The American Decade

A long time ago I was told, perhaps as we all were, to never begin an essay with a quotation. The suggestion is well-warranted – just as I wouldn’t want Bill Cosby opening for me at a comedy club, I certainly don’t want Twain or Hemingway or Poe opening for me on paper. With that said, I apprehensively reject the notion, at least when the quote is the catalyst for a great deal of self-reflection and introspection. In a 1996 New York Times article, Bharati Mukherjee (a professor at UC Berkeley and an Indian immigrant) remarked:

“I need to put roots down, to vote and make the difference that I can. The price that the immigrant willingly pays, and that the exile avoids, is the trauma of self-transformation” (Mukherjee, Two Ways to Belong in America).

Having recently become a United States citizen, her entire essay struck a chord but the above quotation accurately resonated with my experience. To be frank, I didn’t know why I was so moved – I felt as if I had been abruptly woken up but couldn’t find the alarm clock. After all, America is permeated by the positivist idea of the “metamorphosis”. Chicken Soup for the Soul is the American staple of a healthy self-help diet; we like to think that change is good, that losing weight is good, and that seeing a therapist is good, but I digress. My self-transformation began in late 1997 when the Titarenco family (I use the third person because I’m not even sure I still know who these people were) stepped off of a Boeing 747 into the uncomfortably warm evening air of Phoenix, Arizona. We had just arrived from Romania, an Eastern Bloc country that was devastated by communism. Most of my parents’ lives were spent in the oppressive clutch of a communist dictatorship – America wasn’t only a childhood dream or a political ideal, it was a real-life Utopia. We found ourselves in Eden and we were elated; every man woman and child seemed to be a perfect human prototype: an Adam or an Eve. So then why does Mukherjee describe the immigrant self-transformation as “traumatizing”? Better yet, why do I almost subconsciously agree? I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly changed between that puerile inception, the grueling decade that was to follow, and the oft too-cynical position I find myself in today.

Even though I could have plunged into the abyssal depths of philosophical interpretations of whether change is good or not or whether bad is good or good is bad or this or that, I decided to selfishly figure out why I was feeling the way I was feeling; and to do that, I had to go back to Mukherjee’s quote. More importantly, however, I had to look at some of her other pieces of literature. She writes about social alienation, immigration, and the merits of tradition – motifs that have been all too prevalent in my own life.

Mukherjee’s works correspond with biographer Fakrul Alam’s catagorization of Mukherjee’s life into three phases. Her earlier works, such as the The Tiger’s Daughter and parts of Days and Nights in Calcutta, are her attempts to find her identity in her Indian heritage. The second phase of her writing, according to Alam, encompasses works such as Wife, the short stories in Darkness, an essay entitled “An Invisible Woman,” and The Sorrow and the Terror, a joint effort with her husband. These works originate in Mukherjee’s own experience of racism in Canada (Pradhan).

In her third phase, Mukherjee describes herself as an “immigrant living in a continent of immigrants” (Alam) and a non-hyphenated American, not an Indian-American (Alam). I wish I was in my third phase – my parents never wanted to be a part of the Romanian culture in America and they didn’t fully immerse themselves in the American culture, either. I vote, I watch the Super-Bowl, and I eat potato chips, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that I’ve never felt truly a part of American society. Maybe this Sisyphean effort of trying to become something that I’ll never be is what resonated with me in Mukherjee’s original quotation; maybe the very attempt of trying to Americanize myself is traumatizing. According to Mukherjee, there seems to be an acute difficulty immigrants experience by de-forming and re-forming an alien culture (especially a Western one):

[…] I’d say I’m an American writer of Bengali-Indian origin. In other words, the writer/political activist in me is more obsessed with addressing the issues of minority discourse in the U.S. and Canada, the two countries I have lived and worked in over the last thirty odd years. The national mythology that my imagination is driven to create, through fiction, is that of the post-Vietnam United States. I experience, simultaneously, the pioneer’s capacity to be shocked and surprised by the new culture, and the immigrant’s willingness to de-form and re-form that culture. At this moment, my Calcutta childhood and adolescence offer me intriguing, incompletely-comprehended revelations about my hometown, my family, my place in that community: the kind of revelations that fuel the desire to write an autobiography rather than to mythologize an Indian national identity (Mukherjee, Holders of the Word: An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee).

Her self-description as a pioneer not only resonates with my personal life, but with my familial life as well. My family lived in Arizona, Georgia, and now California. I distinctly remember the move from Arizona to Georgia and from Georgia to California as a sort of colonial apropos and as a meta-cultural (or rather, meta-social) experience. I remember the hot scaly Texas soil, the lush greenery of Tennessee, the dilapidated homes in Louisiana and Oklahoma. I was an immigrant that was migrating and as trite as it may sound, it felt strange and it still does. Much like Mukherjee, I also encountered discrimination and felt socially alienated; even though she constantly reminds us of her skin color, I think its importance is minor. Language and customs are paramountly more significant.

A discussion with an old friend unexpectedly brought up a relevant topic: he was taking an Asian Literature class at the University of Georgia and recommended I take a look at Hunger: A Novella and Stories (some of the stories reminded him of my family). Hunger is a short collection by Lan Samantha Chang, a Chinese-American writer that writes about the assimilation of immigrant families in the States. Her viewpoint tends to be significantly more pessimistic, especially when observing works such as “The Unforgetting”:

I think assimilation is a central issue only in one of my stories, one called “The Unforgetting.” It’s about a Chinese family that moves to the Midwest and tries to leave their old life, but as time goes on, they find that they can’t forget the old life. Meanwhile, their son, who was raised American, does what Americans do: leaves home. I think that captured some of my feelings about assimilation – that it’s necessary to a certain extent, but at the same time, it’s a tremendous loss (Chang).

The idea of loss intertwined with gain isn’t a new one. This holistic win-lose nature of immigrant assimilation could very well be Mukherjee’s, as well as my own, trauma. Hunger, the novella whose very name seems to evoke wrenching, primitive pain, is about the emotional starvation immigrant families suffer due to the parents’ rootlessness and the children’s need to integrate in society – in any society. As I widened my view from a personal approach to a more familial one, I couldn’t help but notice that the trauma and the hardship weren’t attenuated, but instead accentuated. Reading Chang’s stories, I felt emotionally stripped naked, disarmed and beaten, and left with the bittersweet aftertaste of reality. This loss, the loss of relationships between parents and children, is the ultimate price all immigrants have to pay – the price my parents inadvertently have to pay – a price whose cost may be too great. In Hunger, the resolution is often a direct result of the strength of individual characters. I couldn’t relate to Chang’s tidy solution and abrasively rejected it. If a solution even exists, it can’t be your American cowboy riding-into-the-sunset Hollywood ending, I thought to myself.

I decided to call my sister whom, ironically, was in Romania rediscovering her (and our) roots. I asked what she thinks about being an immigrant; about being Romanian as well as American. She told me to read some sociological articles, look up statistics, and talk to mom and dad about it. This was a personal journey, though; I didn’t want to pollute the sterile emotional Petri dish I created with data, numbers, or “hard” facts. She ultimately mentioned a poem which she read in middle school (a poem that I also had read but forgotten) by Aurora Levins Morales, a Puerto Rican-Jewish-American writer and poet. The poem, entitled “Child of the Américas”, deals with the same topics as Chang and Mukherjee do. Morales writes with the same type of bittersweet melancholy as Mukherjee: “I am not African. Africa is in me, but I cannot return. / I am not taína. Taíno is in me, but there is no way back. / I am not European. Europe lives in me, but I have no home there.” (50). The pain and embarrassment of being a cultural bastard child is seemingly attenuated in the same way Mukherjee describes her third phase: “an immigrant in a continent of immigrants” (Alam). Even though Morales has a tendency to romanticize the “immigrant” ideal, she is attuned to the hardship that Jews, non-white races, as well as any immigrants experience when they decide to immigrate to the United States.

My dilemma still remains, however: I can’t understand why the immigrant’s self-transformation is so traumatizing. Maybe the trauma is inherent to the character of the immigrant, and maybe the answer is “just because”. I can’t help but think that there may be something more to it, that if we were to change the way we interact with people that are unlike ourselves – with people that are strange and interesting and fascinating – we could change not only the way immigrants relate to natives, but the way people relate to each other. The easy way out would have been to look at statistics and sociological graphs and figure out how many immigrants are “happy” and how many are “unhappy”, how many have jobs and how many don’t. I chose, instead, to go on an emotional journey, a journey that began in 1997 in Phoenix. I still don’t have an identity and I’m at peace with the idea that I may never have an identity. Much like Bharati Mukerjee and Samantha Chang, and Aurora Morales, I’m a child of the crossroads; this is simply what I’ve been given, for better or for worse.


Alam, Fakrul. Bharati Mukherjee. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996. Print. In this definitive biography of Bharati Mukherjee, Fakrul blends objective observations with personal input from Mukherjee herself to provide a concise, clear, and immensely valuable resource. Fakrul provides not only literary and professional details of Mukherjee’s life, but also personal tidbits of information that cannot be found anywhere else.

Chang, Lan Samantha. A Conversation with Lan Samantha Chang. Brian O’Grady and Adam O’Connor Rodriguez. 28 October 2004. Web. This interview personalizes the work of Chang in Hunger and her other novels and short stories by asking pointed questions about immigrant assimilation, the difficulty of being a multi-cultural writer, and what the resolution may be, if any. Chang also explains her work in detail, adding an important facet to any scholar’s interpretation of her works.

—. Hunger: A Novella and Stories. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. Print. Even though I didn’t cite Hunger, I read several of the stories within. Chang provides acute observations of the plight of the immigrant lifestyle. She tends to provide simple and clear-cut solutions, but her insightful observation of the effects of alienation and assimilation are a rarity.

Morales, Levin, Aurora Morales and Rosario Morales. Getting Home Alive. New York: Firebrand Books, 1986. Print. A mother-daughter work, this anthology of short stories and poems outlines the introspective perspectives of an immigrant family in the states. Even though I was only interested in one poem, I read several works and noted the emotional landscape: a melancholic and often times hopeful one.

Mukherjee, Bharati. Holders of the Word: An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee Tina Chen and S. X. Goudie. 1997. Print. This interview by two North Carolina State University graduate students is very throrough. Even though most of the interview deals specifically with writing style and literary methods, it also touches on important social issues and exactly how Mukherjee sees herself in the social arena of the United States.

—. “Two Ways to Belong in America.” New York Times 22 September 1996. Print. A quotation from this article in the New York Times was the catalyst of this entire exploratory essay. The article is about differing views on immigration policies, but it ends with a generalized comment about the immigrant life which profoundly affected me.

Pradhan, Shilpi. Bharati Mukherjee. May 1998. 9 February 2011. Web. <>. This online resources provided by Emory’s english department outlines Mukherjee’s life with broad strokes. It was a wonderful introductory resource that allowed me to branch out and seek more specific sources.