistic—when depicting actual people. Typically, these political/historical/memoir-type graphic novels will use a less detailed, cartoony style so that the reader is put into the place of that character. This is, in part, because humans have a natural tendency to personally connect with abstracted representation of humans (to an extent). I think Tan’s purpose in drawing these characters—and specifically the main character—more realistically is in part to respect the story of the protagonist. Thus, it’s almost a more ethical approach to portray the characters as they were so that their personal journey is recognized and told. Additionally, in taking a consistently realistic approach to drawing these characters, Tan is able to make the additional characters more diverse and thus respect the multiplicity of immigrant narratives.

Additionally, I found that the modes of communication in the book were truly fascinating. Leaving this as a wordless graphic novel was such a great approach since so much of new immigration really is an art of communicating without words. Thus, the reader is immersed into the immigrant experience (again, without having to be immersed in the immigrant experience via cartoonish characters). Furthermore, there is also a presumed method of interpreting the panels that is not necessarily implicit in the text. I might be cheating just a little bit because we actually talked about a spread from this particular book in one of my other classes, but there are many instances where the reader doesn’t necessarily have to read the text from left to right—how we read English. Thus, the fluidity of the panels can perhaps connect with the fluidity of communication—and how this fluidity may not always be construction in effectively…well…communicating. When there are no word to set up the parameters of a situation, like in graphic novel without words or in a new immigrant experience, this sort of nebulousness of other modes of communication can often result in miscommunication.

The Arrival Observations

I really enjoyed reading The Arrival, because it put into pictures what immigration can be like in a country. One aspect of this piece that I connected with was the main character’s entrance into the state. The “exams” that the immigrant went through and the line he had to stand in was very reminiscent of Ellis island to me. On Ellis island they had to complete similar “medical exams” in order to be deemed “fit” to enter a country.

Another part of the book that I liked was when the main character met a woman on a transportation ship. Although no words were spoken, I was able to follow her entrance into this country as a refugee. Getting stuck in a labor camp, but being able to flee for refugee status is something that many immigrants yearn to do. Obtaining refugee status can be a difficult process, particularly for immigrants that are already in a country illegally. I like how this book showed the different kinds of immigrants that there are. Through the main character we are able to understand that even though all these immigrants had different stories, they are able to connect in similar ways over the hardships of entering a new society. Immigrants share a common bond, because they understand the struggle of entering and adapting to a new community.

This book is unique because it tells the story of immigration in a way that most people can understand. Even within the novel, the main character initially communicates through pictures. Pictures are universal and through pictures, people from around the world can share stories and feel empathy for one another.

“Immigrant” in your Own Land

As I read a bit about Yu Guan Soon, I was shocked to find out that she would die so young, she would die at age 17. Before I read the passage about her, I was taken aback by the grainy picture next to the Soon’s name. I wondered, is this her? I wondered if I was staring at the revolutionary who I was about to read about; however, I couldn’t tell if that woman in the picture was her and I thought maybe that was the point. Maybe the point was to prove that this isn’t just Soon’s story, but it is the story of many young revolutionaries who fought against Japan and lost their lives. Maybe this picture wasn’t meant to give a face to the girl, but rather it was meant to give a face to the revolution.

As I read the passage about the struggles in Soon’s life, I was particularly struck by one line on page 32, “To other nations who are not witnesses, who are not subject to the same oppressions, they cannot know.” This line reminded me a lot about immigration and the obstacles that come along with it. This line relates to the idea that only the nations involved with internal conflict/war will understand the oppressions that are occurring. Only the Koreans and the Japanese understand the oppression occurring, all other citizens are outsiders and cannot understand.

In Soon’s story, Japan conquests Korea and although Soon is not an immigrant, she becomes marginalized as such. Her country is overtaken by Japan and now she is seen as foreign. This is similar to what we have read in GWG and even our own history in the USA with manifest destiny. In all these instances, a person’s land was conquered and changed before them. Their language was taken away and their way of living erased. They have to ascribe to the dominant culture. This experience mirrors that to an immigrant. These are not immigration stories, they are stories about marginalization, colonization, and betrayal; however, in many ways these people have been forced to live a life like an immigrant. They have become foreign and must assimilate to a land that was once theirs.

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. 

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.

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.