The Namesake and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club

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5. 2 Language and Its Role

There is another characteristic of immigrants which functions as a defining feature. The motive of immigrants speaking a foreign language, which is English, is explored by both Lahiri and Tan. Their depictions, however, vary. Tan, as many Chinese and non-Chinese American authors, depicts the Chinese immigrants as speaking Pidgin English. As Ma notices, the comical usage of Pidgin English is prevalent not only in Anglo-American writing, but also in Chinese American discourse (Ma 29). Pidgin English is, however, not the neutral ethnic marker. It is not to show only dissimilarities, but the inability to speak English properly is seen as a defect. As Ma notices, “in Chinese American discourse, the Chinese body and Pidgin English are often taken to be the indicators of the Oriental’s alienness and at times degeneracy” (Ma 27).

The inequality of the pidgin language is also expressed in The Joy Luck Club. While immigrant mothers use Standard English when they narrate their stories, in the chapters narrated by their daughters they speak Pidgin English. Since they use sentences without auxiliary verbs which have incorrectly graded adjectives or misspelled words, they are narrated as inferior. The presence of such mistakes is constantly repeated in the novel and results in the immigrant mothers hardly uttering a sentence without mistakes. Such mistakes often stress the awkwardness of a situation. An example can be seen when a Chinese-American daughter, Jing-mei/June, feels humiliated because she was insulted during the conversation with other Chinese daughter, Waverly. Her mother embarrasses her afterwards even more not only by her criticism, by also by the form she uses. She says “June not sophisticate like you” (Tan 206). June is therefore humiliated not only by the words which many people during the celebration can hear, but also by her mother’s inaccurate speech. Pidgin English is not, however, used in the emotional situations. When an immigrant mother wants to reconcile with June, she speaks in Chinese. The Pidgin speech is excluded from such moments because its function would clash with the emotional moment. The inferiority of the Pidgin language is also expressed explicitly. When an American boyfriend of one of the Chinese-American daughters, Waverly, visits her mother, he derides Pidgin English when he claims that “[h]er English was so bad […] when she was talking about that dead guy showing up on Dynasty, I thought she was talking about something that happened in China a long time ago” (Tan 179). The Pidgin of Chinese mothers is therefore not the neutral language, but is used as a trope which shows immigrants’ second-class status.

As Lahiri draws on the stories of successful Indian immigrants in America, the immigrant story is in the novel The Namesake not pictured as a struggle to assimilate to a new culture but, on the contrary, Lahiri’s migrants as well as their children are no more alien to American culture. They can rather be characterized by their ‘dual identity’. As Natalie Friedman argues, Lahiri “dismantles the stereotype of brown-skinned immigrant families that are always outsiders to American culture and recasts them as cosmopolities, members of a shifting network of globals travelers whose national loyalties are flexible” (Friedman 112). Being a migrant therefore does not mean that characters have to be isolated because of their different background. While Lahiri uses the trope of the food to represent the feelings of loneliness which Ashima experiences during her first months in the U.S., the trope of broken English is not used. The only exception is the moment when Ashima is at hospital giving birth to her first child. When asked whether she hopes for a boy or a girl, she mistakenly says that it does not matter “as long as there are ten finger and ten toe” (Lahiri 7). Lahiri, however, does not incorporate the scene to show Indians’ low social standing. Whereas Tan’s immigrant mothers are perceived to speak substandard English from the outside, Lahiri shows Ashima’s feelings when she makes a mistake in her speech. Since Ashima studied English in Calcutta, her “error pains her almost as much as her last contraction” (Lahiri 7). Her reasons for the mistake are also explained by saying that “in Bengali, a finger can also mean fingers, a toe toes” (Lahiri 7). As opposed to the Chinese immigrants, Indians coming to America are usually not portrayed as speaking broken English. Their speech, however, has another feature which is considered to be characteristic of Indian immigrants. Besides their appearance and ethnic dresses, it is the accent which differentiates them (Bhatia 155). The Indian characters in The Namesake are, however, never mentioned with the reference to their unusual pronunciation. The mistake which Ashima utters at the beginning of the story therefore remains the only marker of their language difference. Lahiri therefore employs a different strategy than Tan. While Tan depicts immigrant mothers from the distance and shows their inability to speak proper English, Lahiri explains the feelings and reasons which accompany such mistakes.

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