Adjusting to a new school is difficult for anyone, and those difficulties are magnified when a person is faced with an alien or hostile culture. In reading these two essays, the difficulties of the two writers fall into several categories. These categories are physical, emotional, educational, economic, and political and the family stresses that result from the new educational process that the child is subjected to. While there may be many more, these stand out as significant in helping or hindering in the assimilation process.
The physical changes that one may undergo are most acutely seen in Zitkala-Sa’s essay. In her writing, she clearly outlines how she was not permitted to wear her traditional clothes or shoes, and that she even went to the extent of hiding to avoid having her hair cut. In her culture, having short hair was the sign of a coward, and she did not was the ignominy that having short hair would have meant. Once she was back on the reservation, she even writes that she “threw away her shoes” and was back in her moccasins.
She desired to shed all the conventions of western life as soon as she could. The emotional tolls are much higher. Ning Yu writes that in order to understand English, he came up with comparatives in Chinese. While they were not as flattering, it was his way of coping emotionally with being forced to hate a culture he had never seen. When his adulterations of the language were discovered, he lived with the stress of wondering if he would be sent to jail for saying unflattering things about Chairman Mao.
The emotional toll also played on his father, who watched his son struggle with a difficult language, and then taught him how to be fully literate in that self-same language. In Zitkala-Sa’s story, we see that she was terribly unhappy with what she was being subjected to. From hiding under a bed to crying in her mother’s arms, she shows quite succinctly how the idea of being assimilated into white society was affecting her. Her mother, while very upset that her daughter was upset, tries to console her by telling her to read the “white man’s papers (202)”. She shows herself to be a bit more pragmatic.
She understands that for her daughter to be successful, she must be subjected to the inhumanity of going to the white man’s schools. The educational tolls are also high. Ning Yu and Zitkala-Sa were both initially resistant to the changes that were thrust upon them. By the end of their stories, they are both at some level embracing the language and the culture that they were being taught. By the end of Ning Yu’s essay, he was earning a living shoveling dung and selling it, and was proud of the “drudgery” that he had performed when he was struggling to read Pride and Prejudice (181).
In Zitkala-Sa’s essay, we find that she wanted to go to the same party as her cousin, even though that cousin was dressed in the clothes of the white man (202). There existed within these two individuals a need for acceptance within the new language system and society that was being thrust upon them, and the internal struggle that came with that wrought an enormous emotional toll. The economic stresses are also severe. This is most apparent in Ning-Yu’s essay, when he talks about the differences between “black” and “red” Chinese people.
He was a “black” Chinese, and his professor was considered a loyal “red” Chinese. He lived in a poor slum area of his city, and his family had been split apart. His father, who had been a professor, was disgraced for consorting with the British, and was considered a pariah. Zitkala-Sa was not from a wealthy family, but she was still considered a pariah in her own right because she was not a white child, and was being thrust into a white school with a completely different socieo-economic strata that she was not accustomed to.
The political stresses were also severe. There was a complete and total expectation that these two were the new breed for their society and would lead them to a new era of success. This is most clearly seen in Ning-Yu’s essay. It is very clear that the whole motive for Ning-Yu’s education in English is to assimilate him into a new culture, and as a political maneuver by the regime of Chairman Mao. Finally, the family stresses are immense. Ning-Yu’s father was taken away from him for over a year and a half.
At some level, Ning-Yu’s father may have been proud of his son, but at the same time, he knew that his son was being trained to be alienated from him. Zitkala-Sa’s family struggled with the assimilation of their child into a foreign culture while they watched their own culture slip away. There is no easy answer to these problems. The time that is taken away from these children can never be given back. It takes years to see the damage, if any, that the forcing of language and culture has on a person of foreign birth.
In both of these cases, there appears to be no consideration for the home lives or the individual nature of these children. Instead, they are treated like cattle and are forced into a cultural melange that they do not understand or want to understand. Viewed with the hindsight of history, we must see that children are people, and are also individuals, and should be treated as such. The ultimate goal in assimilating a language or culture should also be in maintaining a pride and a link to their rich cultural past.