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In America, citizens are constantly bombarded with the headlines of immigrants “not being American enough”. This could mean that they don’t speak enough English or still have a close hold on the culture that they came from.
This is a theme constantly repeated throughout history and is the theme that the book Desert Exile focuses on. After the effects of Pearl Harbor in the 1940’s, the targeted group of immigrants were the Japanese. In many ways America is very different from the culture they came from. American citizens tend to focus primarily on themselves and their families before giving what they have away to others. On the opposite side, Japanese culture is rooted in helping others. Throughout the book Desert Exile the separation of culture within the Uchida family is the most apparent in the first 3 chapters. Yoshiko’s parents arrived in the United States in the early 1900’s and brought the culture they were raised in to their new home.
They spoke primarily Japanese in their home and greeted friends by traditionally bowing. Yoshiko describes her life growing up as always accompanied by guests who she found “intrusive and boring”.
This, to me, is the first blatant indication of the difference in culture inside of Yoshiko’s family. Yoshiko’s parents show constant empathy and mindfulness of others, which throughout the book appears to be a theme in Japanese culture. However, Yoshiko appears to be more influenced by American attitudes in this circumstance. She explained how her, and her sister would complain about having others over.
Humorously, in the first chapter, she used her knowledge of Japanese beliefs to her advantage when she put the broom upside down in an attempt to make the unwanted visitors leave. One of the most obvious ways in which Yoshiko and her sister adapt to American culture is their reaction to their parent’s generosity to their neighbors. Yoshiko describes how her parents share any gift they receive with the people around them, much to the children’s dismay. Specifically, in the passage on page 15, they give away the vegetables they received from their friends who live in the country. Yoshiko’s reaction to their actions seems to be more Americanized. She writes how she and her sister cried “don’t give it all away, leave some for us”. On the other hand, once again, helping others is ingrained in Japanese culture and most likely is the cause of her parents always acting this way. Although her parents appear to have a much tighter grip on the culture of their home country, they too have adapted some American ways of doing things. For example, Yoshiko describes her father as doing “everything quickly”. She describes how he would always walk a few strides in front of her mother and was constantly working on new things.
In this description Yoshiko’s father appears to be more of an American business man. She later goes on to explain how her mother found it difficult to keep up and stayed as more of a “traditional Japanese wife”. This gives me the impression that Japanese men typically don’t live their lives quite as quickly as Yoshiko’s father does. I believe, her father’s immersion in the hustle of America influenced him to act more like an Americanized businessman. In my opinion, Yoshiko’s mother stays the closest to her culture. The detail that stands out to me the most is her mother’s celebration of Dolls Festival Day. In the book, Yoshiko describes how her mother continued to put out the dolls until she was no longer able. Her mother also continued to do things like sitting in the back of the car and praying in Japanese. Although Yoshiko’s mother appreciated America, she didn’t let America erase her culture. Throughout the chapter Yoshiko highlights small ways her mother integrated American culture into her life. For example, on Dolls Festival Day, Yoshiko mentions how her mother sets the children’s American Girl Dolls out with the rest of her other prized dolls. Yoshiko describes high school and college as the times she was most aware of the fact that she was Japanese.
During this time, I feel as if she felt trapped in between 2 cultures. In one way, she wanted to indulge in American culture, so she could blend in, but felt that the way she looked kept her from doing that. She displays this by describing how she began calling places before she went to them to avoid the embarrassment of being turned away. This really illustrates how self-conscious she is of her culture. She later describes how in college she only dated other Nisei and joined the Japanese Woman’s Student Club on campus to help her feel like she belonged. Desert Exile accentuated the idea of the “melting pot”. Throughout this book I continued to notice that while many of the adults still participated in their culture, many of the Nisei felt embarrassed and the need to blend into the American way of life. This was an idea that I was previously aware of, but I never truly realized the feelings of shame that followed many of these people around. For example, this specifically came to light when Yoshiko began to talk about how she felt like she couldn’t speak to a white person unless they initiated the conversation. The fact that she felt so ostracized and self-conscious throughout the majority of her youth because of her culture upset me. There are many things we can learn from the ideas of other cultures, and no immigrant should feel the need to completely change themselves to blend in with the rest of American society. As Americans we should stop encouraging immigrants to become completely American or “American enough” because we are losing the diverse culture that the United States should have.
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