Immigrant experiences are probably generally bad in this country, considering that our country, for the most part, is damn near intolerant with foreign people. The experiences detailed in some of our assigned texts are rather shocking, yet some are more profoundly so than others. I’ve decided to examine Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and Marilyn Chin’s How I Got That Name.
In Julia Alvarez’s story excerpt called How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, the audience immediately gets the feel that the Garcia family is different with the line: “The day the Garcias were one American year old, they had a celebration at dinner” (Coming of Age in America, 226). I originally thought this would be odd in comparison to the rest of America, but then I remembered new years and how we all do celebrate every year as Americans. For some reason though, getting drunk and watching an expensive, shiny ball drop every year, seems to be a lot less important and honorable than the traditions of other countries. Regardless, the main character, Carla, doesn’t believe in the celebration, because she’s scared and doesn’t have faith in her family’s assimilation, as she states, “’Let us please go back home, please,’ she [Carla] half prayed and half wished” (227). In that right, the differences between her own culture and the American one she was thrown into are immense. Carla has a couple of odd experiences with the English language in text, the first time being, “PRIVATE, NO TRESPASSING. The sign had surprised Carla since “forgive us our trespasses” was the only other context in which she had heard the word” (227). The other is her obsession over the phrase “by heart” and how she relates many parts of her life to knowing them “by heart”.
Carla also goes through several conflicts with her schooling, all spurred by a subconscious desire for some Americans to “help those who aren’t like us”-type mentality where her mother is informed by other local parents, “Public schools, she had learned from other Catholic parents, were where juvenile delinquents went and where teachers taught those new crazy ideas about how we all came from monkeys” (228). Carla would also get bullied at school by groups of boys. They would “pelt Carla with stones, aiming at her feet so as not to cause bruising, saying ‘Go back to where you came from, you dirty spic!’” while another would “yank down her socks, displaying her legs, which had started to grow soft, dark hairs” (229). I thought it was both horrifying and interesting how Carla was experiencing immigration at the same time she was going through puberty. It must have been so hard, not even knowing why her body was going through those changes in terms of her own language, let alone in the English language. Lastly, there was that experience with the pervert in the green car, and the officers that handled the case. I don’t believe that the sexually explicit incident happened because of her nationality or immigration, so I won’t be addressing it. However, the way the officers dealt with her situation was strongly racist at points. Although, I can see where they are coming from; where “a small, accented woman’s voice is barely heard among the booming, impersonal American male voices that interrogated her” (233). I think that line gets directly to the point, how officers see so much stuff and deal with so many people day in and day out that they develop a certain impersonal and desensitized quality. I’m not saying that Carla is wrong in her descriptions, comparing the officers to the mean boys who tease her, I just think that there is more to it than that; similarly, that this particular scene is way more about cultural misunderstandings than it is a scene of racism.
Secondly, I’m going to examine Marilyn Chin’s poem, How I Got That Name. This immigrant experience seems more developed, in the sense that Chin is writing it from an older standpoint than Alvarez, yet it comes off as way more angry and bitter. It seems like her main idea here is that of cultural pride and subsequently how she feels that her culture, family, and even her name, have given way to “surrendering”, in a sense. She talks of the several ways in which her family gave themselves over to American culture and how she resents them for it, “when my father the paper son / in the late 1950s / obsessed with some bombshell blonde / transliterated ‘Mei Ling’ to ‘Marilyn’” (Unsettling America, 134). She goes on about her father, “Hong Kong trash – / a gambler, a petty thug, / who bought a chain of chopsuey joints / in Piss River, Oregon” (134). Essentially, she’s saying her father gave up his cultural identity and exploited its traditions for money in another country, or at least that’s how I think Chin feels. She resents her name, saying she was “named after some tragic / white woman, swollen with gin and Nembutal” (134). This is obviously a reference to Marilyn Munroe. Chin then moves on to relating her immigrant condition to her ancestors, “the Great Patriarch Chin / peered down from his kiosk in Heaven… And I, his least favorite – / ‘not quite boiled, not quite cooked, / too listless to fight for my people’s destiny” (135). This seems to be talking about how the author doesn’t feel that she discredits her heritage or does anything to particularly help it, either. In the last stanza, she seems to be acting out her funeral in a sort of self-satire, “So, here lies Marilyn Mei Ling Chin, / married once, twice to so-and-so, a Lee and a Wong…sister of a dozen, cousin of a million / survived by everybody and forgotten by all” (136). I think she achieves a bitter climax here, as well as a certain contentment. It seems almost to say that even though she’s been through so much, that she still has her free will and time to tell.