Legends as Guides: Routes to Cultural Discovery in ‘Ceremony’ and ‘American Born Chinese’
To enhance the cultural significance and direct their characters’ journeys, Gene Luen Yang and Leslie Marmon Silko include the presence of legends traditional to each culture in their works American Born Chinese and Ceremony, respectively. With these legends we see the integration of Jin’s and Tayo’s cultures into their journeys to accept their identities. At the beginning of each work, the respective characters reject their identities and instead opt to assimilate into American society. By weaving these legends throughout their works, both authors contrast the presence of these traditions within groups marginalized in the West with American culture’s lack of historical richness. Jin and Tayo come to appreciate their cultures through navigating this difference between them and the dominant group. During their social exile, both Jin and Tayo find that their cultures’ traditions and values, which are depicted and presented in lore, guide them and allow them to secure their distinct expressions of their identities as racial minorities in the United States; therefore, they respond to their exile by accepting these legends and integrating their meanings into their lives.
Yang and Silko portray legends in American Born Chinese and Ceremony to provide background for the oppression the characters face and to mirror the struggles in the main storylines. In the former, Yang opens the graphic novel by depicting the Monkey King’s exclusion from the party of gods and goddesses on account of not wearing shoes, a symbol of his inferiority to the human (or at least non-animal) powers. More specifically, the doorman turns the Monkey King away because he “may be a king – [he] may even be a deity – but [he is] still a monkey” (Yang 15). Despite knowing kung-fu and having a variety of powers, he is excluded because the doorman chooses not to see past his species. Similarly, Jin has trouble making friends at Mayflower Elementary School and eats alone. One scene shows his white classmates bullying him with Chinese stereotypes, telling him to “stay away from [their] dog” (32) and calling him “bucktooth” (33). In both of these situations, one character is othered by the dominant group for their outward appearance and cultural background. In response to this exclusion, the Monkey King goes home and, for the first time, notices “the thick smell of monkey fur… He stayed awake for the rest of the night thinking of ways to get rid of it” (20). After being socially exiled from the dinner party, the Monkey King internalizes his perceived inferiority, evident in how he desires to make himself fit in with the dominant group. Likewise, Jin begins bringing sandwiches for lunch (37) after his classmates were confused by his dumplings. In trying to fit in with his oppressors, Jin effectively erases his culture and ethnicity from his identity. On the other hand, in Silko’s Ceremony, the author utilizes legends to explain why the war has affected Tayo so gravely. In a poem, she tells the story of Pa’caya’nyi, a medicine man who visits his mother and offers to teach the local citizens about Ck’o’yo medicine. After performing magic on a mountain lion, everyone was “fooled by/ that Ck’o’yo medicine man,” and they all become so fascinated by his magic that “they neglect… the mother corn altar” (Silko 44). In response, Nau’ts’ity’i, “[o]ur mother,” (44) becomes angry and says, “‘[i]f they like that magic so much/ let them live off it’” (45) and takes the plants and rain away. In Ceremony’s central narrative, Tayo fears for his pueblo’s health when he returns from the war and finds out that there has been a drought for the past six years (9). With this connection, Silko implies that citizens of Tayo’s pueblo fell for some sort of trick that caused the drought. In another poem, a witch warns that people “will carry objects/ which can shoot death/ faster than the eye can see,” (125) but others refuse to listen and continue wearing “their stinking animal skins, fur and feathers” (128). The death-shooting objects resemble guns, and the animal furs that the people wear symbolize their violence, a result of their disconnect from nature and hubris. Therefore, Silko blames the pueblo’s drought on its citizens’ participation in the war. By including these legends and their connections in their works, Yang and Silko provide context to their main characters’ oppression and align them with figures who have successfully overcome the same difficulties.
The authors emphasize the connection and mentorship between the figures in the legends and the characters in the central plotlines by demonstrating each one’s ability to move between worlds. In American Born Chinese, Chin-Kee visits Danny every year and embarrasses him with his caricatured, stereotypically Chinese behavior. However, Yang later reveals that Chin-Kee is actually the Monkey King (Yang 213) and that Danny’s “true form” is Jin (214). Additionally, the Monkey King’s son disguises himself as Wei-Chen (216). The Monkey King and his son’s movement between the heavens and Earth mirrors Jin’s similar, constant shifting between his home, where is parents speak Mandarin Chinese, classrooms filled with white and sometimes racist classmates, and his friend group, made up of other Asian students. The analogous abilities of the Monkey King, his son, and Jin illuminates that while the first two are secure in their identities and comfortable being made fun of when in disguise, Jin is not. He tries to assimilate into white culture by ignoring his immutable ethnicity. This rejection of his culture is first evident in his and the herbalist’s conversation, when he says that he wants to be a Transformer when he’s older (27). Although he is simply admiring one of his favorite toys, Jin’s attitudes towards the idea of changing oneself depending on surroundings and circumstances indicates his dismissal of his Chinese heritage. As Jin ages in the graphic novel, he begins to attempt this assimilation while moving between spaces, while the Monkey King and his son maintain constant identities despite their forms and worlds changing. In Silko’s work, Fly and Hummingbird travel down three worlds in search of Nau’ts’ity’i to ask her for forgiveness after people neglect the corn altar in favor of Ck’o’yo medicine (Silko 50). Therefore, these legendary figures also move between spaces, one which represents white rejection of nature and another that demonstrates its role in Native culture. Correspondingly, Tayo switches between identities by living with fully Native people (while he is “only” half) but being friends with Emo, who places whiteness on a pedestal. For example, after sleeping with two white women he met at a bar, Emo tells his Irish friend, “‘Yes, sir, this In’di’n/ was grabbin’ white pussy/ all night!’” (54). Although Tayo is immersed in one of his cultures while at home, his friend diminishes it by exalting whiteness and, thus, their oppressors. Fly and Hummingbird’s movement between white-dominated Earth and the natural place three worlds below mirrors Tayo’s shifting between this toxic friendship and his home, where Native identity is embraced and expressed.
However, because this motion and cultural code-switching is constant, neither Jin nor Tayo hold solid senses of themselves or their identities; they establish this once their respective legends disrupt their lives (and, therefore, their movement). Again, Yang reveals towards the end of his work that Danny’s “true form” is Jin; therefore, Danny represents Jin’s self-idealization, a white, American version of himself. Chin-Kee’s annual visits to Danny represent the persistence and inescapability of his Chinese heritage. However, before showing that Danny is actually Jin, the Monkey King says, “now that I’ve revealed my true form, perhaps it is time to reveal yours” (Yang 213). That Danny’s facade disappears at the same time as that of Chin-Kee, his opponent in a sense, demonstrates that Jin only idealizes Westernness out of fear of being perceived like Chin-Kee, with his Chinese stereotypes and exclusion. Jin comes to terms with his identity when he knows that there is no longer a risk of being compared to or associated with Chin-Kee. The Monkey King’s guidance of the situation at large eventually brings Jin to accept himself. Likewise, Emo’s exile to California allows Tayo’s titular ceremony to cure him of the emotional damage that his time in war has caused. Silko declares that Tayo is cured in a poem, which states that “[t]hey unraveled/ the dead skin/ Coyote threw/ on him” (Silko 240). Similar to the violent townspeople wearing animal furs in the aforementioned poem (128), the “dead skin” on “him” represents a detachment from nature caused by someone else – in this case, Coyote. When speaking about his time in the military, Emo does more than take pride in it and instead glorifies the experience, calling him and his peers “‘the best’” for “‘butcher[ing] every Jap [they] found’” (56). His love for violence and hatred for others resembles Coyote. When Emo is exiled to California for treatment, Tayo’s trauma is “unraveled” due to the absence of his destructive friend and no longer having to navigate this harshness in relation to the Native portion of his identity. The alignment between Tayo’s journey and the legends in the poems provides a natural structure for his healing process and reinforces the methods Betonie uses to cleanse him. When Tayo is conflicted between his strongly Native home life and his white-exalting friends, the legends illuminate a path to ground his distinct identity. The Chinese and Native legends interact with Jin’s and Tayo’s lives to push them to accept their identities and overcome their oppression.
Jin’s and Tayo’s growth allows them to feel secure in their identities, therefore alleviating their suffering. After Chin-Kee’s “death,” Jin lives authentically as a Chinese American, and he strengthens his once-oppressive friendship with Wei-Chen. Originally, when the two first meet in elementary school, Jin thinks that he wants to “beat him up” (Yang 36). Additionally, Jin calls him an “FOB” (89) when he makes fun of Jin’s crush on Amelia. Despite these instances of horizontal oppression, the graphic novel culminates in them getting boba milk tea together and catching up amiably. Jin’s attitude towards Wei-Chen reflect his growth throughout his experiences with his friend and those with Chin-Kee when Jin was Danny. Because Jin no longer feels socially required to reject his Chinese heritage, he is comfortable going to an Asian-owned restaurant and being friends with another Asian person. In Ceremony, as Tayo’s healing with Betonie concludes, a poem states that he has traveled “along the edges of blue clouds” (Silko 132) and that he now recognizes that “a sunray falls from [him],… A raindrop falls from [him]” (133). The “edges of blue clouds” that Tayo has walked along represent his newfound balance between his Native and Mexican identities. Once he is healed, he finds within himself a “sunray” and a “raindrop,” signifying that he holds the power to overcome both physical challenges, like his pueblo’s drought, and emotional/mental ones, such as his PTSD that the ceremony cures. Because Jin and Tayo both have strong influences from their respective cultures’ legends, they are able to surmount their oppression and exile to secure their identities as racial minorities.Although dominant groups exile their oppressed in order to erase their presences and identities, American Born Chinese and Ceremony illustrate the ability to resist this marginalization through embracing the disparaged culture rather than assimilating to the oppressor’s. More specifically, Jin and Tayo both interact with legends from their cultures through, in the former’s case, disguised figures and, in the latter’s story, a ceremony involving the telling of traditional Laguna stories pertaining to his emotional and environmental struggles. In response to exile, Jin and Tayo accept the guidance of these legends to learn how to navigate their othered cultures and solidify their identities.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. Penguin Books, 2006.
Yang, Gene Luen, and Lark Pien. American Born Chinese. Square Fish, 2008.
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