Unaccustomed Earth: Embracing the American Culture
Each year millions of immigrants enter the United States and set up a permanent place of residence, bringing their culture and their customs along. However, over time they began to assimilate into the Western culture either by force or the need to conform to American standards. Many foreigners face conflicts within their families and within themselves over by conforming to American culture they are leaving behind their own. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth she writes on a selection of eight short stories that tell stories of different individuals who are of Indian dissent, specifically Bengali, juggling their American culture and their Bengali culture. Through her method of using the diaspora narrative where she describes the problems and difficulties that the individuals have assimilating into the American culture often times by neglecting their Bengali culture. These difficulties are wrapped in rhetoric and logic in order to share with the reader the exoticised picture of their adjustment problems and the discovery to look beyond cultural boundaries.
Within the book, Lahiri follows the theme of focusing on Bengali natives that move to the United States with their offspring usually the ones having difficulties staying true to their Bengali culture. Lahiri herself identical to her characters, “It didn’t matter that I wore clothes from Sears; I was still different. I looked different. My name was different,” she says. “I wanted to pull away from the things that marked my parents as being different.” (Lahiri, NPR) Lahiri draws from experience when writing her characters allowing her to use pathos in her writings to draw emotional connection from her readers. From living in America do they began to see the prejudices and differences in their cultures and “American Culture”. She uses the difficulties of the children growing up in the Western culture with the different names, race, and culture in order to show the struggles they endure. However, through the hardships of identity crisis, language, and culture clashes, they began to accept and appreciate their culture that their parents tried to teach them. “This connection begins to reveal the fruitfulness of analyzing the role diaspora plays for characters who constantly try to establish a sense of identity in lives that are rife with cultural, geographical, and personal change.”(Kemper 17) Lahiri’s use of pathos helps her establish her characters and their struggles in order for the readers to understand.
In Unaccustomed Earth, which details the story of intricate relationship between three generations of family members the father, Ruma his daughter, and Akash her son. Ruma’s mother recently died and has left her father a widowed retiree that decides to visit his daughter in her new suburban home in Seattle following after her husband after quitting her job as a lawyer after her mother’s death. Her father decided to visit her, it was the first time they would be alone, he moved into a one-bedroom apartment taking care of himself. The problem lie in the Indian custom of the children taking in the parents to care for them. “Ruma feared that her father would become a responsibility, an added demand, continuously present in a way she was no longer used to.” (Lahiri 5) The fact that he didn’t need to be taken care of, still made Ruma feel guilty for not going with the custom. Ruma herself had turned into a mirrored version of her mother, “Moving to a foreign place for the sake of marriage, caring exclusively for children and a household— had served as a warning, a path to avoid.” (Lahiri 11) It was Ruma’s life now, and her father had moved on with a secret affair with another women. When she saw him for his visit his entire ensemble was that of an American. They were essentially living two polar opposites, the father the foreign conforming of American style, and the daughter born an American revolting back an Indian lifestyle that resembled her mother.
The culture problems are heightened with the addition of gender issues that Lahiri presents in telling of the story where the father is disappointment that she wanted to leave her job as he felt America would bring a different life for his daughter. Her father didn’t want her to be reliant on a man but instead embrace the American style of lining out her own career path. (Lahiri 36) Ruma is going through a cultural identity crisis she didn’t stick to Bengali customs, and didn’t speak in Bengali language anymore lacking the discipline to teach Akash, something her mother would disapprove of. (Lahiri31) She was trying to balance her Indian heritage of following her mother’s path, and taking care of her father, while thinking of her once promising career. Her father on the other hand has left his Indian culture in the past as he seems to finally find happiness in his new life traveling and meeting a new companionship. It is the grandson fascination with the grandfather’s look and language that completes the circle as they bond over the nurturing of Ruma’s garden. As they reconnect he shares with her his feelings, as he doesn’t want to live with her, but enjoy it on his own. Lahiri emotionally connects the readers with this story.
In Lahiri’s other stories including “Hell-Heaven”, “A Choice of Accommodations”, “Only Goodness”, and “Nobody’s Business” share the same common themes of she uses the stories of different families struggling with emotions involving guilt, jealously, conflict between staying true to their Indian cultures and American Cultures. In the “Hell-Heaven” the traditional Indian family is son marries an American and turns his back on all of his Bengali culture, family, and friends. “He turned his back on his family, on all of you, really.” (Lahiri 105) The family is left to pick up the pieces jealous of the new wife and saddened that the son has neglected them. The daughter is hesitant about conforming to the American lifestyle however, through her brother’s action, and her parents eventual acceptance she is able to be free with her choices. “Lahiri shows through these multicultural characters that relationships between individuals are often received or denied dialogically, and this transference of spoken words, both monologically and polyphonically, can often lead to a breakdown in power archetypes and a confusion of cultural power.” (Kemper 24) Lahiri is able to use logos in a way to infuse logic into the character’s stories in order to showcase more than just adjustment problems but cultural struggles within their families.
.The second part of the Lahiri’s book is where she connects the last stories into the thesis of the paper as she has used rhetoric and reasoning throughout her book to describe the diaspora nature of foreigners or immigrants leaving their home to settled into a new place abroad only to be met with resistance and struggles within their families, and out in society. In Hema and Kaushik’s stories, “Once in a Lifetime”, “Year’s End”, and “Going Ashore” Lahiri tells the stories of two childhood friends that where of Bengali immigrants that came to America. The stories follow them from childhood to their adulthood where they eventually get together. “Once in a Lifetime” shares the story of the two families meeting, their shared Bengali culture, and the bond that they shared as the two children grew up. (Lahiri 207) As time progressed Kaushik family moved away they experienced different things, traveling the world, and becoming more Americanized as evident when they visited Hema’s family. “In the morning yall slept in, victims of jet lag, reminding us that despite your presence, your bags crowding the hallways, your toothbrushes cluttering the side of the sink, you belonged elsewhere.” (Lahiri 236) Through her use of deeply developed characters she is able to convey their emotions the real meaning of home as Kaushik is photojournalist that travels the world and has never felt at home as he father has re-married and scrub out memories of his mother as she died not long ago. Just like in Ruma and her father, Kaushik questions, “I didn’t know which was worse–the idea of my father was remarrying for love, or of his actively seeking out a stranger for companionship” (Lahiri 255) Soon Hema and Kaushik rekindled their friendship in Rome as they try to choose a different path from their parents.
In all of her stories Lahiri, shows the characters having some inner struggle relating to their culture. “Lahiri maps out the way in which different spaces determine intimacies, disrupt traditional narratives of intimacy, and re-form intergenerational intimacies.” (Ravy 2) The factor of Bengali culture conflicting with American culture is always present. Lahiri uses the literary focuses of pathos, ethos, and lagos in ways that play on the emotions and experiences of the reader often connecting using common human threads that include the death of a parent, new job or settling into a new place, and separation of adolescence and adulthood. Overall Lahiri, painted an intricate view of the Bengali culture and the different family dynamics that deal with cultural and universal themes throughout the novel struggling with their cultural identity. Through their connections and years of conflict were they able to be happy and satisfied with their balance of their two cultures.
Kemper, Brittany. “THE LANGUAGE OF DIASPORA IN JHUMPA LAHIRI’S
UNACCUSTOMED EARTH.” University of Toledo. 2006. Web. 01 July 2013. http://etd.ohiolink.edu/send-pdf.cgi/Kemper%20Brittany.pdf?csu1304039140
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Unaccustomed Earth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. “Jhumpa Lahiri’s Struggle To Feel American.” NPR. 2008. Web. 01 July 2013. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97418330
Ravy, Tawnya. “Geographies of Intimacy in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth” Academia.Edu. 2010. Web. 04 July 2013. http://academia.edu/1578603/Geographies_of_Intimacy_in_Jhumpa_Lahiris_Unaccustomed_Earth