The Struggles Of Growing Up In The USA In The Books The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao And American Born Chinese
From the perspectives of many people living anywhere else in the world, growing up in the United States may seem like the ultimate dream. The United States is known as a place of freedom — place in which people can do what they want, say what they want, and act how they want (within limits, of course) without being judged or looked upon strangely. In other words, the United States is a global symbol of safety or refuge. As a result, many people are caught up in this idea that the “American Dream” is alive and well for anyone who lives in the United States. But is that the truth? The American Dream is this idea that all people in the United States can experience equality and accomplish anything they could dream, and this was the reality that Americans experienced during the 1920s to the 1970s. During that period, the United States was at an all-time high in terms of immigrants coming into the United States and realizing freedom. Unfortunately, the “American Dream” is not a reality in recent decades. This “modern” society is one in which people are judged by the color of their skin and their ethnicity. Growing up in America is rather a different struggle for everyone, especially as ethnic stereotyping has become too far prevalent. Through three different perspectives, we will be able to see how ethnicity plays a significant role in growing up in United States. We can see a diverse set of examples of these types of struggles in the novels The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz and American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Lang. On top of these novels I will also be inputting my personal experience to help tie in the main theme that ethnicity has a substantial effect on how someone’s life growing up will be, in both the novels and reality.
The first book that helps create this idea that ethnicity plays a significant role in growing up in the United States is the novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. The novel is a rather interesting, leaving us with a lot of questions and fill in the blanks throughout the book. This novel is told through the eyes of Yunior, the best friend of main characters Lola and Oscar. The interesting thing about this novel is that it was put together through what Yunior not only experienced first hand, but what he was also told through different people. So this novel is a novel in which the readers opinion on what happens throughout the book matters because the only source we have through everything that happened is through someone that wasn’t their all the time. So it is fair to say the reader has the ability to infer and challenge any events in the story that occured simply because we don’t have a pure trustworthy source. Additionally, the title only leaves readers presuming that this story will be rather short, and the realization of the third person perspective of the life of Oscar further cements that the information will be limited. We learn of the struggles growing up with not only Oscar, but also his sister Lola, his family members, and even Yunior himself. This novel is a coming-of-age story, meaning that we look into how all these characters develop throughout, but more so specifically Oscar, Yunior, and Lola. One main theme that is recognized quickly is how their ethnicity played a role growing up in the United States.
In the Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao we learn that their ethnicity played a big factor in the struggles of growing up in the United States. Oscar and Lola, native of the Dominican Republic, we learn in the beginning of the book about their Dominican American culture through Yunior who goes into depth of explaining the cultural traditions, historical context and the dynamics of the family in the novel. As we go throughout this book, we continue to learn the struggles of these 3 characters growing up in the United States, but yet they can’t escape how their ethnicity played a role in how they got viewed by other people. For example, Oscar is the oddball of the group. He knows he is odd, embracing a more “nerdy” lifestyle and being socially awkward to a degree. Oscar has “Dominican-colored” skin, yet he is viewed by his peers as “to dark” to fit in with the normal white folks but is also “to white” to fit in with the other foreign exchange students. Yunior and Lola, on the other hand, accept that they are Dominican, but they do not want to be looked down upon or judged solely because of their skin color or where they originate from. Therefore, while one is reading throughout the novel it is easy to observe and assume that there is some type of racial hierarchy throughout the society, and these characters are doing their best to not be viewed at the “bottom of the food chain” per say.
Once specific example that will grab the attention of the reader while reading the novel to see that ethnicity plays a significant role in the United States is when Oscar and Yunior were at college, and were trying to deal with their relationship problems. On page 178, it states “For fuck’s sake, we were at Rutgers — Rutgers was just girls everywhere, and there was Oscar, keeping me up at night talking about the Green Lantern. Wondering aloud, If we were orcs, wouldn’t we, at a racial level, imagine ourselves to look like elves (Diaz, 178)? This is one of my favorite quotes from Oscar, for he gives us perception of how he sees himself, an orc. An orc is typically seen as a disgusting, dull, dumb creature, and at this point in their story Oscar thinks that society– or, more specifically, the girls– see he and Yunior as weired men, despite Oscar and Yunior viewing themselves as “normal people” who, as such, should have beautiful, “normal” girlfriends. However, their perception of the female students is that they see Yunior and Oscar as foreign and abnormal guys compared to everyone else, known as the “elves”. From just this one example in the novel, we are able to recognize the internal struggle from these children in college, just one small instance in their lives. Throughout the book we continue to read into their lives as they struggle with the societal judgement forced upon them as they grow up in the United States.
From this novel we are able to distinguish how these children throughout their lives deal with judgement, internal and external struggles growing up in the States. And this example is one out of many to show how these children deal with external struggles that lead to internal judgement that ultimately lead their experience in growing up in the United States to be distressing at many times throughout their lives.
Another novel that addresses the role ethnicity plays in growing up in the United States is American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. This novel is rather interesting for it dives into the lives of teenagers and goes into their internal and external struggles of being foreign and going to a public high school in the United States. Using animation, Yang tells three different stories that take readers into the struggles teenagers experience as they attempt to fit in somewhere they do not belong, and their ultimate realization that they must love themselves and appreciate who they are; otherwise, they are facing a life of suffering.
Throughout the three stories, a reader may relate most to the story of Jin Wang. For my example, we will go into the story of Jin Wang. Jin Wang is a child when this start’s out, he and his family recently moved to the United States from China for his parents to start new jobs. Right out the bat at his first day of school, once his teacher introduces him to the class, it starts. All the kids started calling him names, saying that their parents told them that “Chinese people eat dogs”, making fun of the food he eats, and more (Yang, 30-35). But he develops a few friendships along the way though, more specifically the friendship with student who transferred from Tai-Wan, Wei-Chen Sun (Yang, 36). Like in the case of Jin, when Wei-Chen’s teacher introduces him to the class, she mispronounces his name and assumes that he is from China, demonstrating a form of racism. Fast Forward, around their teenage years, both boys are trying to get in relationships. Wei-Chen Sun quickly gets a girlfriend, a foregin exchange student from Asia who they have known for years, Suzy. Jin was trying to get the attention of this beautiful white girl who he has also known for years, and that was Amelia (Yang, 87). Jin would spend countless hours at night thinking about her and all the amazing qualities she has, but the main problem he has is that he is too nervous to talk to her, or make a move! Then he realizes that she seems to talk to this white boy that sits beside her in class and Jin got very jealous, he thinks that she wouldn’t like him for him, so he decides to redo his hair to exactly mimic the hair that the boy who sits right beside her has, curly hair (Yang, 98). Then there was an opportunity that presented itself to ask Amelia out in which he did and she said yes (Yang, 105). But due to other circumstances it didn’t work out. After days of anger, mixed emotions, and other events, he went to bed one night. That night he continued his thoughts that he wasn’t good enough for anyone and anything, continuing to hate his looks and wanting to be someone different (Yang, 191-193). That next morning, he woke up physically a whole new person – handsome, big, strong, and more importantly, white. He decided to call himself Danny (Yang, 194-198). Then going into the finale of the book, we learn the ultimate lesson after Danny decides to fight one of cousins Chin-Kee, simply because his cultural ethics, traditions, and ways of acting was putting Danny’s social status at risk. But after the whole fight we learn the Chin-Kee was actually the father, AKA the Monkey King, of his old friend Wei-Chen Sun, one of the many monkeys from the sacred place. They came into Danny’s (Jin Wang’s) life to help teach him a lesson in which he has been struggling with since he was a child. Chin Kee’s (The Monkey King’s) takeaway message to Danny (Jin Wang) was that “You know, Jin, I would have saved myself from five-hundred years’ of imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it was to be a monkey” (Yang 223). Jin finally learns and accepts that he has been struggling with identity since he was a child.
Jin Wang was taught an important lesson at the end of this novel. This final quote stated in the previous paragraph helped Jin open his eyes. Over the years of being in the United States school system, he has not fit in, he has been made fun of, judged, and look at different so bad to the point where he wanted to change the way he looked simply so he would just fit in and live a normal life. The ending quote between the Monkey King and Jin was significant because we realized the Chin-Kee represented all the unfavorable characteristics of the Chinese culture, which led Jin (Danny) to be fearful of what other people would think of him for his Chinese ethnicity. The Monkey King helped Jin understand that he should feel fulfillment in being Chinese-American, because if not, it can lead to a lifetime of suffering, dissatisfaction and hatred internally.
My personal perspective contrasts significantly from the characters in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and American Born Chinese. I am a native of the United States of America, born and raised. I come from an upper-middle class family, which has given me a relatively more comfortable lifestyle compared to many Americans. While my family’s prime ethnicity is Italian, the majority of my family’s skin tone is white — possibly a bit darker as a result of the Italian ethnicity. Compared to the characters in the novels, I had a rather fair and happy school life/childhood growing up throughout middle and high school. I was a good student, a good athlete, all the teachers liked me, and I was pretty popular among the student body in every stage of school.
One of the main differences between myself growing up in the United States and the characters in the novels growing up in the United States is that my society didn’t judge people by the color of their skin tone. We were judged more by the materialistic things we had, the type of parents we had, and the way we looked – physical size. Growing up though, I had more of a rough time. I was quite bigger compared to the average kid in elementary school. During that time I experienced severe bullying — making fat songs about me, being picked last in sports, and being looked at funny by other kids and teachers. When I reached middle school and forward, I worked out, got in shape, became a great student, and became more social. And from middle school on, my treatment by “society” was completely different.
Through my personal experience compared to these stories, we are able to tell that ethnicity plays a big role on how a child will grow up in the United States. Like me, for example, my ethnicity gave me an equal opportunity to be the same as everyone else and have more of an easy lifestyle for not being judged or criticized for the way I look. In this case, as Oscar said in the Brief and Wondrous life of Oscar Wao, I would be one of the “elves”, just the average kid with an equal opportunity simply because of my skin tone. Now, one thing to keep in mind is that just because one has the same exact skin tone as the majority of people in a population, it doesn’t automatically prevent you from being judged in another aspect, like me. But as previously stated, though there are many reasons children struggle growing up, one of the biggest reasons children struggle during school, recreation, and other activities is because of the color of their skin.
In conclusion, through these three different perspectives we are able to see and observe how ethnicity plays a substantial role in growing up in the United States. Each perspective provides well-grounded context to show how growing up in the United States can not only be an external struggle, but also an internal struggle/fight as well. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, we learn about how in college Oscar and Yunior realize that they see themselves completely different verses how beautiful girls see them. In American Born Chinese we learn about Jin Wang and his internal struggle about not being proud of who he is and wanting to change so people will like him. But he ultimately learns a valuable lesson that learning to love yourself and who you are will save you from a life of struggle. And finally, from my perspective, we learn of a boy who grew up in the United States that was the same skin color as the majority of the population, therefore giving himself more of a trouble-free experience from the ethnicity viewpoint. Growing up in the United States is relatively hard for anyone, but more for people who are ethnically different and possess a different skin tone. But the paramount message to take away from this is that, everyone needs to be able to accept who they are and where you come from – you need to love yourself! Because if you don’t love yourself, it will lead to a life of suffering, dissatisfaction, and hatred internally. But, as long as you continue to love yourself, it will lead to a life of joy, happiness, and contentment forever.
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