Comparing Essays by Amy Tan and Adrienne Rich to My Own Experience – English Essay
Having immigrated from Malaysia, I find myself sometimes embarrassed of my Asian heritage. I would have moments like where I would be uncomfortable by my mother’s
imperfect or “broken” (Tan, 261) English. This is
similar to Amy Tan. In her essay, “Mother Tongue,” describes this discomfort vividly as she grew up. Being born in America but having immigrant parents from China, she showed scenes where she felt isolated by the cultural gulf that existed between them especially in their differing skill levels of the English language. Adrienne Rich, although having no such language barrier between her parents, faced her own similar problem. In her essay, “Split at the Root: An essay on Jewish Identity,” she illustrates her confusion at being half-Jewish and half-gentile. She did not completely belong in either circle and even showed scenes in which she denied both of her backgrounds. Eventually however, both authors found some semblance of peace in their cultures and embraced them. It was only with time and the experiences that came along with it, that the authors accepted their cultural backgrounds as an identity.
In her childhood, Amy Tan was ashamed of her mother’s language. To her, her mother’s English “reflected the quality of what she had to say. That is because she expressed them imperfectly her thoughts were imperfect” (Tan, 262). Tan reiterates this point by showing general examples of the backlashes of her mother’s bad English, “(it was the reason) that people in department stores, at banks, and at restaurants did not take her seriously, did not giver her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her” (Tan, 262). However, later on in her life, Tan realizes she had perceived her mother wrong. She understands the English language more so than her speech might let on, “you should know that my mother’s expressive command of English belies how much she actually understands. She reads the Forbes report, listens to Wall Street Week, converses daily with her stockbroker, reads all of Shirley Maclaine’s books with ease ” (Tan, 261- 262). Although humiliated earlier on in her life by her mother’s speech which she judged to be a sign of her stupidity, a keener observation by Tan revealed an intelligent, literate person despite her dialogue. This ability to see beyond the superficial passing of judgment by an immediate sense of hearing and truly grasping a person’s persona by her actions came only with age, evidenced by the contrasting views that Tan held during childhood and adulthood. Therefore, it was time that allowed the author to accept her mother’s speech.
Similarly, Adrienne Rich found it difficult understanding and accepting her parents’ deficiencies. As a child, she had the part of Portia in the play The Merchants of Venice. When she spoke her lines to her father she was told to convey her lines with “more scorn and contempt with the word Jew… I was encouraged to pretend to be a non-Jewish child acting a non-Jewish character who has to speak the word Jew emphatically. Such a child would not have had trouble with the part” (Rich, 209). Rich, whose father was Jewish, did not understand his reactions even stating her similarity with her character, “As a Jewish child who was also a female, I loved Portia” (Rich, 209). She however did notice “a kind of terrible, bitter bravado about my father’s way of handling this” (Rich, 209). It wasn’t until after her freshman year in college that she discovered answers about his feelings towards his own background. When questioned by Rich, her father replied, “I have never denied being a Jew” (Rich, 212). Despite this statement however, he still showed signs of bitterness towards his own religion evidenced by his anticipation and eventual frustration on not obtaining a promotion in his workplace, Johns Hopkins, “the appointment was delayed for years, no Jew ever having held a professional chair in that medical school. And he wanted it badly. It must have been a bitter time for him, since he had believed so greatly in the redeeming power of excellence… with enough excellence, you could presumably make it stop mattering that you were Jewish” (Rich, 212-213). Rich’s initial confusion later evolved into an understanding of her father’s struggles of being Jewish. She recognized the reasons for his bitterness and scorn for his and ultimately her own background. Similar to Tan, it was only with age that she was able to acquire such insight. Therefore, only time aided in understanding and accepting her father.
Where Amy Tan and Adrienne Rich differ is their stance on the role stereotypical assimilation has played in their personal identity. Amy Tan believed the stereotype of all Chinese being involved in science and math related careers fueled her to a career with English. Growing up, Tan scored higher on her math achievement tests than her English, “While my English skills were never judged as poor, compared to math, English skills were never considered my strong suits” (Tan, 263). She admits to the fact that the Chinese students have test results similar to hers “Asian students, as a whole, always do significantly better on math achievement tests than in English. And this makes me think that there are other Asian-American students who English spoken in the home might also be described as “broken” or “limited” (Tan, 263). This, however, did not stop Tan in pursuing a writing career and with time she became more strongly associated with her eventual career, “I became an English major in my first year in college, after being rolled in pre-med. I started writing non-fiction as a freelancer the week after I was told by my former boss that writing was my worst skill and I should hone my talents toward account management” (Tan, 204). Although Tan’s tests showed a different variety of skills than the ones her career she eventually sought required, which were stereotypical for her race, she did chose to ignore them. She did not embrace the stereotype; different from embracing her culture. To have accepted her stereotype would have meant assimilating more into what the American society viewed the Chinese should have been doing, “Teachers… steer (the Chinese) away from writing and into math and science” (Tan, 264). With age, she moved further away from the stereotype, being fueled by them at the same time. As a result of this time, she became a unique Chinese woman accepting her Chinese culture but not accepting her stereotype.
Rich, in contrast, seemed to have been lost in her assimilation throughout her life. In her freshman year, she blatantly denied her Jewish culture to an immigrant Jewish weaver when asked about her background due to the “eighteen years of training in assimilation (that) sprang into… reflex” (Rich, 211). This trend of denial due to her assimilation continues when she recounts a letter her mother had sent her which stated that Jewish woman were “fascinating” (Rich, 213). Although Rich agrees with her statement, she becomes conscious of the possible consequences of identifying with them, “I wonder if that isn’t one message of assimilation – of America – that the unlucky or the unachieving want to pull you backward, that to identity with them is to count downward mobility, lose the precious chance of passing, of token existence” (Rich, 213). Her assumptions of assimilation come to a head in the conclusion of her essay where she states, “I feel the history of denial within me like an injury, a scar. For assimilation has affected my perceptions; those early lapses in meaning, those blanks, are with me still” (Rich, 215). This last statement, which states her admittance of the negative outcomes of her assimilation, still shows her realization of the denial of her culture after years of living through it. She states, after that statement that the essay is not a conclusion but “another beginning for me… it’s a moving into accountability, enlarging the range of accountability” (Rich, 215-216). Therefore, although her assimilation had prompted her to deny her Jewish heritage, time had allowed her to realize this fault and rectify her mistakes.
In both essays, the writers start out ashamed and afraid to let the world know about the backgrounds. For Amy Tan, it was her mother’s imperfect English. For Adrienne Rich, it was her Jewish background. Both writers matured later own and accepted who they are. I too had a situation similar to the writers. Today I no longer care about hiding my mother’s English. I accept that her English is not perfect and no longer do I feel ashamed when she is in front of my friends. As time passes, I think everyone matures and accepts their identities.