Thursday, 10 January 2013

'Digging to America' - part 2

Digging To America

A Culture Clash in polite society– ethnic assimilation, resistance and narrative perspectives in Anne Tyler’s middle-class suburbia

Part 2


Extracting key quotations on the theme of American-Iranian interactions can be a useful critical exercise:

..and Bitsy said, “Ah, well, Jin Ho doesn’t have that problem because we’re keeping the style she came with. I guess we just don’t feel we should Americanize her.”
    “Americanize!” Ziba said. “We’re not Americanizing!”                                             Chapter 2

“Is that right!” Bitsy turned to Mrs Hakimi. She knew it was laughable to think that a louder tone of voice would make her more easily understood, but somehow she couldn’t stop herself.      Chapter 3

Why couldn’t Ziba just shrug Bitsy off? Why was she so susceptible to Bitsy’s criticisms? Maybe they should find some Iranian friends. Enough of this struggle to fit in, to keep up!....Clapping Brad’s broad, damp back, stumbling around the yard in a clumsy dance, Sami imagined that to the relatives, the two of them must resemble two characters in some sitcom, two wild and crazy Americans, two regular American guys.                                                                                              Chapter 4

Dave laughed. He enjoyed the Yazdans. On the surface they seemed all primary colors, so innocent and impressionable, but he’d had glimpses of more complicated interiors from time to time. Mr Hakimi, for instance. Now, there were some darker hues, for sure.                                                   Chapter 5

  “Oh, no? Tell me,” she said putting on an earnest tone of voice, “what are your people’s folktales, Maryam? What are your local customs? Tell me your quaint superstitions.  “You should have been at Farah’s with me,” Maryam told her. “Then you wouldn’t ask. Such a point her husband makes about her foreignness! It seems she’s not really Farah at all: she’s Madam Iran”    
  “Dave wouldn’t do that.””                                                                                      Chapter 6

As well as saying something about the contrasts and the contradictions on both sides of Tyler’s ethnic fence – about host community fetishization of foreigness or about immigrant community duality regarding Americanization – this sample tells us something equally significant about Tyler’s third person authorial voice. Look closely and it is just possible to differentiate between the American and the Iranian-American voices, but the differences are marginal. Despite many references to the importance of language by the characters, and despite some misunderstanding of verbs like ‘shanghai’ and ‘flummoxed’, Tyler maintains a similar tone, register, lexis and syntax for all her characters, so much so that the narrative told from seven year old Jin Ho Donaldson’s point of view sounds more or less like most of the other chapters. Tyler is clearly more interested in describing thoughts and feelings from particular viewpoints without voice impersonation or ventriloquism, so that her third-person narrative voice remains consistent, albeit with an occasionally characteristic ‘note’ consistent with the chapter’s designated standpoint.

But not in Chapter 1 - a notable exception to the patterns established by the rest of the novel, and an opening which deserves more attention than I have space for here. Set in Baltimore airport, Tyler chooses to describe the arrival of the South Korean infants Susan and Jin Ho without attaching narrative perspective to any character. Instead, she adopts an intermittent second person voice, putting the reader in the position of a roving, ostensibly neutral observer:

‘But you could hear a distant hum, a murmur of anticipation, at the far end of Pier D….Step around the bend, then, and you’d come upon what looked like a gigantic baby shower…’ And as observers, or, perhaps more accurately, like theatre-goers watching a play in ‘real’ time, we are invited to witness what the characters look like, hear them speaking and observe their actions; and, like a play, we are not allowed to know their names until the characters tell us: ‘  “Donaldson. That’s us,” the father to be said.’

 Although Tyler’s unattached perspective is unique to this chapter, never to be repeated, it is here she manipulates an apparently ‘neutral’ viewpoint in order to introduce a key theme developed throughout the novel as a whole, namely the marginalization of non-European immigrants: ‘ “Yaz –dan,” the woman called from the rear. It sounded like a correction. The crowd parted again, not certain which way to move but eager to be of help, and three people no one had noticed before approached in single file: a youngish couple, foreign-looking, olive-skinned and attractive, followed by a slim older woman…’ By ‘ignoring’ the Yazdan characters until this moment, Tyler puts the reader into an uneasy, collusive relationship with the well-meaning yet self-absorbed and blithely over-bearing Donaldsons, Tyler’s representatives of mainstream Americanism, to whom the Yazdans are either invisible or ‘foreign looking’.

Any conclusions about Tyler’s own point of view on the complex world she represents in Digging To America might tentatively be drawn from the final chapter, again from Maryam’s perspective, where, initially, she reflects on the hard lessons to be learned from her break-up with Dave Donaldson:

For the sake of being needed she had linked herself to a man so inappropriate that she might as well have fished his name out of a hat. An American man, naïve and complacent and oblivious, convinced that his way was the only way and that he had every right to rearrange her life. She had melted the instant he said, “Come in,” even though she knew full well that inclusion was only a myth. And why? Because she believed that she could make a difference to his life.

And yet, by the end of the chapter, she is once more ‘seduced’ by the neediness of the whole Donaldson family, as they call for her to come with them to the Arrival Party:

“It’s us!” Bitsy called. “It’s all of us! Maryam, are you there? Please open up. We’ve come to collect you for the party. We can’t have the party without you! Let us in, Maryam.”

For Tyler, it seems that the insistence of Americanization can be resisted to a degree, but that the process of assimilation has a certain inevitability about it. As Farah, ‘Madam Iran’, observes about a  party at the Hakimis’, the second generation Iranian-Americans appear to be ‘ “…losing their culture, the young ones….They go through all the motions but keep looking at everyone else to see if they’ve got it right. They try to join in but they don’t know how…”’

Few would argue that Anne Tyler’s representation of this multi-faceted social world is not wonderfully observed, often sharply ironic and, at it’s best, rich with ambiguity and paradox. And for the curious reader, interested in developing post-colonial perspectives, the novel’s ‘narrative gaps’ provide a fertile area for exploration: the issue of country to country adoption, for instance, has become a controversial issue in recent years, especially in relation to South Korea, where serious questions have been raised about the continuing social policy of sending babies for export as an alternative to supporting their disadvantaged mothers; further internet research reveals potential problems facing  Korean children growing up in countries they didn’t choose to be sent to. It would appear that many adopted South Koreans experience increasing feelings of isolation and disorientation, painfully related to a growing sense of being rejected, not just by their biological parents, but by their home country. Set against these contexts, discussions about the characterization of Susan Yazdan – a South Korean girl brought up by Iranians in Baltimore – take on a whole new cultural dimension.

“The #1 Baby Exporter”
South Korea has struggled over the years with the label koasuch´ulguk or “orphan exporter”.  A general feeling exists inside South Korea, and many other countries as well, that international adoption is “a shameful admission to the world of the government’s inability to care for its own, the loss of a vital national asset, and … the ultimate example of exploitation by rich nations of the poor nations of the world.”  South Korea’s position has been made all the harder when starting in the 1970s, North Korea used international adoption in its public rhetoric against South Korea.  Here is a taste of what was reported in the North Korean newspaper, the Pyongyang Times:  “The traitors of South Korea, old hands at treacheries, are selling thousands, tens of thousands of children going ragged and hungry to foreign marauders under the name of ‘adopted children.”

South Korean Adoptions: Canary In The International Adoption Mine?
Posted by Dawn - September 13th, 2011