Challenging Simplistic Cultural Views and Global Connections

by  Yoo Kyung Sung, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

Often I think my English accent is like a cultural microchip that contains my cultural and linguistic DNA. That microchip reflects the local and global contexts from several different U. S. and international environments in which I have lived. My personal aesthetic responses in my literature reviews reflect the salient insights of both my views of diversity and of contemporary global connections as they relate to multiculturalism in the U. S. In my review of four books, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, A New Year’s Reunion, The Grand Plan To Fix Everything, and Inside Out and Back Again, the information in that cultural microchip is processed as I search for symbolic meanings that both honors the “diversity within diversity” of a culture as well as its relevant global connections. I will leave you with some thoughts to prompt what it means to be a confident multicultural literature reader whose aesthetic responses embrace the perspective of both a cultural insider and outsider.

Challenging Simplistic Cultural Views

A delightful illustration of “diversity within diversity” occurs in A New Year’s Reunion in the illustration of a family as a unique social unit. Within a culture, there are multiple and distinct layers of diversity, yet we often dismiss such internal diversity because it is obscured by a more collective perception of a culture. The author, Yu Li-Quiong, shares different family traditions in the traditional New Year’s holiday observance. In the WOW review of A New Year’s Reunion, I noted, “It celebrates a once-a year-visit with a father and smaller scale domestic rituals, which seem to be similar and yet unique among each Chinese family in this books. For example, Maomao and her friend, Dachun’s family use a red envelope for fortune blessing while Maomao’s family uses the fortune coin”. Diversity is like the variations of a  family recipe of chicken noodle soup—same dish, different taste.

In The Great Wall Of Lucy Wu, simplistic and generic viewpoints on cultural practices and traditional rituals are challenged. I noted that, in using the term “individualism,” the author invites us to rethink our socially constructed perspective of cultural groups and their stereotypes. Lucy questions such perspectives by asking, “Who did Regina think she was, telling me how or how not to be Chinese? I am sure there are people, maybe lots of people, in China who do not love eating pig’s ears and other weird stuff, and no one ever calls them out and tells them that they are not Chinese enough” (p.19).

These two examples again invite readers to reconsider our simplistic views of other cultures. My note in the review of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu also discusses the danger of simplistic views of “Asians” as all the same through the protagonist’s view of a newly learned family story. In this book, the story retells the social stigma of the “Japanese-look” that some in the U. S. superimpose on post WW II Chinese-Americans, often misunderstanding them as Japanese. “I knew that my grandmother and mother had to work in a warehouse, cleaning, just to make some money. What I didn’t know was that they had to go to dozens of places to look for work, because people refused to hire them, thinking they were Japanese. Some people spat on them, and called them ‘dirty Japs’” (p.39).

Coexisting within Nine and A Half Hours Difference

Another appreciation and recognition in terms of cultural authenticity is global connectivity and the need for global coexistence. As much as traditional folktales and history have dominated the genre as an experience of multiculturalism in children’s literature, those perceptions around Asian countries are also often romanticized and mystified. Roy (2008) notes, “the overgeneralizations that could be drawn from folktales, definitely increase the danger of painting a distorted picture of modern-day India “(p.4). Western publishers are one of the major contributors of such an unbalanced depiction of India because they often decline to publish books that do not meet their own stereotypical image of India (Rao, 2001). Eventually such industry preferences resulted in a dominant literary experience of exoticism. Unfortunately, those attitudes in looking at India are transferred to other countries in Asia as well as countries in other continents. For example, a new Korean immigrant child’s story, My Name Is Yoon, persistently projects a catchy phrase throughout for depicting Korea as “far away” place (Sung, 2009).

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything gives a fresh impetus to an old, yet exoticized, subjectivity toward Asian countries using modern global interconnections. The Indian-American protagonist’s visit to Swapnagiri challenges old, but still prevalent, perceptions of global foreignness as she thinks about her friend in the U. S. by focusing on the time relationship between Swapnagiri and Maryland, “Dini wonders what time it is in Maryland right now this minute. It’s two in the afternoon here, and the sun is bright and beamy quite unlike what Dini is feeling… its nine and a half hours difference” (p.91). Using the timeline honors India’s existence by creating a neutral relationship without the dynamics usually found in “far away land” attachments.

Confidence in Reader’s Funds of Knowledge

Cultural views looking at a culture with just the one label of “Asian” is insufficient. Revisiting my book reviews invited me to explore the origins of my aesthetic responses. I read these books for both the purposes of a book review and for the personal pleasure I feel when that literature is culturally authentic. Aesthetic responses are much more likely to occur when the reader feels close to the culture which the literature specifically illustrates. Fox and Short (2003) state, a “reader’s sense of truth in how a specific cultural experience has been represented within a book, particularly when the reader is an insider to the culture portrayed in that book is probably the most common understanding of cultural authenticity” (p.5).

Perhaps, for the mainstream reader, images that depart from stereotype or general social knowledge can create a certain resistance against such authentic portrayals because their knowledge in other cultures is so inauthentic and problematic. However, insightful authors seem to know how to honor such limited social knowledge. I recognize such a superficial unbalanced social knowledge, a “Reader’s Funds of Knowledge” if you will, coupled with authentic good quality stories can take readers to deeper authentic experiences. This way, younger readers’ aesthetic responses to such cultures allow for shared experiences by other readers whose cultures are different from the protagonists’.

Howard (1991) notes that we cannot ignore what the book does to the reader because readers know a book is “true” because of the deep-down-feeling saying, “Yes, that’s how it is.” A New Year’s Reunion, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, and the Grand Plan to Fix Everything confidently connect with a wide range of readers–readers from the mainstream who are not familiar with Asian culture. Despite a superficial knowledge, readers who identify some of  “their” cultures in these books are all “intended” readers. For different readers whose culture is hyphenated like Lucy in The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, or global readers as in A New Year’s Reunion, originally published in China, or the refugee Vietnamese protagonist, Hà, whose agency around her Vietnamese cultural and “linguistic” pride, all identify common cultural experiences that never stagnate as one thing, but change. Most especially, Hà’s narratives comparing the English language to the Vietnamese language will draw a “Yes, that’s how it is” empathy to English speaking and non-English speaking readers.

Powerful literature is able to reconcile readers who fear to be wrong while holding their own stereotypical view. My WOW review books show such concerns about stereotypes while providing a positive opportunity to grow so that readers do not feel wrong, but instead embrace and expand what they already know about a culture. Revisiting my WOW reviews made me realize that thoughtful approaches can unpack social knowledge through connectivity across locality and internationality and instill a liveliness of culture that changes, evolves, assimilates, acculturates, adapts, adopts, hybridizes, etc. Now, I invite you to read Flying the Dragon and ask yourself what aesthetic responses you have from reading illustrations of Japanese cultures and people within the U. S. context.

References

Howard, E.F. (1991). Authentic Multicultural Literature for Children: An Author’s Perspective. In Lindgren, M.V. (Ed.), The Multicolored Mirror. Fort Atkinson, WI: Highsmith Press.

Fox, D. L., & Short, K. G. (2003). Stories matter: The complexity of cultural authenticity in children’s literature. Urbana, Ill: National Council of Teachers of English.

Rao, S. (2001) Multiculturalism and Political Correctness in Children’s Books: A View from India. Bookbird 39. 38-42.

Roy, S. (2008). A Critical discourse analysis of representation of Asian Indian folktales in Americanchildren’s literature. CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 10(2). http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol10/iss2/3/

Sung, Y.K. (2009) A post-colonial critique of the (mis)representation of Korean-Americans in children’s picture books. Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Arizona.

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