Analysis of the Poems, Assimilation and Returning
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Personally, I find Assimilation by Eugene Gloria is more effective than Returning in depicting cultural understanding as a state of recognising and appreciating the culture. In the former, the poet focuses on the presence of the “scattered rice beneath the red-painted bench”. Although those rice grains are left-overs from his previous meal, the poet still attachs some significance to them, even juxtaposing the rice with a contrasting image of “the red-painted bench”, so that the white rice grains are more noticeable. The rice represents the Asian heritage of the speaker, as seen in how he wanted to “hid (the rice) from his classmates as he was ashamed to be different”. The speaker recognises that the Americans will recognise his culture. Hence, when the rice grains blend into the “schoolyard’s dirt”, this represents the assimilation of the speaker into the White community in his school. However, the speaker understands that this assimilation is not perfect. He is not actually becoming equal to the Whites, he is only becoming tolerated by the community.
While the “white kids are lined on red-painted benches”, the rice grains huddle layers below, beneath the bench, beneath the dirt. Acknowledging that the American culture has many social classes, and that he is a part of the lower class is difficult, as that is a painful truth, however he still accepts this, as his appreciation of this community which despises him overpowers the social stigma that comes with being Asian, therefore, it is proof that the speaker in Assimilation recognises the flaws of the American culture and truly understands and accepts it. You cannot understand something unless you accept and internalise the new knowledge. I think the same goes for cultural understanding; you have to accept the truth about your relationship with the culture.
So, as the poet has portrayed the speaker as someone who longs to be a part of the American culture, and has accepted his social standing, the poem is effective in showing that the speaker possesses a sense of cultural understanding about the social classes in the American culture. Also, he understands that the American food culture is a unique blend of housebrands and home-cooked food, as seen by how he deliberately juxtaposes “Glad bags of chips” with “Mom’s special sandwich with crisp leaf of lettuce”. You can tell that not only does he understand the food culture, he appreciates it, as he lovingly emphasises the “leaf of lettuce”. The syntax reminds me of witches who prepare their unique brew and name each ingredient by its quantity, followed by its type as they throw it into their cauldron. Hence, the speaker recognises how special the American culture is, with its precious sandwiches and expensive snacks.
On the other hand, the speaker in Returning is extremely vague, perhaps even in denial, about her social standing in the house, and hence I infer that she lacks a sense of cultural understanding, as she refuses to assume a role in Indian society, not wanting to understand Indian customs and not recognising the true value of heritage, hence failing to understand the Indian culture. Hence, Returning is not so effective at showing a sense of cultural understanding. The speaker cannot even understand her husband, who she perceives as a living relic of this foreign culture. She rejects Indian customs, as seen by how she regards the traditional dress, the “sari that halves my stride”, as an impediment. The way she openly reveals that her servants think of her as “Ghost mistress” shows me that she agrees with them. She is indeed a “ghost”, she is not a part of their world, unlike her husband who is rooted in the culture of his ancestors’ house , whoose“feet absorb the dark polish of the stone floors”. She accepts that she is an outsider, so I gather that she does not adore the Indian culture so much that she wants to be a part of it. She does not recognise the culture of the long-established relationship between servant and master. In fact, she probably did not make the effort to acquaint herself with the knowledge of the practice of servants guarding the doors of their masters, which explains why she “tripped over a servant”, not having expected to see him there.
Instead, her half-awake mind is preoccupied with abstract thoughts about the rights of servants and trade unions, concepts of the Socialist school of thought. She mumbles “workers of the world unite!”. The speaker seems more concerned with issues of the world, such as Socialist ideas. In fact, rather than notice a person, she focuses on the “shelves of National Geographic”. She even points out how valuable these magazines are, as they date from “circa 1950”. Evidently, this speaker only sees the servant as an obstacle she tripped over. She does not recognise the Indian practice of servants demonstrating their loyalty to their masters by sleeping near them, and hence she does not find this inherited practice valuable. She fails to understand the Indian culture, only treasuring Western artefacts. Later on, this lack of appreciation is reflected, in the way she dismisses the “teardrop-shaped ashtrays of pounded silver, each engraved From Sri Lanka” , with a curt, “We don’t smoke”. The poet skillfully varies the sentence structures. The precious ashtrays are described in great detail , while only a few words are spared in crafting the speaker’s dismissive reply. Hence, the short and rude sentence shows the speaker’s attitude towards Indian heritage. The speaker does not value the Indian culture, and hence she does not try, and cannot, understand it.
So, Assimilation is better than Returning at showing a sense of cultural understanding as the speaker recognises and appreciates the culture.
However, even if you like a culture very much, you might not fully understand it. In a sense, Returning is more effective than Assimilation as the speaker in Returning is more aware of the subterfuges in the spoken word, and hence she understands that the Indians are a complex and real race, so her understanding of the Indian culture is deeper. This might be because the speaker lives in the Indian culture, while the speaker in Assimilation only sees one side of the American culture when he is in school. In Returning, the poet uses caricature. The speaker gives a very apt and amusing description of the palm reader, who is “squatting like an old pelican”. In my mind, I visualise this creature who feeds himself by opening a mouth that can store a lot, and I think palm readers are similar, as they use rhetoric and fancy words to appease their customers. An outsider or a tourist may only see palm readers as mysterious and queer, without understanding that this mysterious aura is meant to disarm customers, so that they put aside their doubts and let the palm readers influence them. In a way, the persuasive words the palm readers put forward are a subterfuge, but a harmless one.
The fact that the speaker can give us such aaccurate caricature shows that she truly understands the culture of palm-readers, and hence by extension, the culture of India. Later on, she observes that when they hear that she has refused the ashtrays, the people who have prepared these gifts “nod yes, meaning no”. She understands that when they nod, this is only a formality, to show that they don’t take offence when she refuses their gifts. However, naturally, they are offended. Hence, she understands the hidden meanings in the speech patterns of the Indians, so she has a deep understanding of their culture and language.
This is opposed to Assimilation, in which the speaker does not comment on the actions of the American boys. The American boys are “white kids lined on red-painted benches in the fall chill of noon”. They are not doing anything, but providing a picturesque image. The speaker highlights the fact that the boys are American, by providing the contrast of the “red-painted bench”, and how the fact that they are American, and he is not, makes him feel uneasy, as he, with his reddish-brown skin stands out, the way the reader notices that “chill” and “noon” are not easy to picture together, as noon suggests the hot sun, which contrasts with “chill”. They are only a pleasant image he aspires to become, so I get the sense that the speaker only understands the American culture on a superficial level.
Therefore, Returning reflects a deeper cultural understanding than Assimilation. However, Assimilation is better at showing assimilation, while Returning shows that the speaker is surrounded by, but still not part of the culture. The speaker in Assimilation has a cynical, but pained voice. He says “homeboys like us are marked by experience of not being part of the whole”. Homeboys sounds like an affectionate term, showing that the speaker is being ironic. How can they be called homeboys when they do not belong to the American home? Although they are still not equal to the Americans, at least they are now part of the culture, as they have experienced this culture, “and are marked” by it. At least they have taken the first step to assimilation, which is being recognised by the culture they want to assimilate into.
However, in Returning, the speaker does not leave a mark on the culture, so she does not seem like she has tried to assimilate into it. It is described that there are “no new fingerprints” on the keys of the typewriter. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, she is described as “ghost mistress. In other words, she leaves no mark, no one perceives her, so how can she join society when society does not recognise her? In the last stanza, the speaker is seen having a monologue with herself. She imagines that the father of her husband is speaking to her. She replies, saying Yes, meaning no. This is the only line in the poem that is uttered by a living person that does not have quotation marks. Hence, I think this shows that no one can hear what she says, and hence, the Indian culture does not even recognise her, so she cannot assimilate into it.
In conclusion, although I find that the speaker in Returning has a deeper understanding of the Indian culture than the speaker in Assimilation, the speaker in Returning does not appreciate the culture and does not bother to assimilate into that culture. She is content with opposing it. In the long run, although she notices the various aspects of the Indian culture, such as their speech patterns, I suspect that she doesn’t draw the link between these aspects and the purposes of these aspects. For example, she knows that by saying “yes, meaning no”, the Indians are being civil, but she doesn’t understand the point behind being civil, as shown by how she rejects Indian culture by outrightly turning down their offer of ashtrays, by saying “We don’t smoke”, without thanking the Indians. However, at least she understands that the Indian culture is a complex one, while the speaker in Assimilation is only familiar with the superficial aspect of the American culture that he sees. Yet, he tries his best to assimilate into it, and I think he succeeds, even if he realises that this assimilation may not be what he truly wants in the end. So, Returning is more effective in showing a sense of cultural understanding, but Assimilation is better at showing assimilation.