By: Cindy Hsieh
While it is true that the category of Asian American literature is one which encompasses varying Asian cultures, it is the blend of these varying cultures with the singular American culture that ties this category together. But when individuals refuse to blend their Asian and American identities, this conflict prevents integration. Author of “Interpreter of Maladies”¸ Jhumpa Lahiri, is of Bengali descent; however, her upbringing was one influenced by western culture – first in the United Kingdom and then in the United States. Two main characters in her short story are Raj and Mina Das, a married couple born in raised in the US and now continuing to raise their own children there. Similarly, Filipino-Indian-American poet, Aimee Nezhukumatathil (AN), was also born and raised in the US, specifically in Chicago. In her poem, “One Bite”, the speaker can be inferred to be of a South Asian descent based on her interactions with the man selling miracle fruit. Yet, she resides in Florida – again immersing herself in western culture. The embrace of more western culture, despite an Asian lineage of the characters, along with their sense of American superiority creates confusion and misinterpretation of their ancestral culture.
A bite of “miracle fruit”, title of AN’s collection, is what will change a person as she states that “…one bite, / and for hours all you eat is sweet…” (Nezhukumatathil, 1-2). The direction of agency is reversed and gives the power to the fruit to make a difference “for hours”, not the person (Nezhukumatathil, 2). This “cold” fruit seems foreign in the “…Florida heat…”, representative of a separation of Western and Asian culture (Nezhukumatathil, 3-4). Does this mean that consumption of culture causes a person to change? Is there danger then in overconsumption of a culture? Certainly, the little girl voiced her worries about “eat[ing] it whole” and having her “teeth” “swell”, followed by her question of, “…how long before you lose the sweetness…” (Nezhukumatathil, 16). All you eat becomes sweetness and nothing else – why would someone want to only consume all sweet things for hours? I think it just an unintended effect of this “over”-cultural consumption. The narrator seems to fear that she will be drawn into this “foreign” culture and the immersion will somehow cause detrimental effects to herself. This fearful mindset though isn’t healthy for her as the cost it entails is her loss in connecting with her ancestral roots.
Though consumption of Asian culture is not represented in “Interpreter of Maladies”, the consumption of American culture is seen through Raj’s, an American- born Indian’s, pompous comments of being raised in the US and heightened interest in the poverty of India. He gives more attention to his American tour book, than his authentic surroundings in India. The question of why his ignorance may exist seems to be partially answered in larger terms by both Raj and Mina Das, an American born couple of Indian descent revisiting India. On their trip to India, Raj seems consumed by the role of an outsider, a tourist from the US, constantly taking photos everywhere he goes (Lahiri, 44). There seems to be no deep immersion into this foreign environment they are visiting – an environment that really isn’t all that foreign because it is their ancestry after all. Raj ventures around India relying more on a foreign tour book with “…’INDIA’ in yellow letters and look[ing] as if it had been published abroad…” than consulting Mr. Kapasi, a native to the area (Lahiri, 44). Mina displays outright disinterest in the culture as she “impatiently sighs” when she finds out their trip is still for another two and half hours (Lahiri, 47). Even when Mr. Kapasi goes out of his way and takes them to see the hills at Udayagiri and Khandagiri, Mina “refuse[s] to get out of the car” and complains that she can’t because her “legs are tired” (Lahiri, 61). Raj exemplifies more outright pride about being raised in American culture than Mina does, who seems more oblivious and ignorant towards the Indian culture through her lack in participation to discover India’s attractions with the rest of the family. Due to Raj’s separation from India by playing the role of an American tourist and not a member of his ancestry, Raj seems to be a good representation of someone who has consumed (western) culture too much due to his seemingly built up an arrogance against his ancestral nature. During the introduction to their native tour guide, Mr. Kapasi, Mr. Das squeezes Kapasi’s hand so hard that he can “…feel it in his elbow…”, unlike the palm pressed bow Mr. Kapasi gives (Nezhukumatathil, 44). The overpowering of the shake seems to be a power stance on the part of Mr. Das onto Mr. Kapasi. In addition to this encounter, Mrs. Das is described to smile at Mr. Kapasi, but emptily as she “….[displays] no interest in him…” (Lahiri, 44). You would expect that a visit your home country after a few years, would instill more curiosity and respect for the native culture of people who share the same ethnicity as you. Mr. Das continues to interact with Mr. Kapasi and even “announces” to him “…with an air of sudden confidence that “…[he] and Mina were both born in America…born and raised…” (Lahiri, 45). They are both of the same origin; yet, Mr. Das somehow feels superior to Mr. Kapasi because he grew up in the US. Though Mina does not have the same consumption into American culture as Raj, she also does not immerse herself into her cultural heritage. Mrs. Das’s materialistic consumption (continuous stroking of clear nail polish during the car ride, purchasing and indulging in puffed rice and chewing gum, etc.) seems to be an example of a possible “overconsumption of culture” as referenced to in “One Bite”. She seems separated from her culture because of her focus on these materialistic means. Even in Mr. Kapasi’s turbulent car, Mrs. Das continues to pain her nails with colorless nail polish (Lahiri, 48). Colorless nail polish serves an extraneous purpose: no additional color is applied, just an extra layer of polish. The layering of nail polish seems to be symbolic of her layering her ancestry and separating herself further from Indian culture. The application of colorless nail polish seems more worthwhile to Mina than investing in time in exploring the land she is visiting. Yet, why all of these layers? Is it fear she is hiding from – fear for her westernized self to be revealed by exposure to her ancestral South Asian culture?
The power that one bite holds seems to continue to grow within the poem. The berry is described that just “…one bite… [if] eat[en]… whole, it softens / and swells your teeth like a mouthful of mallow…” (Nezhukumatathil, 12-13). It seems to be that the miracle berry given to the narrator by this foreign man is representative of a foreign culture due to the berry’s origins. Yet, the only way to take in the “cultural” berry is in one piece, whole – not a small portion. It is as if immersion is all or nothing, because only a little taste of culture will not yield a full understanding of ancestral heritage. Moreover, the speaker describes the situation of consuming the berry as a hypothetical “what if” scenario. If the speaker has never seen the miracle berry before, how does she know what will exactly happen? It seems that the assumptions are not necessarily the truth. She seems to be scared to consume the whole culture because of the possibility of it “swelling your teeth” (Nezhukumatathil, 13). It is almost as if overindulging in this berry will damage her, even if it is just one bite. She views her Indian culture with fear and does not readily imbibe it, nor does she even express questions she has about it: “…she wanted to ask what is that…” (Nezhukumatathil, 9-10). Perhaps she “wanted to ask” the man who was selling miracle berries or the berries themselves, since she expresses this want directly after he addresses her intimately, as a child of his Indian culture: “Duttah, Duttah” (Nezhukumatathil, 9). She was scared to hear the response to the question, even to voice it, unlike Mina who became extremely intrigued by Mr. Kapasi’s career because of her romanticizing of the hopeless of the patients he aids in the doctor’s office.
Though the narrator in AN’s poem fears to consume her parents’ culture, Mina distorts and romanticizes her parents’ culture by turning it into entertainment in “Interpreter of Maladies”. After a bit of time on the tour given by Mr. Kapasi, she finds out that he works in a doctor’s office and an interpreter for the patients (Lahiri, 50). Her immediate response is one where she views his career as “romantic”. She says it “dreamily” and even lifts her sunglasses “…like a tiara…” (Lahiri, 50). This fairytale like picture aids the reader in visualizing this wrongful perception that Mina has for the stories Mr. Kapasi is telling her. The romanticizing of Mr. Kapasi’s job by Mina is extremely strange and a bit disturbing due to the lack of romantic nature between Mr. Kapasi’s role as a translator and the ill patients. His career is one that involves patients who have no control over being ill; they do not actively choose to be “hopeless” as Mina describes to be. Mr. Kapasi describes the ill patients he sees to have “…swollen bones, countless cramps of bellies and bowels, spots on people’s palms that changed color, shape, or size…” (Lahiri, 51). Moreover, when Mrs. Das asks Mr. Kapasi to continue describing the details of his career she closes her eyes and tells him that she “…wants to picture what happens…” (Lahiri, 51). Mrs. Das is almost too consumed by the stories that Mr. Kapasi is telling to acknowledge that they are real and unfortunate happenings. She overindulges herself with the information that Mr. Kapasi shares, and turns it into a romantic association instead. This romanticizing of poverty completely blinds her from absorbing the truth of the culture that she is part of. She doesn’t seem to acknowledge this wrongful thinking as she tells Mr. Kapasi how “neat” everything seems (Lahiri, 51). Even Mr. Kapasi responds with hesitation. Mrs. Das continues this “fairytale” façade path of understanding the truth by telling Mr. Kapasi that the patients he sees are “totally dependent” on him (Lahiri, 51). The romanticizing of Mr. Kapasi’s role as a translator like a valiant knight essentially degrades and demeans the stance of the patients to seem completely hopeless without outside help. Mrs. Das is also from the same place and I would assume also falls ill; is she also not just as hopeless then? The patients simply have no access to the language that the doctor speaks, and only require Mr. Kapasi’s help to ensure a proper diagnostic by the doctor. This is really no different from the role of a nurse in the US. This degrading view of patients in India seems to separate Mrs. Das from understanding her ancestry and viewing herself from even being part of her culture. Is there an underlying fear of Mrs. Das with associating to Asian heritage, similar to the fear noted by the speaker in “One Bite”? The reason why Mrs. Das may be separating herself from her own culture may simply be because of how the people of her culture are often portrayed in the US – in poverty. However, she also does not realize that this single, reductive view is not the only thing that encompasses her ethnic identity. She seems to lean on her American wealth and privilege to view her Asian ancestry as inferior.
In “One Bite”, the longevity of the sweetness of the miracle berry is questioned as if it is a measure of its worth as the little girl wonders, “…So how long before you lose a sandal and still walk? How long before you lose the sweetness?” (Nezhukumatathil, 13-16). However, why does it matter to the speaker how long the berry will last? Why is the length of the berry sweetness linked to an ending of losing a sandal? The man who speaks with an Indian accent and is described in the poem to be selling the miracle berries only has one sandal left himself; yet, he is still walking along the interstate (Nezhukumatathil, 7). The man is also interestingly described by three lines in the poem, walking along the interstate with one tooth one sandal. This image is reflective of an impoverished life. However, the speaker decides to still describe what he looks like – even though his role is only as the vender of the miracle berries. The ethnicity of the man is not revealed until it is noted what he calls the young girl (speaker), “…Duttah, Duttah…” (Nezhukumatathil, 9). This can be translated to “…Daughter, Daughter…” in a South Asian accent. Therefore, it makes sense for the speaker to associate the berry with its origin of South Asian culture – one which she also seems associated with. This imagery of the impoverished man could be another instance of her continued lack of clarity for Asian culture. Does she believe her consumption of the berry will also leave her with “one tooth” like the man? The poem describes her to leave in a car – a privilege that the one toothed-man does not have. Again, the American material superiority seems to be the falling back point for the character’s inner dilemma when confronted with the Asian identity that they are not as familiar with: she does not ask more about her culture, but drives away in “our car”, “away from his fruit stand” (Nezhukumatathil, 11).
This impoverished image of India arises again when Mr. Das asks Mr. Kapasi to stop the car in order for him to take a picture of a man on the road. The “emaciated” man is “barefoot…wrapped in a dirty turban, seated on top of a cart of grain sacks pulled by a pair of bullocks”(Lahiri, 49). This man, unlike the one in “One Bite”, has no shoes at all and is clothed in this filthy and old turban – not a clean shirt and pants. His seat is provided only by the goods he is carrying in a “cart”, not a vehicle like the Das’s are travelling in (Lahiri, 49). By taking a photo of this man, Mr. Das objectifies him from Indian culture and strips him of his humanity – completely disregarding the man’s emotions and life. Like Mrs. Das, Mr. Das seems to view this scene from the outside – as an American, not an Indian – with no interest in truly connecting with the culture, almost seemingly rejecting it. Das’s visit to India seems to only serve the purpose of confirming their American “superiority” over those who live there. They reveal degrading aspects of their ancestral culture, without realizing the negative reflection it has on themselves. This rejection of their Asian heritage is also seen when Mina’s loses Mr. Kapasi’s contact information and lets the paper with his address fly away. The only person whom she believes can help her to interpret her malady is Mr. Kapasi, and he is also the only native person that she interacts with in India on their visit. Yet, even with the importance that she seems to regard him, the “…slip of paper with Mr. Kapasi’s address on it fluttered away in the wind. No one, but Mr. Kapasi noticed…” (Lahiri, 69). If Mrs. Das cared so much for their interaction, then why let the piece of paper fly away? Her lack of desire to keep connected with Mr. Kapasi is reflective of her lack of desire to maintain exposure to a first-hand cultural connection. These interactions between the characters with the Indian man in the poem and short story exemplify how much they seem to struggle with imbibing their Asian identity – possibility due to the lack of exposure to Asian culture in a western environment, like the US.
The tie between the works under the umbrella of Asian American literature is the inner ambivalence and distancing of Asian Americans from ancestral culture, due to the perception of it to be inferior and of America to be economically superior. This mindset is almost perpetuated when the characters associate with more of a western identity when viewing those from Asian culture. The problem with a “single story” as referenced by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her Ted Talk seems to also stem from another reason then: superiority over ethnic culture. This superiority seems more deep rooted in fear and uncertainty of ancestral culture as seen in the hesitance to ask about and eat the foreign fruit in “One Bite” and when she notes that the miracle berry “swells” teeth and that there is a possibility of losing your shoe – sole protection of your feet in order to continue walking. This same idea is noted in Mina’s and Raj’s rejection of associating themselves further with Asian culture. The strength and comfort of identifying as an American outsider seems to cause neglect then for the confrontation of the ancestral ethnicity of the characters. One vital theme of Asian American literature, then, is the first-generation Americans refusal and inability to reclaim their roots, making Mr. Kapasi’s dream “of serving as an interpreter between nations” and cultures an impossibility (Lahiri, 59).
Nezhukumatathil, Aimee. Miracle Fruit: Poems. Tupelo Press, 2003.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter Of Maladies: Stories. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Print.
Cindy Hsieh is a proponent for minorities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). She has been involved in advocacy and entrepreneurship groups on university campuses, as well as American Mensa Leadership workshops to foster new ideas and growth for equality. Her love for the arts has continued to shine through her volunteer work as a piano performer in hospitals and on a daily basis through drawing and writing. Cindy is working towards further connecting with her Asian-American identity and share her experiences with others!