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Maxine Hong Kingston presents herself as a silent girl who encounters language barrier in America. Her first person narrative aims at creating awareness among students in different nations both native and non-natives over the influence of language and cultural barriers. Kingston uses a strong first person narration, full of metaphors depicting how a person can get affected by cultural and language barrier. Her story revolves around the major theme - silence. The silence was brought about by her inability to cope with the new languages (English and Japanese). At the same time, she is exposed as a real Chinese feminine in her silence. This work is aimed to help students develop awareness and appreciation of different cultural values and languages.
The author uses first person narration with numerous figurative elements to draw a clear picture of her past situation. She includes dialogues, metaphors and symbolism to compare her Chinese and American culture and how they shaped her learning. Her work opens with Chinese heritage of knot tightening, which she alludes to cutting children’s frenum. Kingston’s mother cut her tongue so that she develops a light tongue, which will make her speak easily in different languages. When she did ask her mother, she replied, “I cut it so that you would not be tongue-tied. Your tongue would be able to move in any language”(Ana, 2004, p.78).In contrast to the expectation, the American “soft spoken feminine” made her tongue remain heavy.
Kingston believes that the shock that she lived through after realizing that her language was odd haunts her to date. She says the shame and dumbness that she felt in her kindergarten still follows her when she seeks bus directions, at the check-out counter, or simply when she would like to respond to a greeting. She feels terrified when she gets a response like, “What did you say?” or “Speak up” (Ana, 2004, p.79), after making a request. She refers to her voice wincing and broken, which makes her fear responding to phone calls. However, with childhood memories ebbing, she believes she is gaining her ground (Ana, 2004).
After the realization that she had what was considered a bad voice and language, she lapsed into silence. She only imagined a talk to no one. Just like her sister she only cracked jokes in silence. Kingston became so accustomed to the silence that she forgot that speaking was necessary. According to her narrative, her silence lasted over three years, and she could not even ask for permission while going to the lavatory. She says, “During the first silent year I spoke o no one at school, did not ask before going to the lavatory, and flunked kindergarten” (Ana, 2004, p.79). However, her fellow Chinese recovered faster.
Kingston succinctly proves why silence was necessary in her new school. She applies different element of language such onomatopoeic expression to illustrate her situation. Chinese is considered loud “ching chongy”, unlike the American or Japanese soft poetic language. She had difficulty in judging emotions since the soft languages did not express emotions, unlike her Chinese language. Learning was also not easy; some words were too strange while other were too soft. She had difficulty in writing letter “I” and pronouncing “here’” too due to their flatness and softness. She says, “The other troublesome word was “here,” no strong consonant to hang on to, and so flat, when “here” is two mountainous ideographs” (Ana, 2004, p.79). As a result, she was segregated into a corner with loud boys.
In the reading class, though it was a little easier than speaking off head, Chinese children had a lot of trouble stabilizing their voices. She described their voices as twigs breaking underfoot, strangling, and splinters of wood. She says, “When it was my turn, the same voice came out, a crippled animal running on broken legs.”Despite the challenges, she was happy that she could read through amidst long pauses. Her only happiness was that she never whispered. Kingston’s narrative makes it sound as if they lost their voices since entry into English school (Ana, 2004).
Kingston juxtaposes different experiences and events to create a distinct comparison between her life in Chinese school and American school. Students in Kingston’s American school failed to acknowledge cultural diversity. Even her teacher never gave a thought to their cultural differences. She had to argue with her teacher over singing “land where our fathers died” (Ana, 2004, p.80),which was a taboo according to her. Her Hawaiian teacher even alienated the Chinese group while people were taken to auditorium. Kingston could not have a friend with either Japanese or the Americans who simply tried to bully her and frowned at her. Her narration revolves around the language barrier, however, to make her argument strong, she reflects on cultural differences between the Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc (Ana, 2004).
When Kingston entered American school, she realized that her whole learning environment has changed. Students’ behavior was dissimilar. She recalls that, in her China school, they easily socialized as compared to the new school.. Kingston says, “There we chanted together, voices rising and falling, loud and soft” (Ana, 2004, p.70). In American school, language barrier was so strident that she had to remain silent. Students kept close to their native speakers. She remembers her China school where they easily interacted with their teachers. They talked back at teachers while boys played a trick behind them. Girls screamed at recess and climbed the fire escape. On the other hand, in America classes were quite electric. Noisy people and people who could not read English were sent to a segregated corner (Ana, 2004).
With simple monologue, Kingston further shows what drove her further into silence in her new school. American students had different values. Unlike in her China school, American students only frowned at Kingston’s problems. They simply laughed at her when she drank from the toy saucer. She says, “I didn’t know that Americans don’t drink out of saucers” (Ana, 2004, p.78). Being a Chinese she had different values, which the Americans, who were the majority in school could not appreciate.
Kingston rolls out feminism in her two schools in a contrasting way. In the narration, she depicts herself as an ideal female as per the Chinese culture. She supports this by her silence, which is Chinese cultural expectation of women. When her mother says that she cut her tongue, to talk fluently, she asks, “But isn’t ‘a ready tongue an evil’?” (Ana, 2004, p.1).This was in reference to Chinese culture where women were supposed to remain silent most of the time.
During her learning, Kingston notices that Americans had smaller feminism gap. American girls were loud compared to Chinese girls. In her China school, only boys marveled around or joked with teachers. Even in their language, American language is feminine when spoken as compared to loud Chinese, which she speaks. However, when American women spoke they were louder than Chinese women. She was clearly making feminism comparison between the Western and Eastern Blocs (Ana, 2004).
Language barrier today is a known problem among many foreign students. Kingston uses her experiences to fight for students who are facing similar challenges in her narration. Through her work, awareness can be created to enable students appreciate and embrace cultural diversity. Kingston’s metaphorical language is an ideal example of a child born in a cultured society and suffers as a result. Her art of contrasting and juxtapositioning Western and Eastern Blocs makes her readers acknowledge her point of view.
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