Search For The Own Identity In Literary Works Trying To Find Chinatown, Mistaken Identity And Girl
Learning who you are and figuring out your identity can be a difficult thing to do. It takes some time to learn about your strengths and weaknesses, belief systems and future goals for yourself. Self-exploration with societal pressures makes this process even more difficult. Society often gives us guidelines of who we are supposed to be and if we don’t follow the norms, we can feel isolated.
The theme of finding one’s true identity is shared in the three stories, Trying to Find Chinatown by David Hwang, Mistaken Identity by Sharon Cooper, and “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid. All three of these pieces follow characters who struggle to figure out their authentic self while struggling against what society dictates.
The play Trying to Find Chinatown describes the encounter between two men, Benjamin and Ronnie. Benjamin is Caucasian, blond with blue eyes, and adopted by Asian parents while Ronnie is an ethnic Asian who knows very little about his heritage. When Benjamin begins to look into his Chinese-American family, specifically looking for his father’s birth house in New York, he stops to ask Ronnie (a street violinist) where Chinatown is. Benjamin assumes that the Asian man would know where it is. Ronnie is insulted by Benjamin’s assumption and angrily replies, “What are you gonna ask me next? Where you can find the best dim sum in the city? Whether I can direct you to a genuine opium den? Or… how you can meet Miss Saigon?” Hwang’s play points out the struggle Ronnie is going through against society. Benjamin assumes that Ronnie is connected to his Chinese heritage, but Ronnie responds, “Sure, I’m Chinese. But folks like you act like that means something, Like, all of a sudden, you know who I am. You think identity’s that simple? That you can wrap it all up in a neat package and say, “I have ethnicity, therefore I am?”
Clearly, Ronnie struggles to not be labeled as just Asian. He doesn’t want his skin color to dictate how people relate to him. Ronnie shows he is more than his ethnicity by his behavior, clothes and music. He does not play Chinese music, but has a passion for jazz. He dresses in retro-60’s clothing rather than traditional Chinese clothing. He wants to choose his own community, shown in the line, “I dunno what community you’re talking about, but it’s sure as hell not mine.” Society’s assumption is that people who look Chinese should know where Chinatown, but Ronnie argues that this stereotype is wrong. This play highlights Ronnie’s struggles with how he identifies himself and how society views him. He states, “You say you’re looking for identity, but you can’t begin to face the real mysteries of the search. So instead you go skin-deep, and call it a day.” Ronnie challenges Benjamin to widen his perspective on what makes people unique.
Sharon Cooper’s Mistaken Identity, tells the story of Kali, a young woman struggling because of her sexual orientation which is not accepted by her family or Indian culture. Kali goes on a blind date with her brother’s friend, Steve, because her brother does not know that she is gay and wants to arrange her marriage. Kali battles with herself because she has kept this secret from her family and does not feel safe revealing her true self. She cannot tell her brother because she is scared she will lose contact with her nieces and her family. She tells Steve, “I can’t say, Mum, Daddy, Rashid, I’ve chosen women over men- it’s not a hamburger over fish. You just don’t know how they’ll react. I’d run the risk of not being allowed to see my nieces. I’m so exhausted from hiding, I can barely breathe.” She wants to be honest but she is unwilling to face the consequences. She confesses to Steve that she is lesbian in the hope that he will tell her brother. She explains “…maybe I told you because somewhere deep down, I do want him to know. But I don’t know if I can take the risk.” Because Kali is Hindu she has to be closeted about who she really is. She wants to make her family proud, but being lesbian in her culture is taboo. She pretends to be someone she isn’t and is sick of having to go on dates with men because that is what is normal in her community. She expresses her sadness when she reveals, “I just wish it could be more simple. Like, why can’t what I want be part of the whole picket-fence thing? That’s pretty ridiculous, huh?” Kali’s inability to be true to herself complicates her chance of happiness.
Unfortunately, Kali’s struggle to be transparent and announce that she is gay is overwhelming to her. Why should she even have to announce that she’s gay? Because she is afraid of her family and society’s response. Her brother so badly wants her to do what is culturally approved and get married that at this point he does not even care if the man is Hindu. Kali shows her anger to Steve in her statement, “I am a lesbian who has to date every Hindu bloke in England until her brother gets so desperate that he sets her up with a cowboy.” Kali appears to be braver when she is honest with Steve because perhaps her brother will find out and will stop setting her up with strange men. This play shows the struggle Kali faces not just against society but within herself as well. She should not have to worry about being who she really is, but because of the rules in her religion, she feels trapped.
The third piece exploring individual and societal struggles is the poem “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid. It lists advice that a mother is giving to her daughter. It consists of single sentence commands and is only interrupted by her daughter when she asks questions and defends herself. The mother’s plan is to give her daughter good advice and to scare her away from making bad choices. Her mother gives her guidance on keeping her future house in order, how to do all the chores, cooking, cleaning and washing. It appears that in this community, it is normal and expected for the wives to be stay-at-home mothers and take care of the house. The mother tells her daughter not to become a tramp and commands, “don’t squat down to play marbles—you are not a boy, you know” and “on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming.” Society often has unwritten rules and lists of things for women to be and do. This mother tries to protect her daughter by reminding her of her duty as a young woman.
The daughter clearly resents her mother because her wisdom feels oppressive. Her mother’s long list of what she can and cannot do does not give her daughter any voice. Everything the mother says silences her daughters voice and she has no chance to explain to her mom that she does or does not already do the things listed. At the end of the poem, the mother orders, “always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh.” The daughter questions her mother by asking what to do if the baker won’t let her touch the bread. The mother responds, “you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of women who the baker won’t let near the bread?” This shows that while her mother doesn’t trust her to live a fulfilling life on her own, she expects her daughter to somehow be bold and strong. This cannot happen when the daughter isn’t given the opportunity to speak her mind.
When I began high school, I immediately felt like teachers thought I was dumb because I had blonde hair, a large chest and was very social. My sister, two years older than me and at the same school, was a 4.3 student with no social life. I believed my teachers judged me initially based on my physical appearance. My sister often stayed after school to meet with her teachers, but I never did. I felt inferior and even heard rumors that I was labeled as a dumb blonde by staff and other students. After my first set of exams, though, my teachers seemed shocked that I was actually smart. I had been prejudged by the stereotypes and generalizations about young women who didn’t look studious.
For a good while, these incorrect perceptions made me question my own abilities and skills. After I received my first set of A grades, my English teacher pulled me aside and told me that I was very bright and had a lot of potential. I was confused about her comments, but then I realized that just because I was so different from my sister, both in personality and looks, she thought that I would not be as intelligent. I felt obligated to prove to my teachers that I was smart, in spite of my physical appearance, but that I was my own person. This example helps me share the characters’ perspectives of being pre-judged or seen in the wrong light.
To sum up, these three stories show that it can be very hard to live in a world where you are misunderstood. There are often biases against you that have to be proven wrong. In society there might be values that don’t line up with what you want or who you strive to be. It can be extremely difficult to be authentic with pressure and unwritten rules telling you that you can’t be transparent and true to yourself. Figuring out your true identity while trying to meet the expectations society gives us can be demanding and discouraging. Ultimately, all human beings need opportunities for real human connection and this includes the freedom to live fully real lives.
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