For many minority families, identity and self-determination have been the main problems since ancient times. The play Trying to find Chinatown by Hwang and the short story Brownies by Packer describe life struggle and hardships faced by minority people in America. Both stories describe strong religious values and ideals kept by Chinese and African-American families. Thesis both works portray that color of skin and ethnic identity prevents the main characters from equal opportunities with the white majority and creates obstacles in their life path.
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For Hwang, the task of describing families and cultural diversity raises complex issues that will remain the subject of continuing debate. The author portrays that some of these issues are concerned with the institution of the family–relationships between the state and the family and between social change and family change and links between religion and family values, structure, and functioning. Chinese culture includes institutions, manners, habits of thought, intentions, and ways of life. It encompasses the complex web of meanings that underlie everyday life and behavior–the understandings and expectations which guide our actions and interactions with others. The aspects of culture which are taken for granted are especially relevant in exploring family life and relationships. “To not be a Chinese, a yellow, a slant, a gook. To be just a human being, like everyone else. (Pause) I’ve paid my dues” (Hwang, p. 33). Similar to Hwang, Packer underlines that the color of the skin is the main obstacle in the life of a young girl, Laurel. The author underlines that the familiar ‘everyday’ nature of much of family life makes it particularly likely that it is seen as ‘given’, rather than resulting from a set of cultural meanings. For example, definitions of and expectations about age-related stages of life, such as adolescence, adulthood, and middle age, are culturally determined and surrounded by a set of beliefs, attitudes, and practices which, like so many aspects of culture, are often largely unexamined and taken for granted by people until they are confronted by something different.
The main difference between these works is that Packer describes racism as the main theme of the book while Hwang pays attention to difficulties faced by Chinese immigrants. Two main strands of thought exist in discussions concerning ethnicity in America. One highlights descent, or common origin, as a potentially binding force for people. The other regards ethnicity as a social construction which can be expected to vary over time and according to circumstances, and is epitomized view of ethnicity as ‘interest groups’ rather than as an aspect of culture. Elise asks: “I mean, like we were foreign or something. Like we were from China.” “What did the woman say?” “Nothing,” Arnetta said. “She didn’t say nothing” (Packer, p. 25). This remark shows that a major concern expressed by a number of writers is that the focus on ethnic groups and ethnicity has masked class interests and structural inequalities. In both works, ethnicity has become associated with immigrants from a non-Anglo background, with ‘difference’ from the mainstream and with inequality. Nevertheless, ethnicity may often be a strong element of self-identification.
The families in both stories have different religious values and traditions but these values were based on such ideals as human dignity and love. “There were these white people dressed like Puritans or something, but they weren’t Puritans. They were Mennonites. They’re these people who, if you ask them to do a favor, like paint your porch” (Packer, p. 26). The authors identify that the ways in which people identify themselves at different times and in different environments may not always be consistent. At a structural level, there are strong connections between religious institutions and family life. All religions include and incorporate a set of beliefs that have direct relevance for family life and relationships between family members. Religion operates to validate general notions of good and evil, the roles of men and women, and concepts of morality that impinge directly on family structures and experience. Hwang portrays that in a Chinese family, the patriarchal nature of religion has served to justify and support, in particular, traditional roles for men and women. Furthermore, religious affiliation is a strong factor in definitions of ‘in group’ and ‘out group’ for marriage purposes and may override cultural background in determining who is an acceptable marriage partner. DI-GOU: mentions: “No. My sisters and their religion are two different things” (Hwang, p. 126). The focus for a sense of belonging may be on common physical characteristics, the possession of a distinct language or dialect, a particular religion, a sense of geographical and historical continuity through living in a particular place, or a distinct lifestyle.
The main difference is that Chinese immigrants came to America while African-American family as native citizens of the country. Thus, the stories portray that one or other of these factors predominates; sometimes the factors coalesce to form a shared cultural background for large numbers of people. Country of birth is significant because it quite often coincides with some or all of the factors mentioned but this clearly need not be the case. People may be born outside a country or a nation-state yet still identify with it; boundaries and borders change. The world history of migration and the general movement of peoples have made any simple approach to culture and to ethnic identification not possible or viable. Individuals identify multiple ancestries, as evidenced by responses to the ‘ancestry’ question; the ‘cultural background’ of many people is diverse.
Hwang illustrates that a life story of this nature cannot hope to capture all of the complexities of the relationship between culture and families, or the full extent of family diversity. However, the framework used provides an opportunity to illustrate both diversity within and commonalities across communities, and to avoid overgeneralization. Differences which are important to people’s identity and sense of cultural history are able to be recognized. Hwang writes: “BENJAMIN: You’re one of those self-hating, assimilated Chinese-Americans, aren’t you? RONNIE: Oh, Jesus. BENJAMIN: You probably call yourself “Oriental,” huh?” (Hwang, p. 291). This remark shows complicated relations within the family and the outside world. All the contributors were relatively at ease with the task of describing family values from the perspective of a particular culture, although capturing the unique elements as well as the variety and richness is not always easy. Once Robert mentions: “Look, son, I called the Chinese paper, used a little of my influence-they did a story on you” (Hwang, p. 108). The authors depict that families are located across both the so-called ‘private’ and ‘public’ realms of life.
In sum, Packer and Hwang demonstrate that the impact of government policies has been particularly strong and very direct for many of the families w; the state has been crucial in the migration experience and in the experience of minority families. Assistance with the settlement, including the provision of English language classes, regulation of employment, and access to and appropriateness of services are also crucial in determining the experience of families. Packer pays special attention to racism and segregation of African-American people while Hwang describes similar problems experienced by Chinese immigrants.
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- Hwang, D.H. Trying to find Chinatown. Theatre Communications Group; 1st edition, 1999.
- Packer, Z.Z. Brownies. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere Riverhead, 2003, p. 1-28