Globalization is a blessing and a curse. Multiple routes of transportation instruments can take a person half-way across the world; however, immigration is not as easy as simply relocating from a native country to a foreign country. In other words, immigration is easier said than done. Immigrants often struggle with balancing their identities, learning how to communicate in contemporary societies that still lack awareness in intercultural communication, and the handling the nostalgic feeling of home and for loved ones. This is especially so for immigrant who live in Westernized worlds, and this key term is hegemony. In Western societies such as the United States and United Kingdom, cultural hegemony perpetrates the overshadowing of the dominant culture over the recessive cultures. Minorities are given all sorts of stereotypes. For certain minorities, such as the Asian category, model minority is the concept in which the minorities are model citizens who work hard and have good professions that allows them socioeconomic success in the West. The struggle to transition, assimilate, and adapt into a new culture with existing cultural identity is perpetrated in Stephen Frears’ film Dirty Pretty Things and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. More specifically, the characters from the film and the book struggles with their ambiguous and confused identities, illuminating the postcolonial struggles that deals with similar hegemony but vastly different portrayals of colonialism—The Namesake portrays a struggle against hegemony through the concept of model minority whereas double consciousness plays specifically on Gogol’s self-identity, while in Stephen Frears’ film Dirty Pretty Things depicts the struggle in the process of assimilation under authority of hegemony.
For some immigrants, dealing with conflicting identities under the concept of double consciousness means eliminating one as the easy way out, which is perpetrated in Lahiri’s The Namesake. Specifically, the character disregards the identity to deal with the feelings of foreignness. The book places emphasis on a Bengali immigrant in the United States. When he was born, he was given the pet name, Gogol Ganguli, which has a deep Bengali cultural significance. In the text, the author describes that Gogol “is aware that his parents, and their friends, and the children of their friends, and all his friends from high school, will never call him anything but Gogol” (Lahiri 103). By having this name, Gogol is connected to the Bengali identity in America. However, Gogol has always struggled to accept his pet name. Gogol was the protagonist’s name, but at the same time, also rooted his Bengali identity. However, when Gogol reaches the legal age, he changes his name formally to “Nikhil,” which essentially tosses away his Bengali identity and fully embracing his American identity. When going to college, Gogol reinvents himself as Nikhil. where he introduces himself as Nikhil. This name enabled him to coil more confidence as an American. In particular, “now that he’s Nikhil it’s easier to ignore his parents, to tune out their concerns and pleas. With relief, he types his name at the tops of his freshmen papers” (Lahiri 105). From this statement, it can be seen that throughout Gogol’s life, he struggled with his identity. He desperately wanted to get rid of his Bengali identity and take on the more American identity by the name, Nikhil. The college experience essentially gave Gogol the opportunity to disconnect with the previous and act out the American part.
However, changing a name is merely not enough to deal with the cultural conflicts, because “At times he [Nikhil] feels as if he’s cast himself in a play, acting the part of twins, indistinguishable to the naked eye yet fundamentally different” (Lahiri 105). From this statement, it shows that identity cannot be wiped away by a change of name. Nikhil still feels different, particularly that foreignness of being fundamentally different than other Americans. Here, Nikhil is experiencing the phenomenon of the Western hegemony. According to Justin Lewis’ “Hegemony,” it is details that “hegemony is not merely a description but a process, one that makes the dominance of certain groups or ideas in society seem normal” (88). Lewis’ description perpetrates how Gogol changing his name to Nikhil would make him feel more normal because the name Nikhil is more Americanized than a pet name his Bengali parents gave him. Turning himself into Nikhil makes him more normal in the sense that his name is essentially American. People often change their names, and refer themselves to their English names, because they find it easier to fit into the society, easier to be accepted, easier to get jobs. However, for Nikhil to mention that he feels like he is a character in the play shows that the normal feeling from hegemony is only temporary, just as English-sounding names are simply attempting to act and sound more Western.
Similarly, the names in Dirty Pretty Things also heavily reveals how the name heavily associated with immigrant identity, particularly through Nigerian immigrant, Okwe, and Senay, a Turkish Muslim immigrant. Throughout the film, the names remain the same, until the very end when Okwe and Senay use illegal means to get new passports. The consistency of using the same names is actually a rhetorical device to limit both characters’ opportunities. Unlike Gogol who gets to refresh his life with a new name, both of the names from Dirty Pretty Things certainly do not sound like any normal American names. Hence, with less association with “Westernization,” there are fewer opportunities for them. Even more conflicting, Okwe is an illegal immigrant and Senay is a legal immigrant who is illegally working, which magnifies the struggles to survive in London, United Kingdom. Because she needs the work, but cannot work — she is threatened with many difficult circumstances, such as to perform oral sex on the manager working at the sweatshop, so that he would not report her to the authorities. For several occasions, Senay performs oral sex to secure her job and her immigrant status. She even resorts to planning to exchange a kidney for a passport with a completely new name. Both Okwe and Senay finally receive passports with different names after drugging the hotel manager and selling his kidney instead.
Hegemony is demonstrated in the film, where there are scenes that symbolically centres on the invisibility of immigrants. Senay works illegally at a hotel; however, her name is ironically not in the books of the employees or any documents that mention her name. By doing so, denotatively speaking, the hotel gets to hide from the authorities that they are hiring someone who is not supposed to work. But connotatively, what this actually demonstrates is Senay’s invisibility as an immigrant. Okwe is also in an almost identical situation; he is invisible, because he is an illegal immigrant. Officially speaking, Okwe is not recognized as an immigrant nor as a citizen. Both Okwe and Senay engage in some sort of underground economy, and to emphasize on the term underground illuminates the idea of being invisible. They go through illegal means such as the sale of organs or exchanging sexual favors. From the film, the hotel is essentially the inside, where Okwe and Senay hides, both physically and in terms of their immigrant status.
The ideal of model minority is the biggest difference between the book and the film; often times, Asians in general are the model minority group, while other racial or ethnic minorities are more deviant and marginalized. According to Curtis Chang’s “Streets of Gold: The Myth of the Model Minority,” it is stated that Asian-Americans tend to be the group that achieves “material wealth, wealth that flows from our successes in the workplace and in the schoolroom” (38) and essentially possessing “the top of the class” image. In The Namesake, model minority is perpetrated through Nikhil. In the text, Nikhil is surrounded by a successful, wealthy family called the Ratliffs, where the author details, “Gerald is a lawyer. Lydia is a curator of textiles at the met. They are at once satisfied and intrigued by his background, by his years at Yale and Columbia, his career as an architect…” (Lahiri 89). What this demonstrates is Nikhil’s admiration for a successful family, with prestige jobs and ivy league diplomas. Symbolically, this model minority is what Nikhil strives for. Culturally speaking. Nikhil has Bengali roots, which means that he has South Asian roots. As a result, this closely conforms to the myth of the model minority. On the contrast, Okwe and Senay are not exactly model minority, yet the assimilation, For the survival under assimilation, they work in a hotel that illegally runs an underground organ trade. Both Okwe and Senay are not authorized to work. Due to the hegemony, Okwe, a Nigerian illegal immigrant and Senay, a Turkish Muslim have to silence down, disobey the self-principle of morality, and suffer in sexual harassment.
Ultimately, the concepts of hegemony through model minority and assimilation in colonialism is examined through Stephen Frears’ film Dirty Pretty Things and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. There are similarities and differences in how the book and story portrayed these concepts. In similar terms, the desire to replace their old names to new names possess the want to belong in the dominant group, the group that holds the dominant power and influence. The olds names hold strong cultural connections to their native identity. The change of the name is the pursuit of normalcy as immigrants living in Western societies. On the other hand, model minority is presented in vastly different ways in the book and the film. The book shows examples of model minority using by a Bengali immigrant who sees success in his white surroundings, and even more emphasized with Gogol/Nikhil’s South Asian roots. Moreover, in the film as Okwe and Senay are engaging in illegal activities of all levels due to the survival under the assimilation pressure. The struggle of identity continues for immigrants as they attempt to juggle their past, present, and future.
- Chang, Curtis. ‘Streets of Gold: The Myth of the Model Minority.’ Money and Success, pp. 37-41.
- Dirty Pretty Things. Directed by Stephen Frears, Perf. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sergi López. 2002. Miramax Films, 2002.
- Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.
- Lewis, Justin. ‘Hegemony.’ Keywords for Media Studies, pp. 88-90.