In our daily lives, too often do we judge others based solely on their appearance; whether it’s by the clothes that a person is wearing or even the color of their skin. The essence of Amy Tan’s Mother Tongue and Peter Marin’s Helping and Hating the Homeless is that in society, we are quick to judge others, categorizing them based upon pre-assumptions which are hardly true. Chinese American novelist Amy Tan shares her most intimate experiences of growing up with a mother who did not speak fluent English, and how she witnessed first hand how this shaped the treatment her mother received from others.
Marin discusses the contradictory views that society has on the homeless, immediately dismissing the negative stereotypes about the homeless. These negative stereotypes are portrayed by the American society, as well as the media, who consistently portray people as they wish.
Throughout Amy Tan’s essay, she describes living at home with a “private” or “limited” English, while using a “different” or “standard” English in public, even though she never noticed a difference most of her life.
While most people would say they understand little to none of her mother’s English, Tan claims, “to me my mother’s English is perfectly clear, perfectly natural. It’s my mother’s tongue,” (Tan 62). Although most people- including herself- would call her mother’s English “broken” or “limited”, she strongly dislikes these terms and feels as if these terms directly reflect the way people perceive her mother.
She recalls a time when her mother took a CT scan which revealed a brain tumor.
During another visit to the hospital , her mother received the results, in which the hospital claimed they lost it and had sympathy for her. Her mother stated “she said she would not leave until the doctor called her daughter…….lo and behold- we had assurances that the CAT scan would be found, promises that a conference call on Monday would be held, and apologies for any suffering my mother had gone through for a most regrettable mistake” (Tan 63). This is a perfect example of how people mistreat others, especially if they do not speak “standard” english. As a result, the doctors don’t believe Tan’s mother to be as smart as they are, when in reality she “reads the _Forbes_ report, listens to _Wall Street Week,_ and converses daily with her stockbroker” (Tan 62).
Peter Marin discusses the negative stereotypes that society places on the homeless, and how contradictory their perceptions are. He recalls a time when he was in Santa Barbara for a council meeting, and remembers how astounded he was at the fear he could sense in the council’s voices. “One by one they filed to the microphone to curse the council and castigate the homeless. Drinking, doping, loitering, panhandling, defecating, urinating, molesting, stealing- the litany went on and on, was repeated over and over, accompanied by the fantasies of disaster: the barbarian hordes at the gates, civilization ended” (Marin 168). Again, Marin emphasizes the fear, confusion, indifference and anger that the people had towards the homeless, but then realized the problem begins with the term homeless itself. He explains how the term is so abstract, and applies to various different people with different stories, yet society simply generalizes the homeless and forces them all into one category. With all of the negative stereotypes that it instills fear into the people.
However, according to Marin what most people do not realize is that before many of the homeless were actually homeless, they lived normal lives just like ourselves, many coming from the working or middle class. We do not understand this because they are so marginalized that we just dismiss them as being lazy, and assume that it is their own fault that they are homeless. Instead of judging them, we should try to reflect, since they were either forced into homeless by society, or simply by choice. Either way it is society’s fault, because if they chose to be homeless, that means they felt like they did not belong in society.
One of Marin’s students interviewed a woman who was looking around a dumpster, who to his surprise, was a former school teacher from Chicago. Her name was Alice, and she lived a normal life until she was raped, resulting in her being institutionalized and eventually leading her to spiral out of control. “Even more disturbing is the fact that it is often our supposed sources of support-family, friends, government organizations- that have caused the problem in the first place…..Her homelessness can be seen as flight, as failure of will or nerve, even, perhaps as a disease. But it can also be seen as a mute, furious refusal, or self-imposed exile far less appealing to the rest of us than ordinary life, but _better_, in Alice’s terms.” (Marin 171). Although Alice is homeless now, she indeed lived a normal life but was traumatized by a catastrophic event, leading her to be more comfortable in a homeless lifestyle where she feels that she can assert more control over herself. Alice’s story is a strong one, showing that you can never judge a book by its cover.
Both Amy Tan and Peter Marin discuss stories which emphasize looking beyond judging a person’s exterior, beyond the stereotypes that are often portrayed in the media and American mainstream. In many popular T.V. shows and movies, both homeless people and non-fluent English speakers are portrayed in negative aspects. MAD T.V’s “Ms. Swan” portrays a Chinese-American woman who speaks “broken English”, and her character is often confused, misled, or
temperamental in the skits. The audience laughs when they see that Ms. Swan does not understand what is going on, or how to work an ATM machine. These negative portrayals not only affect Asian-Americans, but other people who do not speak English fluently as well. It gives America the idea that non-fluent English speakers are not as intelligent, and can easily be taken advantage of. Negative portrayals of homeless people are seen in the media as well, and the scariest part is that the very first portrayal that most people will see in their lives is when they are children. The notorious “Oscar the Grouch” from _Sesame Street_ has to be the most famous homeless character in the media. He is filthy, grouchy, lazy, and lives in a trashcan. If these stereotypes are instilled in the minds of children, it becomes a direct correlation with homeless people they see and most likely perceive them in a negative way.
These children do not know that many homeless people were once normal like their parents, but because nobody ever talks about that, it frightens them. It is such a frightening thought because having such commonalities with a marginalized group gives the idea that it can _happen to anybody_; which indeed, it can. Of course, children aren’t thinking of all of this when they see the funny green monster on television, and the audience of MAD TV isn’t thinking that non-fluent English speakers are dumb at the time they are watching these shows. However, people subconsciously soak all of it in, and it affects the way they perceive others in their everyday lives;whether they realize it or not. It is clear that the media is at fault for such prejudice thinking in American society.
I have witnessed such prejudices over countless times, and I blame stereotypes and the media for perpetuating such destructive thinking in American society. At first glance, most people mistake me for being white, when in reality I have Mexican, Spaniard, and Chumash Indian blood pumping through my veins. My father speaks fluent Spanish, but his light skin and blue eyes often mislead others, just as my light complected features do the same. I recall a time in high school when I was hanging out with the “popular” kids on the weekend at a restaurant, and our waiter spoke very poor English.
When the waiter left, one of the caucasian boys began making fun of the waiter, saying things like “He should go back to his country where they understand his language”. I was so disgusted and repulsed by his comment, that he was shocked and nervous when I called him out on his racial slur. I was offended because many of my family members don’t speak perfect English either, but they are just as smart as those who do speak perfect English. A few of the other kids sided with me, and those were the ones I continued to hangout with. I refuse to surround myself with ignorant people who don’t think for themselves and are quick to judge others.
In order to overcome these obstacles of prejudice and false misconceptions about others, we must educate ourselves and become socially aware. One must look past the silly things they watch on television, and instead see the world and others through their own; not the preprogrammed American mainstream one. We must stop judging others based on their appearance, and acknowledge the fact that they are human beings too, just as much as we ourselves are. Both Amy Tan and Peter Marin went into great depth on the misconceptions we have of others, providing personal experiences they have had to help us see the bigger picture. In Mother Tongues, Amy recalls the times when her mother was mistreated due to her inability to speak “standard” English, others confused her accent and did not believe she was as smart as they were.
In Helping and Hating the Homeless, Peter Marin provides insightful personal stories of homeless people to show us that they don’t fit the awful stereotypes that American society often projects upon them. The American society is clearly at fault for these misconceptions about people, perpetuating a system of prejudice and ignorance through the media. In order to overcome this, we must learn about each other rather than lazily categorizing others. Instead of looking at what makes us different, we should try and see what makes us more alike instead, getting to know one another before making any hasty judgements.
Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue”. Beyond Borders: A Cultural Reader. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. Print.
Marin, Peter. “Helping and Hating the Homeless”. Beyond Borders: A Cultural Reader. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. Print.
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