Every Asian American has their own story, and each to their own, everyone has their own experiences with identity and how they deal with cultural differences. Many Asian Americans grow up with not only one culture, maybe 2 or more than that. The experiences presented in the two novels Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen provides readers a way into the lives of what some or many Asian Americans go through.
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The Namesake tells a story of immigrant parents from Calcutta and their son’s journey from birth to adulthood, documenting his struggle with his Indian culture and heritage, something he fails to relate to. This is a topic many immigrant children experience, not just those of Asian descent. On the other hand, The Sympathizer sheds light on the life of refugees of war, the protagonist is a spy of communist Vietnam, and child of Vietnamese and French parents. In both novels, they exhibit the same issue of cultural identity. Raising questions such as… Who do you give your loyalty to? What do you identify as? Who are you, and what defines you, as a person? Both characters experience difficulty in conforming to one identity, as the two cultures they grew up with splits them into two, where they are thought of as foreign, and alien. Both novels are the stories of how these characters dealt with this issue, and overcoming the dual nature of their identity, and accepting one’s self.
Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri begins by following the lives of Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, who had recently immigrated from Calcutta to Boston under an arranged marriage. Ashima struggles to assimilate to American culture, unfamiliar with the customs, and everyday life. She feels uncomfortable raising her first child in a foreign country she has no connection with, saying to Ashoke “I don’t want to raise Gogol alone in this country. It’s not right. I want to go back.” (33) She writes to her family, constantly reverting back to her accustomed ways. Even in another country, she continues to follow customs embraced in India, a prominent example would be the tradition of distinguishing between pet names (public) and good (private) names. While Ashima struggles with American Culture,, we can see how Gogol is struggling with understanding his Indian culture, as he was told to be called “Nikhil” in kindergarten, something he refused at first. From age 5 he is surrounded by “American” nicknames like ‘Andy’, ‘Sandy’, ‘Lizzie’, etc. He pledges allegiance to the American flag, we can already see that he is already becoming more distant with his Indian heritage and culture, something Ashima cannot imagine.
As time passes, Ashima begins to grow closer with American culture, cooking Americanized dished, and Gogol begins to feel closer as well. The difference is, Ashima feels a stronger pull from her Indian heritage, while Gogol feels the opposite, feeling closer with his American side. An example of this occurrence is when the family visits India, they felt out of place, unfamiliar with the customs and culture.
In his later adult life, Gogol struggles with accepting his name, as Gogol represents his Indian heritage, and Nikhil represents his American side, and by the time Gogol enters college, he changes his name to Nikhil, creating a new identity for himself. He constantly has the desire to separate himself from his familial ties, moving to New York City, which had also marked the beginning of a new relationship with Maxine, who’s lifestyle greatly differed to that of Gogol’s. She lives with her parents, residing in the Upper West Side of Manhattan living a lavish lifestyle, having Italian dinners along with champagne and wine, while going on vacations to upstate every once in a while. It is a life Gogol has never known, and he almost resents his Indian lifestyle and customs; he feels further disconnected from Indian culture than his American one. Although Maxine is comfortable with her own identity, as she has never felt alienation for her culture. Gogol also feels a cultural distance with his parents as Maxine does not. Throughout Gogol’s life he had strayed away from his Indian roots, but after his father’s death he had started dating an Indian woman, Moushumi, who she too had trouble accepting her identity. She remarks that “by the time she was twelve she had made a pact, with two other Bengali girls she knew, never to marry a Bengali man” (212) . She lived in France, immersing herself in French culture, to try to get away from her Indian one. Both of their complicated relationship with accepting their culture had brought them together, but in the end it had left them in a divorce after her affair. By the end of the novel, Ashima decides she will move back to Calcutta, and Gogol realizes that there will no one in America who will know him as Gogol.
He constantly struggles with his identity with Gogol and Nikhil, identifying more with American culture than his Indian counterpart, pushing it away, struggling to accept it. But Gogol finds himself accepting his namesaking rather than rejecting it, something he has done throughout his life, which marks the beginning of him welcoming his identity. He was not the only character that underwent this change, as his mother, Ashima who had rejected American culture at first ended up adopting and conforming to it, just as Gogol is with his Indian culture. What Gogol experiences is very typical of that of a child of immigrant parents. He has trouble connecting with his Indian culture, something his parents tried to make relevant in his life, yet growing up in America, he fails to acknowledge it. It is easier for him to relate to and assimilate to American culture, just as it was easier for Ashima and Ashoke to do for the country they were born in. Everyone naturally feels loyalty and importance to the country they were born in, and adopting to a new culture is hard- it’s cultural bias, and dealing with two cultures interrupts one’s self identity. But both characters were able to come to terms with embracing the two cultures.
What The Sympathizer introduces, is very different to that of the experiences presented in Namesake. The narrator was born in Vietnam, child of a mixed descent, his mother Vietnamese, and his father a French colonizer. He moved to America, educated at Occidental College, returning to Vietnam to help fight with the communists. He is constantly pushed and pulled between communist, anticommunists, Americans and the Vietnamese, sympathizing with both sides. His blood brothers are Man and Bon, both with opposing political ideologies, which is another way the narrator is pulled to a dual identity.
The unnamed narrator is half white, half asian so physically he already experiences this dual nature. Although he looks white, he is not fully white, and not accepted as a white man, nor accepted as an Asian man. He will never be accepted by Americans, seen as an outsider, as shown in chapter 15 when the narrator and the General goes to a steakhouse dinner with the Congressman and Dr. Richard Hedd, along with several other white business men. Throughout this entire chapter, both the narrator and the General are aware of the fact that they are marked as outsiders, inferior to the status of the white men that surrounds them. Condescending remarks are made such as “You speak real good English for an Oriental” (263). This interaction further implicates how he is dual in nature, and the fact that although he is half white, he can’t be accepted as a white man. Though he sympathizes with both sides as he befriends his American friends who are supposed to be his enemies, there are times when he identifies and leans his loyalty more towards his Vietnamese side. An example of this is when he becomes an authenticity advisor to the film, The Hamlet. He makes comments to the auteur, in hopes that there are no misrepresentations of the Vietnamese people as the West depicts them in dehumanized stereotypes. His efforts are left useless, as The Hamlet is released with nothing changed, only to lend the film aesthetic authenticity instead of cultural authenticity.
Unlike Gogol, who feels more familiar with his American side, the narrator does not feel a stronger pull to one culture, yet he sees equal sides in both, as he said in the beginning of the novel “I am also a man of two minds… I am simply able to see any issue from both sides” (1). The narrator’s lack of self identity is a tool to be used by the government, putting him in a position as a spy. He is at a war with himself, a physical manifestation of the Vietnam itself, split apart by the North and South. Another difference is that the narrator and his comrades had come to America as refugees, as they didn’t particularly have a choice, and did not come to America for opportunity. On the other hand, the Ganguli family came to America with choice, and was not forced out of their country, and came for the typical “American Dream” experience. But both characters undergo the issue of their dual identity due to the split cultures. And although in many aspects, they are different, the narrator is split by his heritage while Gogol is split by his name (which represents the two cultures he is involved with). They both struggle to accept themselves, and finding their identity. By the end of the novel, like the protagonist of the Namesake, the narrator comes to terms with his dual identity, embracing it, referring to himself as “we”.
Accepting and finding one’s cultural identity is a major theme in both novels. They both represent the struggle of identifying one’s self on a cultural spectrum. The narrator struggles with finding a medium between his Vietnamese and American side, while Gogol struggles with accepting his Indian culture, as he is a child of immigrant parents. Different characters in both novels experience the same issue, but because of their own situation, they are very different from one another. The Asian American experience is mostly about finding the middle ground between the you are connected to. One’s heritage, and where one resides, where one was born changes each and every one of the character’s perspective on identity. By the end of both novels they’ve come to embrace their 2 “identities” and cultures, which marks the beginning to their acceptance of themselves. This broader issue of identity and cultural differences is something many Asian Americans go through, and it’s important to understand the significance of embracing who, and what you are, because that in turn can lead to self love and acceptance.
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