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In this essay we are going to analyze gender roles, Chinese identity, and the idea of assimilation in Maxine Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman”.
Maxine Hong Kingston was born in 1940, in Stockton, California. She is the daughter of two Chinese immigrants. In terms of her education we know that she graduated from Berkeley (University of California) in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree. That same year she married her college boyfriend Earll Kingston, and therefore she took his surname too. She is now a professor in University of California, Berkeley.
The text we are going to analyze is the first section or “chapter” of her first book The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. This book was published in 1976 and received the National Book Critics Circle that same year. This book is considered as “non-fiction” since she includes her own experiences and memories; however it is important to mention that she avoids specifying her name in the text. We could say it is a mixture of traditional Chinese folktales, her own experiences as Chinese-American, and memories of her childhood. Maxine wrote this novel in a period when women’s movements and the fight for civil rights were at its height in the United States. During this period literature of Chinese American writers changed. In the past they have focused on the concept of identity and the idea of assimilation and although they continued focusing on those elements we see how gender roles are more emphasised, and integrated, with those previously mentioned concepts in comparison with the past.
This essay is going to be divided into three sections of analysis: the portrayal of gender roles, the conflict of biculturalism (that is the creation of an identity in a bicultural environment) and also assimilation, an element which is implied in the text. Before we begin the proper analysis of those sections or topics I have mentioned before, it is important to give the context of the story. The tale the mother tells is set in a Chinese village in 1924. The present of the story, that is the setting in which Maxine Hong tells us about her aunt is set in California in the 1940’s.
The first topic we are going to deal with is that of gender roles. This section begins with a story the protagonist’s mother always told her. She tells us that her mother told her the story of her aunt, who got pregnant and was considered after that invisible to the family for bringing “shame” to them. With the beginning the first idea that we get is that of a double standard. The tale implies that her aunt brought shame to the family by getting pregnant by another man other than her husband. We do not get the name of her aunt, she is a “no name woman” as the title of this section we are analyzing suggests. They treat the existence of her aunt and the fact she got pregnant as a kind of secret as we can see in the very beginning of the story: ‘You must not tell anyone (…) what I’m about to tell you’. Her aunt refused to give the name of the man who got her pregnant; she is in a way “protecting” him. We could connect this with the idea with which we began this topic: men were considered superior to women. The protagonist’s aunt remains silent; taking all the blame although it is obvious she was not the only one to blame in the act. At the end we know that she decided to kill herself as she could not deal with the pregnancy and the rejection of the community.
Nobody in the story gives her the chance to speak, the chance to explain what happened or why she got pregnant by someone who is not her husband. The mysterious man is placed in a privileged position, nobody demands anything from him. He is freed of any responsibility even though that child is his (representing male privilege in Chinese society) this woman is no given a voice, the title indicates us that. She is presented as a nameless woman; her story is used to warn the protagonist to be careful now that she has had her first menstruation. This nameless woman is used as an example of what not to do. The society in which she lived did not give her a second chance, instead they silenced her and classified her as a secret of which nobody wants to talk about. Maxine Hong illustrates this in the text with: “Don’t let your father know that 1 told you. He denies her”. Not even Maxine’s father wanted to talk about her, after her pregnancy she was classified as invisible and they all tried to act as she never existed after her death.
However, although the main tale does not give the aunt a voice Maxine by writing this section is giving her a voice, is trying to give her a sense of story and identity. Maxine retells the story of her aunt as she was told by her mother, she tries to question the story, she tries to question herself why that happened, who was the man who got her pregnant, she tries to create and tries to provide her with a voice, a story. By telling this story and questioning all that she is giving her aunt a second chance, she honours her in the only way she can now: by giving a silenced woman for many years a voice. As we can see in the following line: “Women in the old China did not choose. Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil. I wonder whether he masked himself when he joined the raid on her family.” The tale of her aunt gives us the representation of a woman living in a repressive society, a society which did not give her many opportunities and in which they had to follow men’s orders. This is the role women had in Chinese society during that period.
The second topic we are going to deal with is identity. Although we can extract many themes from this excerpt, section, or first chapter of the collection it is clear that the idea of the creation of an identity in a bicultural environment is present in the text. This idea is seen very clearly in the following paragraph: “Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?” Maxine Hong, as a Chinese American, felt the struggle of creating an identity when you are part of two different cultures. She is trying to find out what is her real Chinese identity, what is part of her memories, what is just part of the tales and legends her mother told her, and what is part of the image of Chinese that America, especially Hollywood, has created of them. Maxine never went to China, she was born in America and the only contact she had with China and the culture was through her family’s stories and the contact she had with other Chinese-American people.
This illustrates the general struggle children from immigrants had in America, trying to combine characteristics, ideas, and traditions of the American society in which they have grown up and elements and traditions from the original cultures of their families. The idea would be how to draw a line between what is real and what is fiction. This idea can be applied to the general section since Maxine mixes a tale her mother told her when she was little with real experiences and autobiography.
The idea of identity can also be seen in the following lines, but in a more subtle way: “I have thought that my family, having settled among immigrants who had also been their neighbors in the ancestral land, needed to clean their name, and a wrong word would incite the kinspeople even here. But there is more to this silence: they want me to participate in her punishment. And I have”. What she is trying to say here is that for all her life she believed in everything her family said, taking it as the right thing and taking it as what they needed to do because it was part of their culture, a culture she was not fully participant because she was born in America. However, in this text she is more mature, she knows more about life and she is able to make her own judgments. She gets the idea that her parents want her to follow the same rules as they followed in China, those values they took with them to America. But Maxine has other values too; she has values of American people. She is both Chinese and American and those American values make her see things in a different light.
Maxine also illustrates some differences between Chinese people and American people, and how difficult that is for her since she is in between two cultures (that is, having a Chinese family and she being American and interacting with American people). The most prominent example of this idea can be seen in the following lines: “The immigrants I know have loud voices, unmodulated to American tones even after years away from the villaje (…) I have not been able to stop my mother’s screams in public libraries (…) Chinese communication was loud, public”. Here we see that contrast of culture, that contrast that affected Maxine Hong. Chinese people, as she says here, tend to speak very loud. Even when they are in public they use a very loud voice to speak. Maxine herself was born in America therefore she is used to speak in a lower tone; she tries to make her mother understand that speaking loud in a library (taking the example of the text) is not correct. We see a contrast between two different cultures; and also the contrast between her family that came directly from China and Maxine who was born in America.
To finish with the main idea of identity it is interesting to mention that she makes a reference to the hardships of Chinese immigrants: “In 1924 just a few days after our village celebrated seventeen hurry-up weddings-to make sure that every young man who went ‘out on the road’ would responsibly come home (…) Those lucky enough to get contracts waved goodbye from the decks. They fed and guarded the stowaways and helped them of in Cuba, New York, Bali, Hawaii. ‘We’ll meet in California next year,’ they said. All of them sent money home.” In the tale they tell us how Chinese people (usually young men) had to go away, looking for a better life, as immigrants. Those men left their villages, homes, and wives in order to send some money back to their families in China. Maxine gives a reference to the struggle of her ancestors, the sacrifice they did looking for a better life, and the obstacles they encountered in a foreign country. It is also important to mention that America is referred in the text as: “(…) America, the Gold Mountain”. America was seen as the final goal, a place for new opportunities and a place of hope; hope for a better life.
The last topic we are going to deal with is assimilation. This topic is not the most important one in the text, neither is the most clear one, but there are some references to the concept of assimilation that are worth discussing. The first one “I have tried to turn myself American-feminine”. Maxine gives us the idea that she has tried to be more American than Chinese. Living in America made her believe for a period that Chinese aspects of life were inferior, in a way. She admits that she has tried to “Americanize” herself; she has tried to conform to America’s values and traditions. Another quote we see in the text that gives us the idea of assimilation is: “If I made myself American-pretty so that the five or six Chinese boys in the class fell in love with me, everyone else-the Caucasian, Negro, and Japanese boys-would too”. Maxine here claims that if she was “more American” she would be more attractive. She, as an Asian-American girl, was “bombarded” with the American standard of beauty so here we see that she believed that being more American would equal to being more beautiful and consequently more attractive to boys.
To summarize, Maxine Hong Kingston in this first section “No Name Woman” from her book The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts mixes a tale her mother always told her with her own memories and experiences as an Asian-American individual living in the United States. She combines perfectly fiction and autobiographical experiences, from which we get themes such as the ones we have discussed in this essay: identity, the role of women and assimilation.
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