Social Identities of Different Groups of People
Our society manages collective ideas about who gets to belong to our group and which types of people are seen as different- the other. Social identities are relational- groups typically define themselves in relation to others. This is because identity has very little meaning without the existence of “the other”. In Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, Marlow defines the white European people as “His people” and the Africans are portrayed as someone who are different from him. Marlow describes the Africans as ‘black shadows’ or ‘black shapes’ or ‘bundles of acute angles’ and does not even perceive them entirely as ‘humans’ as he is not fully aware of them until he goes in the journey to the interior of the world and explores the reality. In “Ambiguous Adventure”, the Diallobe people perceive French people as the other and have fear of losing their own identity in the presence of the other. The novel gets denser in part 2 when Samba goes to the French school and faces the distinctions between his country and France in real terms. Although he gets attracted to the culture of France, his inner self realizes that he does not belong there and upon the acknowledgment of the French culture, he is losing some part of himself. With the explanation of the distinctions between the cultures that Gia Bao and Tri Huu Tran have been born and brought up in, “Vietnamerica” suggests that Gia Bao and Tri see each other as their significant ‘the other’. Tri does not find comfort in America and Gia-Bao find himself different from or alien to the culture of his own parents at the beginning of the novel. These novels explain the journey of the major protagonists in finding their respective identities that have been threatened by the existence of ‘the other’ as a counterpart entity opposing definition of ‘the self’.
“Heart of Darkness” projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world’, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization. The maps that Marlow grew up gazing at show how the European’s gaze constructed the world and saw other countries in relation to itself. Africa, in Europe’s eyes, is a blank space because Europeans have not gone to Africa to endow it with meaning- historical and geographical. ‘Civilization’ is one of the bases of categorization of the people as ‘the other’ in “Heart of Darkness”. As the European explorers fill the map with names, Africa and the Africans are not defined simply in terms of emptiness but an exotic ‘other’ of Europe. As Marlow approaches Africa, his view of the continent is already shaped by the imperialist ideology. He views Africa as an enigma and also personifies it as ‘savage and always mute with an air of whispering’. Before the start of Marlow’s journey to Africa, nowhere in the text does Marlow describe the Africans as human beings. Conrad intentionally does not provide names to any African characters, implying that the Africans have different language than the Europeans. Upon Marlow’s reduction of the Africans to ‘savages’ without having any interaction with them, we can say that we humans judge the other on the basis of the judgment of the people who we consider to be ‘our people’.
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Marlow here judges the Africans on the basis of the imperialistic perception that most Europeans have of the Africans. The inferiority of ‘the other’ is a constant theme of the novel. When Conrad describes the fireman in the ship such that “he was there below me, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches”, he wants to portray Europeans’ view about Africans’ social and mental state. The narrator’s belief in the inherent inferiority of the blacks suggests that our judgment is extremely influenced by our society. Through Marlow, Conrad explains that Europeans’ thoughts are molded by their society to such an extent that in all possible aspects, Africans appear subservient to them, even seeing them wear pants amounts to no more than a warped joke to the white men. Darkness is anything that is unknown, primitive and impenetrable. The title of the novel suggests that the Europeans’ lack of knowledge about Africa has led them to perceive the Africans as inferior ‘the other’. Marlow realizes that the Europeans in Africa are so lost in their greed and time in Africa that they have become less and less human , as suggested by the heads hanged in the fences by Kurtz, therefore establishing themselves as ‘savage’ in comparison to the Africans. This leads Marlow to experience a sense of identity crisis as his perception about his people and ‘the other’ is reversed with the passage of the novel.
“The Ambiguous Adventure” centers around Samba Diallo who goes abroad for higher studies and loses touch with his Senegalese roots and his Islamic faith in an attempt to find out the true secret of the white man’s power. The ambiguous adventure addresses a critical contemporary issue—the collision of Islamic African values and Western culture and here, this western culture is portrayed as ‘the other’ to the Diallobe people. Samba finds himself torn between the materialistic secularism and isolation of French civilization and the deeper spiritual influences of his homeland when he goes to the French school. The whole community of Diallobe people fears the French imperialists. This fear is a result of the difference in cultures. They believe that the French people have been so consumed in a materialistic world that they have lost their path and Diallobe people would have to abandon their faith in spirituality to be like the French. This can be justified when The Most Royal Lady addresses the Diallobe people in her speech and states that “The school in which I place our children will kill in them what today we love and rightly conserve with care. Perhaps the memory of us will die in them”. She believes that they are so completely different from the French that the two cultures can never exist in each other’s presence. At the beginning of his journey to France, Samba experiences non-conformity with the French culture and hence finds himself alien to the French. However, with his gradual adaptation to the new place, the otherness fades away. But when the hero of the novel, the deliverer-to-be, and paragon of the new generation, returns from France a total spiritual wreck, his once vibrant sense of community is hopelessly shattered. He realizes that he has lost his original identity but the total replacement of the Senegalese identity by the European identity has not taken place. This duality has resulted in the formation of an ambiguous identity. Hence this justifies that the existence of ‘the other’ can lead to the questioning of the self as in the case of Samba Diallo.
“Vietnamerica” is a graphic memoir in which the writer reveals the road that brought his family away from ‘their people’ to ‘the other’ world but that other world for him turned out to be ‘his world’ instead. The differences between GB and Tri tell us how they are their significant ‘the other’. GB is fully Americanized(as suggested by him playing video games, trying to be least connected to his family members) and totally unaware of his parent’s culture (as suggested by him wearing unsuitable clothes for funeral, his difficulty in pronouncing ‘pho’). Tri has spent a significant amount of time in America but still has not been able to fully adapt to the culture there. Tri’s difficulty in adapting to America and GB’s difficulty in conforming to the Vietnamese culture gives us an idea that they have been culturally constructed as being fundamentally different and this cultural construction is the basis of defining ‘the other’ in the novel. We need something that in some degree is different from ourselves to actually constitute a self and this something is culture and traditions in this novel.
Although Tri and GB have the same origin (Vietnamese), their reaction to similar circumstances is different than each other as a result of their cultural construction. The power of definition is a strong one, and when used in the context of othering, it continues to reinforce the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’. This text does not consider ‘the other’ as inimical rather has some degree of respect towards them. America has provided shelter to Tri’s family when they needed it the most and the journey to Vietnam has helped GB understand his parent’s history and what circumstances they underwent to give him the life he has been living. But the struggle to adapt to the other culture gives us an idea that our identity is tied to the place we come from and is the basis of distinguishing self from the other. Similar to the protagonists of previous two texts, GB also develops an ambiguous identity upon his arrival in Vietnam as he finds himself completely different from the people who are supposed to be his family which suggests that the merging of ‘the other’ contributes to the loss of self to some extent.
All three texts have characters that prominently enhance the concept of ‘the other’. In ‘Heart of Darkness’, we see a European’s perception of the Africans as ‘the other’ and in ‘Ambiguous adventure’, we understood the opposite side of the coin. ‘Vietnamerica’ on the other hand displays how the concept of ‘the other’ can exist within a family. The place, culture and civilization are the criterions of distinction between the self and the other. All the major protagonists go on a journey away from their place and people and develop a sense of identity crisis. This suggests that the inclination towards the other is a prominent cause of identity crisis referring to the existence of ‘the other’ as a threat to the concrete identity of ‘the self’.