THE MELTING POT
A melting pot is a metaphor for a society where people with different cultures and social statuses blend together as one. Many immigrants find great difficulty when trying to integrate into a western society, causing them to become part of the ‘melting pot’ process. These newcomers face several challenges such as the barrier of language where communication between the two societies affects interaction with one another. Another obstacle immigrants must overcome is cultural differences, where issues such as attitudes towards gender, religious diversity, ethnicity and sexuality differ vastly between countries. The main protagonists, Kimberly Chang, in Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation and Lilly, from Camilla Gibb’s Sweetness in the Belly, come from cultures where being accepted requires conforming to the norms of others, which is requires in being the “perfect” woman or wife. Kimberly and Lilly face challenges to their own beliefs and values when they are introduced to a foreign culture; a culture where to be accepted one can be themselves and will be accepted no matter what.
Both Lilly and Kim are seen as outsiders in their newly adapted societies. They don’t seem to fit in or belong anywhere they go and are constantly viewed as outsiders. Throughout Sweetness in the Belly, Lilly travels from Harar to England and in doing so does not seem to not fit in anywhere: “I’m a white woman raised in Africa now employed by the National Health Service. I exist somewhere between what they know and what they fear, somewhere between the past and the future, which is not quite the present” (Gibb 9). Lilly appears quite foreign to others around her. In Harar, she is called ‘Faranji’, which translates to foreigner, due to the colour of her skin. In London she is seen as strange when she desires to live her Islamic lifestyle as a white woman. In Girl in Translation, Kim struggles with the feeling of exclusion as well, as portrayed when she says, “By the second semester of second grade, I had more trouble understanding my fellow students then I did my teachers. The combination of the kids’ use of slang and my lack of cultural context made their discussions bewildering” (Kwok 145). Kim, being a new immigrant to the country, finds it hard to communicate and fit in with her peers at school. Her lack of understanding of the western culture stops her from emerging into the American lifestyle smoothly. Both Lilly and Kim are seen as outsiders in of their new environments as Lilly cannot be viewed as the typical European or African and Kim experiences a loss of context when communicating with her peers in the western language. The feeling of isolation and not being able to fit in is comparable between both characters. The standing conflict they both face and the difficulty of assimilating is an obstacle both protagonists face and must overcome.
Lilly and Kim face a number of challenges with their own personal beliefs while attempting to merge into their new societies. They come into contact with new situations where they must find a balance within their own culture and their new one. One of Lilly’s greatest challenges occurs when she arrives in contact with her true love, Aziz, as she explains that, “Nothing in my life up to that point – not grief, not illness, not dislocation – had interrupted my religious practice. But then no one has ever challenged it.”(Gibb 88). Lilly is often conflicted by finding such a balance, and her love for Aziz tests her faith to a great extent. Kim’s challenge comes into play when she is faced by a boy: He thought about this second. ‘ “Eat a bite?” I hesitated. It isn’t Chinese to eat from someone else’s food. No kid in Hong Kong had ever offered any to me. The boy waved the bun under my nose. “Come on,” he said. He ripped off a clean piece and held it out. “Thanks,” I said, and popped it in my mouth. It was as delicious as it smelled.’’ (Kwok 41). The rules that govern a “good Chinese girl”, in fact, frequently oppose American social norms and cultural ideals. Kim goes against her own beliefs because of the boy’s American societal influence. In both novels the main protagonists, Lilly and Kim, go through many instances where they have to cope with having their faith tested by earthly love. They both face struggles such as balancing their culture’s rules in the presence of men who they strongly feel for and threaten to challenge everything they have known all their lives resulting in their faiths being tested when they are forced to choose between their earthly love and religious and cultural responsibilities.
In both cultures that Lilly and Kim are raised in there is a belief that to succeed you need to fit the image of the “perfect” woman with no flaws and to please all of your husband’s needs. When Lilly lived in Harar she learned and adapted to their culture and their rules. She did not, however, accept some rules such as, “They say you are not a true Muslim if you don’t have absuma” (Gibb 87). In Harar, where Lilly lives, they bridge religion with culture. They believe that a woman who is not circumcised is not a “good Muslim”. Lilly believes, the most absurd ideas are found believable in their culture and society. Kim also feels the same about some concepts believed in Chinese culture that are practiced: “In Chinese culture then, having a disability in the family tainted the entire group, as if it was contagious” (Kwok 187). Kim tells us in Chinese culture having a disability is almost like having a curse, not only on you, but your entire family. This illogical idea is strongly believed in her society. Lilly and Kim’s culture are both similar in the sense where outlandish beliefs are practiced and believed. Throughout the vast majority of the societies in both novels, both protagonists also do not believe that in order to be the “perfect woman” you must be free of all flaws and practice life-threatening procedures.
The premise of finding common ground between oneself and those in an adopted community is one that is carried over from both Lilly’s and Kim’s past and present as an outsider in Harar as well as America. Lilly turns to God in times when she seeks comfort from the feeling of being alienated and times where she needs reassurance: “This is where we are reassured of our place in the world. Our place in the eyes of God. It is the one thing that offers me hope that where borders and wars and revolutions divide and scatter us, something singular and true unites us.” (Gibb 34). In a world where Lilly is seen as a foreigner she can’t help but feel isolated and lost. Kim can also relate to all the emotions and feelings Lilly is going through when she is moved to a new country. She feels as though she is an outsider when she says, “In Hong Kong, I’d had a light blue and white uniform for school, as soon as school was over, I’d revert to sandals and bare skin in the sun. I was used to seeing the tips of my toes, my bare calves and shoulders; now they had to be constantly covered, I missed myself.” (Kwok 60). Kim reminisces about her old life back home. She expresses to the reader how she misses her old self, where she could be carefree, and how living in America, trapped within a different atmosphere and culture makes her feel lost and absent in her own body. The problems that Lilly and Kim encounter in both of their settings are essential in exploring many different facets of finding and maintaining one’s identity in a culturally diverse setting.
Lilly and Kimberly Chang faced several obstacles that challenged themselves and the lifestyle they are born into. Their personal beliefs contradicted the societies beliefs in which they moved to. Moving and adapting to a new society helps them see past their own personal views, and allows them to open up to a new world view where you can be who you truly are. This was a totally unfamiliar idea and concept to both girls as they had been brought up in a much different way. Girl in Translation and Sweetness in the Belly helps open an individual’s eyes to see the real struggles and hardships immigrants must go through in order to smoothly emerge and fit into a brand new society. In spite of all the challenges immigrants face, these individuals find a way to seamlessly submerge into their new societies and assimilate with the new the culture and society they must now live in. Kimberly Chang and Lilly are perfect examples of immigrants who had to experience personal challenges in order to settle into new countries. They faced the obstacle of adjusting their personal views and emerging into a completely different society than their own where being the “perfect” woman is not the norm and being oneself is.
Gibb, Camilla. Sweetness in The Belly. New York: Penguin Press New York. 2006.
Kwok, Jean. Girl in Translation. New York: Riverhead Books. 2010.
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