Cultural Colonization in “Its Wavering Image”

Sui Sin Far’s “Its Wavering Image” is a short story depicting a Chinese-American, young woman whom a White journalist beguiles for a story about the American Chinatown in which she lives. His Eurocentric proclivities lead him to impose his social attitude on her, thereby ruining her cohesion of self and fragmenting her identity with the exposure to a non-constructive, discriminatory perspective. Despite the poignant resonance of cultural colonization in Far’s text, the art of the story does detract from the deterministic elements of the double consciousness that results in the protagonist, Pan, in response to Mark Carson’s essentialist universalism regarding race.

The story delineates the harsh reality of Pan’s maturation apropos of the ethnic aspect of her identity, and it begins with a very explicit explanation of her starting point. The short story describes her as being mixed—half White and half Chinese. It establishes that she has lived in Chinatown all her life and, perhaps even more significant, that “if she were different in any sense from those around her, she gave little thought to it” (Belasco & Johnson 308). It specifically proceeds thereafter to hold Mark Carson responsible for Pan’s difficulty reconciling two selves. Some of the poignancy of Sui Sin Far’s story is, in fact, exacerbated by the fact that Pan is a biracial American because American readers are likely privy to the adversities that biracial citizens commonly face in the United States.

Arguably the most artful literary technique Far employs in writing “Its Wavering Image” is the use of Mark Carson’s character. He effectively personifies the social phenomenon of cultural colonization by personally committing against Pan all the social transgressions via which society dehumanizes subalterns—those of inferior status. “Colonizers not only physically conquer territories but also practice cultural colonization by replacing the practices and beliefs of the native culture with their own values, governance, laws, and belief” (Dobie 211). Mark Carson attempts to supplant Pan’s values with his own, as evidenced when the text reads, “with delicate tact and subtlety he taught the young girl that, all unconscious until his coming, she had lived her life alone” (Belasco & Johnson 309). The text goes on to say that this colonization was so effective initially that Pan feels as though her White self is compelled to dominate her Chinese self.

In the conversation at the beginning of part two, Mark clearly attempts to convince Pan to accept the inner privileging of her own White identity over her Chinese self, which only further establishes his personification of cultural colonization. What makes this problematic is that the result of his acting upon Pan yields a distinct double consciousness, and as the racial connotation of this term is typically accredited to W.E.B. Du Bois, his conceptualization thereof is more unyieldingly deterministic than that which Mark Carson represents. Du Bois describes it saying: It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (Du Bois xxix) By this time, the term, double consciousness, already had a psychological connotation and medical context, as acknowledged by William James in The Principles of Psychology. It signified a fragmentation of the ego in which two separate selves vie for hegemony in the socially constructed self—one a product of the privileged group’s ideology acting upon the self and the other a product of the ideologically marginalized origin.

What makes Sui Sin Far’s albeit artful rendering of cultural colonization problematic is that it undermines the deterministic power of double consciousness in at least two critical ways. First, Pan’s being biracial, as perfectly appropriate as it may seem, suggests a weaker form of double consciousness that may need the aid of two warring ethnicities within her; in other words, it disregards and thereby detracts from cultural colonization’s inherent ability to fragment even one whose heritage is singularly othered and no parts privileged (e.g. having two Chinese parents). In making Pan the offspring of an interracial couple, Far falls short of depicting the ideological pervasiveness of the phenomenon of double consciousness because the deterministic characteristics thereof are such that double consciousness is very naturally relatable among non-Whites yet may be perceived in reading “Its Wavering Image” as being more an affliction of mixed people than of simply all non-Whites.

The second shortcoming with regard to the deterministic power of double consciousness is that Pan is presumably old to only just now be encountering cultural colonization and wrestling with double consciousness. Mark Carson is clearly old enough to have a job as a journalist, not just some intern, and he engages in duplicitous romance with Pan, which suggests she is of a comparable age. Even living in Chinatown all her life, Pan is ultimately a Californian who, by this point, should have already encountered this divisive aspect of race relations in America. The proliferation of cultural colonization is rampant in areas with high concentrations of ethnically marginalized demographics, and double consciousness is a relatively automatic consequence of the fragmentation cultural colonization causes. Even if she miraculously avoided contact with Whites all this time, the Chinese-Americans with whom Pan lives should be, at the very least, affected to the point of practicing cultural mimicry, “imitation of dress, language, behavior, even gestures—instead of resistance” (Dobie 211). This is the privileged half of the twoness Du Bois describes.

The concept of double consciousness is one that Du Bois explains as being somewhat perennial like the timbre of one’s speaking voice; it is developed incredibly early and remains as long as the colonized individual. For this reason, the adverb he uses to explain how long one feels this “twoness” is “ever,” and the adverb with which he describes the observation of self through the eyes of others is “always.” Sui Sin Far’s depiction of cultural colonization undermines the pervasiveness of double consciousness in order to create the young-adult, tragic-love story between the colonizer and the racially innocent protagonist. As such the text only exemplifies the advantage of double consciousness, which shows up as an elusive duality that constitutes peace between two reconciled selves. Pan is forced to abandon this advantage in her resistance against cultural colonization when she embraces her Chinese culture fully; however, double consciousness is at least as much a disadvantage, and Henry Louis Gates discusses this duality of advantage and disadvantage at length in relation to his concept of double voicedness, explaining that it creates a unique voice for African Americans that they can indulge in both Black and White experience but that the personal fragmentation of identity can be perilously irreconcilable.

Sui Sin Far opts for the artful rendering of this colonization and elegantly captures the external conflict, but certain elements of the art detract from the accuracy of Far’s rendering of the internal conflict. Double consciousness is not shown to be as detrimental or as deterministic as it truly is, especially in light of Pan’s idealistic triumph over colonization by way of finding herself fully within the parameters of Chinese identity. As empowering as the message is, these facts lend to a more romantic view of cultural colonization, ignoring the reality of the majority of the ethnically marginalized who spend their lives vacillating back and forth between the constructed self of perceived origin and the constructed self that supports the ideology that others them.

Works Cited

Belasco, Susan and Linck Johnson. “Its Wavering Image.” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature Volume 2: 1865 to the Present. 2nd ed. Boston & New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2014. Print.

Dobie, Ann B. Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. 4th ed. Boston: Thomson Heinle, 2015. Print.

Du Bois, W.E.B. “Strivings of the Negro People.” The Souls of Black Folks. New York: Gramercy Books, 1994. Web. 16 November 2015.