Amy Tan and Jhumpa Lahiri
Both Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds” and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Third and Final Continent” tell stories about the cultural clash between eastern cultures and the western world of the United States. This is not the only point of similarity between these two women or their writing styles. Besides the fact that they were second-generation immigrants, both women had mothers who wished them to hold onto their heritage from the other nation while still accepting the dominant culture of the United States. This would influence their writings, as is indicated by the stories being compared here. Besides the question of cultural clash, the stories also both discuss the different perceptions of society between the generations and how those differing ideas can also cause conflict. Older generation is the embodiment of the old culture and the old ways whereas the younger generation is symbolic of the influence of the west on that older culture. It is then no surprise that the protagonists clash as much with their parent culture as they do with that of the United States.
In the story “The Third and Final Continent,” Jhumpa Lahiri explores the idea of culture clash that occurs when an Indian man immigrates to the United States. The narrator of the story has gone from his home land, to London, and then makes a final journey to the United States. Set in the mid-1960s, the reader’s first impression of the narrator is a man in transit. In his London flat, the little information provided of his life is still influenced by his Indian heritage. He specifically mentions eating egg curry and playing Mukesh. His cultural heritage is as much a part of himself as his employment. Even though he lives in London, the narrator’s life is still influenced by India.
The narrator is supposed to get married. It is an arranged marriage. He has never met his wife and he seems to put little importance on this part of his life. All he says about it is “In 1969, when I was thirty-six years old, my own marriage was arrangedâ€¦I flew first to Calcutta, to attend my wedding, and a week later to Boston, to begin my new job.” In American culture, these arranged marriages seem old-fashioned and perhaps even barbaric. However, in Indian culture this is not the case. His attitude would seem strange to American perspectives as well. The narrator says:
My wife’s name was Mala. The marriage had been arranged by my older brother and his wife. I regarded the proposition with neither objection nor enthusiasm. It was a duty expected of me, as it was expected of every man. She was the daughter of a schoolteacher in Beleghata. I was told that she could cook, knit, embroider, sketch landscapes, and recite poems by Tagore, but these talents could not make up for the fact that she did not possess a fair complexion, and so a string of men had rejected her to her face. She was twenty-seven, an age when her parents had begun to fear that she would never marry, and so they were willing to ship their only child halfway across the world in order to save her from spinsterhood.
His impression of his wife is also foreign to American thought processes. He has no emotion towards his wife one way or the other except to comment on the fact that the talents she possesses do not make up for the fact that she is unattractive to him. Most Americans think of weddings as a big deal and a lot of money, time, and energy usually goes into their preparation. Marriage in the United States is usually a celebration of love and commitment and those entering the union enjoy one another. This seems highly unnatural when glimpsed through the perspective of American culture. It would seem, from our perspective, that the narrator is doomed to an unhappy union.
In America, the narrator of “The Third and Final Continent” moves into an apartment. His roommate in this place is an extremely old woman. When he encounters this woman, it is another example of identities clashing. Her first conversation with the narrator includes a series of screams and orders. Each day the two have a repeat of their first conversation. The old woman, Mrs. Croft asks the narrator if he has checked the lock. Then she comments about how there is an American Flag on the moon and demands that the narrator declare this event to be “Splendid.” When the narrator responds with a different adjective, Mrs. Croft forces him to say her word. After this initial encounter, the narrator learns not to object to her demand and gives in. He is indoctrinated by her culture. As an elderly woman, the narrator cannot alter her perception and it is easier for him to give in to her than to fight with her. Without knowing it, the narrator has become altered by Mrs. Croft’s culture.
As the narrator as his wife slowly assimilates to American culture, they also try to hold to some of their Bengali traditions. It is only when Mala arrives that the narrator speaks his native language and eats with his hands. Without her presence, without the presence of another Indian person, the narrator has mostly forgotten the traditions of his heritage. Mala, who did not have the experience in London that the narrator had, retains her heritage longer but still assimilates. By the end of the story, “Mala no longer drapes the end of her sari over her head, or weeps at night for her parents.” Instead Mala and the narrator have become American citizens and their son has even less connection to his Bengali heritage than his parents now experience. “So we drive to Cambridge to visit him, or bring him home for a weekend, so that he can eat rice with us with his hands, and speak in Bengali, things we sometimes worry he will no longer do after we die.” This is the moral of Lahiri’s story. People immigrate to the United States from other countries. Often the cultures of their homelands clash with those of the new nation and the dominant culture often winds up eradicating the minority, especially as generations attempt to break away from their parent’s culture and become part of the American consciousness, so as not to alienate themselves.
In “Two Kinds,” Mother is so determined to find some special talent in her daughter that she pushes the child too far. “After seeing my mother’s disappointed face once again, something inside of me began to die. I hated the tests, the raised hopes and failed expectations.” Immigrants often came to the United States seeking the proverbial American Dream. If they had to work hard and make little money in their lifetime, at least they would make a better situation for their children. The mother of the story is putting all her faith in her daughter. In the story, it is evident that part of this obsession is due to the fact that one of the mother’s friends has a daughter who is a chess prodigy. Not only is the daughter letting her mother down by not being something special, she is paling in comparison to a child with similar circumstances.
The child begins to give up on herself and hopes that her mother will give up on her too. She is unable to see the mother’s endeavors as a means to self-improvement. Rather she sees herself as a pawn in her mother’s attempts to one-up her friends. To this end, when Mother sees a young Chinese girl playing piano on The Ed Sullivan Show, Mother determines that her daughter will also learn to play the piano. When the child objects the Mother states that the only reason she pushes her child is for her own good. “Who ask you be genius?” she shouted. “Only ask you be your best. For you sake.” The Mother assumes that the daughter is made of the same strength and determination that she herself possesses. Daughter does not see this as the case and fights domination by her mother. As it turns out, the instructor Mr. Chong is deaf and so Jing-mei never really learns to play, despite a year of practice. She goes to her lessons for two hours a day and learns nothing. Her spite for her mother and her orders has led to a form of self-destruction.
The culmination of this battle of wills is a talent show where the daughter plays terribly and blames her humiliation on her mother. Feeling that this will at least get her out of further piano lessons, Jing-mei is surprised when her mother informs her it is time to turn off the television and practice and the narrator says:
I didn’t budge. And then I decided. I didn’t have to do what my mother said anymore. I wasn’t her slave. This wasn’t China. I had listened to her before and look what happened (Tan).
Like most children, the daughter cannot see her own failures as her own and projects them onto her mother. Similarly the failures of the present generation will almost always try to blame current situations on their predecessors.
In her mind, the child compares the United States with China. In the old country, she would have had to obey her mother and commit to further humiliation and play the piano even though she does not desire to. In America, which is the land of the free, she feels that she should be able to make her own decisions. This symbolizes the clash between mother and daughter. They come from two sides of the same world and their perspectives of that world are consequently very different. Being a child, young Jing-mei does the only thing she can think of that will stop her mother. She brings up her dead sisters that her mother had to leave in China. The recall of the torment of her history and the reminder of why she came to the United States in the first place forces Mother to retreat and, to her detriment, Jing-mei gets what she wants. As an adult, Jing-mei reflects on the time in her life when her mother held such high hopes for her and the repercussions:
And for all those years, we never talked about the disaster at the recital or my terrible accusations afterward at the piano bench. All that remained unchecked, like a betrayal that was now unspeakable. So I never found a way to ask her why she had hoped for something so large that failure was inevitable (Tan).
What Jing-mei fails to realize, even as an adult, is that it was not just the piano and the quest for talent that drove her mother, but the desire that her child achieve everything the promise of the American Dream could possibly deliver.
In “Two Kinds” a mother and daughter are at odds over what the girl’s life will be. Her conflict with Mother is similar to that between the narrator of Lahiri’s piece and Mrs. Croft. The main difference is that where the narrator of “The Third and Final Continent” gave in to Mrs. Croft’s cultural domination rather quickly, the narrator of “Two Kinds” does not. Initially, the mother decides that her daughter is going to be a child prodigy and the daughter, being dutiful, believes her. “In the beginning, I was just as excited as my mother, maybe even more so. I pictured this prodigy part of me as different images, trying each one on for size” (Tan). Instead of India and the United States, the culture clash of Amy Tan’s story is about a mother who was emigrated from China and her daughter who was born in the States. The daughter does not have the same cultural perspective as her mother which adds a tensioned dimension to their relationship. Both stories deal with the difficulty that occurs when two different groups come together and the cultures simply do not mesh.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. (1999). “The Third and Final Continent.” Interpreter of Maladies. Mariner.
Tan, Amy. (1989). “Two Kinds.” The Joy Luck Club. England: Penguin.