Jhumpa Lahiri’s book The Namesake and Myriam Marquez’s story “Why and When We Speak Spanish in Public” are good representations of the immigrants’ life in the U.S. Jhumpa Lahiri claims heritage from three countries, India by ancestry, British by birth, and American by immigration. On the other hand, Myriam Marquez is a Latino; her parents are Mexican. Lahiri tells her life story through fictitious characters that represent her own feelings when it comes to cultural identity. Myriam Marquez, on the other hand, uses the first-person narrative to capture the theme of cultural identity. The two stories raise serious issues of the situation on immigration in the U.S., especially when it comes to settling in. Lahiri goes to give a broad perspective of immigrant life from one generation to another. Lahiri even captions the antagonism suffered by the wives and children of these immigrants, the rebellion, and the formation of hybrid cultural identities. Myriam’s and Lahiri’s narrations are a good representation of the cultural conflict experienced by the immigrants and their children as well as the formation of global identities.
Lahiri’s Narration The Namesake begins with the story of Ashoke and his wife – first-generation immigrants. The narration presents Ashoke, the father who is comfortable with moving to America, and his wife who is lost in time. This book investigates the immigrants’ struggles with identity, following a cross-cultural construct. The writer depicts the loss of identity by painting a family of continental immigrants in a constant struggle to determine their real identity. Through the chronicles of immigrant life represented by the first-generation and second-generation Indian immigrants to America, the story unfolds revealing the identity crisis among the immigrants. Ashima is pregnant, which is symbolic regarding her plight in the yearning to discover her own identity in the alien country. Her expectancy represents an eagerness coated by the fear that Ashima’s baby may also feel like an alien in the USA. The author captures the confusion in Ashima’s desire of mustard oil to add to the recipe: “Wishing there was mustard oil to pour into the mix. Ashima has been consuming this concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout India, spilling from newspaper cones” (Lahiri 5).
Ashima seems to drift to the thought that if she were in India, she would not lack mustard oil. This is the depiction of the disarray faced by the immigrants who are torn between missing home and pursuing their dreams (Remennick 431-451). The author says that Ashima has been consuming the concoction during the entire pregnancy period, which is symbolic. The pregnancy depicts a period in life where there is expectancy. The desire for mustard oil found in India represents yearning for identity. As a mother, Ashima does not know what identity her children will be. Identity is the very same thing lacking in Ashima’s life. The disconnection is depicted in the following line: “Tasting from a cupped palm, she frowns; as usual, there is something missing. She stares blankly at the pegboard behind the countertop where her cooking utensils hang, all lightly coated with grease” (Lahiri 5).
The author uses the blank stare to symbolize the hopelessness of the situation; when Ashima looks at her life, she does not understand where she belongs. Many of the immigrants feel lost with many of them opting to leave their former lives behind to embrace the unknown (Batra 30).
Similar issues are also raised by Marquez in her story “Why and When We Speak Spanish in Public”. The author Myriam Marquez is a Mexican in the diaspora. Marquez notes that there are many calls for immigrants in the U.S. to learn English and for the U.S. to abandon multilingual policies. She also notes that people around her get uncomfortable when she and her mother or companions speak Spanish in public:
When I’m shopping with my mother or standing in line with my stepdad to order fast food or anywhere else we might be together, we’re going to speak to one another in Spanish. That may appear rude to those who do not understand Spanish and overhear us in public places. Those around us may get the impression that we’re talking about them. (Marquez 752)
In the above lines, the author echoes the voice of many immigrants struggling to find a place in a dynamic world and far away from their homes. For the likes of Marquez, they keep their language because it is all they have, and they must pass it on to the next generations. Language, therefore, becomes their cultural identity, which is their only connection to the culture back in their home country (Barry 110).
Lahiri also shifts to the second-generation immigrants and the discomfiture they find themselves in when it comes to cultural identity. On one hand, there is Gogol, the son of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli. Ashoke Ganguli is an immigrant who came to America during the brain drain era. He came as a professional to further his studies in fiber optics and to have a better life. Ashoke is comfortable with maintaining his Indian roots and culture and still regards India as his home. Gogol, however, does not regard India as his home, unlike his father and mother. Gogol feels at home in the U.S.: this feeling is shared by those who move from one state to another within India, looking for a better start. This group also struggles with identity. To show the dislike of his ancestral Indian identity, Gogol goes on to change his name during his attainment of eighteen years of age to Nikhil (Lahiri 51). Here, Lahiri captures the conflict between the present and the past among immigrants. Gogol is denouncing his Indian culture, which is identifiable by his Indian name. On the same note, Gogol thinks that the Indians have fun and a backward way of naming their children (Sinha 90). However, his parents still call him by his old name reminding him of his past. For Gogol, he is running from his identity and thinks he is American. In contrast, his mother Ashima wishes she were back in India to the place where she was born and the land where she had a real identity. Gogol belongs neither here nor there; instead, he is drifting in space and can take up any culture of his choice (Lara et al. 367–397). Gogol thinks that India is an alien land and not his home because of the physical and psychological distance (Lahiri 59). There is a conflict of culture because Gogol cannot reconcile the American and the Indian culture; he feels the urge to sacrifice the Indian culture so that he can become American (Lahiri 53). Gogol does all he can to blend with the free and happy American lifestyle; he goes to the extent of sleeping at Maxine’s house (Lahiri 69). Maxine, his American girlfriend lives with her parents under the same roof, but Gogol cannot tell this to his Indian friends. Gogol does his best to delineate himself from his parents by adopting the American way of life (Lahiri 52). In The Namesake, Lahiri gathers the traits of multiple identities to show how culture is formed. This multiplicity is represented by the various cultural inheritances of the characters, which they incorporate into their lives to create a new cultural identity (Persky and Birman 557–572). This brings about the concept of the global identity of people who cannot claim their heritage to a single culture (Sam and Berry 80).
On the other hand, Marquez says that people do not cling on to their native languages to undermine the place of English as the official language (Marquez 751). However, they speak in their native language of Spanish because it reminds them of their identity. It brings back to life the culture they have left behind. Language is, therefore, the cultural identity of such immigrants. Spanish has been very significant in the creation of the Hispanic subculture in the U.S. However, people have to learn English to fit in American society and to fully and intelligently participate in the democratic process.
As Lahiri investigates the cultural disenfranchisement that faces immigrants; she reveals the rise of a new culture that arises from the interaction. Lahiri’s presentation captures the nature of lives lived by immigrants. The underpinning observation is that many immigrants are coming from cultures that are very different from those in their home countries (Oh, Koeske, and Sales 511–526). The children of these immigrants are caught in space often struggling with identity. Although the main characters of Lahiri’s book are Indian, Lahiri has shown that Indian immigrants are not the only people affected by the loss of identity. For instance, when Maushumi’s fianc visits Bengali, he finds local culture backward and taxing. Ben cannot understand how there is no beer at a party (Lahiri 105). This conflict between cultures creates pressure in the relationships between people of different backgrounds. The pressure in these relationships is represented by the breakup between Maushumi and Ben (Lahiri 106). On the same note, Gogol also does not feel at home in India, but this is expected of him. However, Lahiri’s narration ends by looking at how new identities are formed. This new and hybrid identity is formed when first-generation immigrants find a way to weave their ideas from home cultures into a new way of life. Lahiri depicts this change in Ashima’s decision to combine Christmas and nativity scene. The Christmas tree is replaced by an elephant, which represents Indian nativity and is decorated using jewels. Jewels are a typical decoration of Christmas trees in the American tradition. Here, the author is alluding to the acculturation of Ashima into the American social life (Yu and Myers 254–285).
Marquez also captures the development of new identities in her story through a cause-and-effect approach. Marquez presents a group of immigrants who work hard to retain the roots of their culture through language (Marquez 751). The author says that she understands English and does not like people to use their native language in the context of multilingual groups (Marquez 751). However, she says that when at home, they use Spanish to show respect to their culture. The cause is that those who do not belong to this cultural group feel alienated. The fact that Latinos are learning English represents the creation of new identities. It means that these groups of immigrants can bring up generations that will fit into the American lifestyle and culture perfectly. However, this does not mean they throw away their Spanish language or are ashamed of speaking it (Marquez 751).
Marquez’s story “Why We Speak Spanish in Public” as well as Lahiri’s book The Namesake represent modern immigrant narrations. These narrations digress from the traditional “American drama” and present the case of immigrant travelers. The authors go further to discuss the confusion that is passed down the line from one generation of immigrants to another. These narrations tell immigrant’s stories from an immigrant perspective. Lahiri’s book mirrors immigrants’ challenges during their life in America as well as the problem they face in terms of cultural identity. Myriam Marquez also captures the theme of identity as she explains why as an immigrant she is obliged to speak her native language. Marquez is Latino and a second-generation immigrant, but in contrast to Gogol, Ashima’s son, Marquez is constantly trying to keep her culture alive. She believes that her language gives her an identity in a world far from home. Marquez further argues that in this confusion, it is important for immigrants to curve their own identities. In that light, therefore, names are not enough to convey cultural identity; language is also an important tool to keep the culture alive. Both works offer different perspectives to look at the same issue. For Lahiri, her own experience is mirrored by the second-generation immigrants who have no ties whatsoever with the lands their parents left behind. It is in these new homes that they find friends, love, and family. Consequently, the culture here becomes their culture (Schnittker 56–76). Sadly, the thoughts of another life and parental pressure to follow their traditions constantly antagonize the characters.