The Search for Identity, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

The Search for Identity in “How I Got That Name” and “Behind Grandma’s House”

Marilyn Chin’s “How I Got That Name: An Essay on Assimilation” and Gary Soto’s “Behind Grandma’s House” share a common interest in the development of identity and how a child’s search for a sense of self can result in conflict between adults and children.  Chin’s poem focuses intensely on issues of nationality and the power of a name through a first-person biographical narrative that heavily employs figurative language and powerful imagery.  Soto’s poem also uses the first-person to recount the experiences of a child through metaphor and allusion.  Although the central authority figures differ–a father in Chin’s case and a grandmother in Soto’s–both poems seek to illustrate the vulnerability of childhood and the manner in which children learn about themselves and their place in the world from the adults around them.

As the title suggests, Marilyn Chin’s 1994 poem “How I Got That Name: An Essay on Assimilation” expresses the conflict that arises between the narrator and her father over the ethical issue of self-identity.  The narrator holds her father, a “tomcat, gambler, [and] petty thug” (Chin 26-27), responsible for the Americanization of the Chinese name that she loves, writing that “nobody dared question his initial impulse” (13-14) to name the narrator for “a bombshell blond” (11).  The narrator’s mother plays but a small part in shaping her daughter’s identity and destiny, for she is one who will “live and die in supreme ignorance” (22-23), unable to properly speak the narrator’s Americanized name.  The decision of the narrator’s father to transliterate his daughter’s name into one more palatable, and recognizable, for North American ears speaks to the ultimate power that parents can wield over their children, given that the bestowing of a name is the first way in which children develop a sense of identity.  Chin acknowledges the importance of a name by pointing out the subtle differences between the verb ‘be’, a “stalwart indicative” (4), and the noun ‘becoming’, a word which is points to the “uncertain” (5) nature of self.

In her quest to examine the nature of naming and the power that it wields in shaping both an individual and collective identity, Chin alludes to the Asian stereotypes that pervade North American culture.  Her reference to the “Model Minority” (42) speaks to the expectation that Asians are compliant and studious and thus represent the successful assimilation that other immigrants can aspire towards.  Such an ethnic stereotype effectively robs the narrator of the chance to fail or succeed on her own merits, and can be as damning and damaging as stereotypes which peg Asians, and the narrator specifically, as “not very creative but not adverse to rote learning” (40).  However, the structural progression of this poem demonstrates the way in which the narrator gradually comes to grips with the pressures of societal and familial expectations, eventually subverting corrosive stereotypes by learning to embrace them.  The narrator, “minding her poetry” (84) is swallowed whole by the  heavens, which open “like the jowls of a mighty white whale, or the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla” (87-88).  Both of these images represent dominant depictions of white authority and Asian stereotypes, and yet the narrator remains “solid as wood” (92), refusing to allow parental or societal conceptions of identity to dictate her essential being.

Unlike “How I Got My Name,” which spans the narrator’s childhood to adulthood, Gary Soto’s 1995 poem, “Behind Grandma’s House,” confines itself to a much smaller period of time.  Indeed, it encapsulates but a brief moment in its narrator’s childhood, and yet speaks volumes about the manner in which self emerges in an individual.  The conflict that emerges between children and adults is a primary theme of this poem, as demonstrated by the narrator’s attempt to find a place for himself in the power structure of his world.  On his brief journey homeward, the narrator seeks to dominate over the lesser creatures and inanimate objects he encounters in order to “prove that I was tough” (Soto 5).  As a child, the narrator is essentially powerless, but is still capable of maintaining some control over his universe by “flick[ing] rocks at cats, shoo[ing] pigeons, [and] frighten[ing] ants with a stream of spit” (11, 13, 15).  His actions speak both to the imaginative power of a child and the manner in which the powerless try to assert their dominion in whatever way possible.

Soto imbues his poem with a sense of freedom through the use of figurative language meant to create a collision between the narrator’s initial desire for “fame” (1) that is expressed in his rampage through town and the final outcome when he encounters his grandmother in the alley.  Light bulbs become “grenades” (8) and imagined “men teachers” (9) bleed from fantasized head wounds, all exhibiting the narrator’s wish to create chaos in his stable and static environment.  To this end, the narrator uses slang language as a weapon against an “imaginary priest,” (17) and yet finds himself silent and voiceless when his grandmother enters the alley with her apron, a strongly maternal symbol, “flapping in a breeze” (19).  The grandmother’s own words–“Let me help you” (20)–sets up an expectation that normalcy will be reestablished and chaos defeated, an illusion that is quickly subverted by the grandmother’s violent actions.  However, there is a double meaning implied in the grandmother’s words, for by punching the narrator “between the eyes” (21) she is indeed assisting her grandson in the continuation of his violent spree, while also handily demonstrating exactly who wields the true power in their relationship.

The desire of Gary Soto’s ten-year-old narrator to create a self-identity defined by violence and anarchy is not so far removed from Marilyn Chin’s narrator, who wishes to transcend a listlessness which prevents her from fighting “for my people’s destiny” (Chin 68).  Both poems are fascinated with the ways in which we create and recreate our selves with a special emphasis on how power dynamics, especially with figures of authority, play a role in shaping the self.  Soto’s strong imagery and use of figurative language seems to suggest that violence breeds violence and that children will repeat the actions which they see played out around them.  This is a theme that is echoed by Chin, who employs racial stereotypes and metaphors to demonstrate that we are all part of a familial chain created long before our births and extending well after our deaths.  The quest for power and self-identity may be largely out of our control, leaving us as helpless as the ants which Soto’s narrator drowned in spit, and we may be–as Chin suggests–“sister of a dozen, cousin of a million, survived by everybody and forgotten by all” (79-80), however the imaginative power of language remains our strongest weapon, allowing us, however briefly, to see our selves as larger, stronger, and smarter than we may actually be in reality.

Works Cited

Chin, Marilyn. “How I Got That Name: An Essay on Assimilation.” Literature: The Human            Experience. 10th ed. Eds. Richard Abcarian, Marvin Klotz, & Sam Cohen. New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.

Soto, Gary. “Behind Grandma’s House.” Literature: The Human Experience. 10th ed. Eds. Richard Abcarian, Marvin Klotz, & Sam Cohen. New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.

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