Lost in Translation

No, I’m not here to talk to you about my favorite Bill Murray film. We’ve been looking at poetry and cultural context in Senior Seminar, and recent assignments have included “Persimmons” by Li-Young Lee and “Lost Sister” by Cathy Song. Both deal with the issue of being an Asian immigrant in the U.S., but despite their similarities, they each tell very different stories.

Both poems deal with alienation from one’s own native culture as well as from American culture. “Persimmons” deals with forgetting one language while trying to learn another, and with remaining quiet while others make incorrect assumptions about your culture. The latter is best exemplified by the teacher serving unripe persimmon to the class without knowing what the taste and texture of ripe persimmon — the “Chinese apple” — is really supposed to be like. “Lost Sister” expresses these issues by banished by one’s home culture for leaving for another land and what’s supposed to be a better opportunity.

One of the bigger differences between the two poems seems to be one of economics, though this may have a deeper root in the difference between the male and female experience. In “Persimmons,” Lee describes a close connection with his father and there are no apparent  signs of poverty. Whether this is because the family was doing well to begin with or because things got better once the Lee family got here is not evident. In Song’s case, poverty is an obvious thread throughout. She begins by talking about jade and how first daughters are given this name — jade is valuable, after all — yet having to stretch the rice supply to feed the family while still in China and living in inner city tenements once in America. Furthermore, it seems that the women experience the burden of more alienation from their home culture. The man’s place is clearly privileged, and women are expected to keep their place, as evidenced by the bound feet Song speaks of. The idea of women being equal to men in America is discussed as though it’s contamination; it’s compared to plagues of locusts and jade green is said to be “diluted” with the blue of the Pacific.

Sometimes in class, I often think about the fact that it would be helpful to know more about a culture before reading its literature; however, I think much can be gleaned about a culture from its literature if one devotes sufficient attention to detail and — more importantly — tries to absorb what is read with an attitude that is free of judgment. It is reasonable that we only have our own culture to compare things to, and that’s handy for noticing differences between ourselves and others. However, I think it’s wise to be mindful of assigning values like “right” and “wrong” just because what we read is the same or different from our own experience. The struggle for female equality in the US provides a useful lens for reading “Lost Sister” and “Persimmons” together, but we must not judge the people they tell us about as being “behind” somehow, because we’re still struggling ourselves.


~ by Shanna Gilkeson on March 24, 2013.

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