Actions and judgments are often times clouded by the basic human need for belonging and acceptance, both in society and by one’s self. The individual searches for identity fueled by the need to find the place in the world in which they find comfort. In both Abraham Rodriguez Jr.’s short story “Babies,” and Ha Jin’s “The Bridegroom,” the reader is forced to acknowledge and examine the decisive moments people face when at the crossroads between choosing to devote themselves completely to the power of integrity and seeing the self as inseparable from society’s perceptions of who one can and cannot be, and what they occasion. Integration through individual self-construction, the construction of social identity related to an individual’s experiences, or by living in the margins of it all, inevitably leads to a fall into imprisonment in a false, distorted and circumscribed way of being.
The decision to live with integrity — through self-determinism, self-definition and self-expression — can be a very liberating experience yet it can be equally fatal. To live with integrity is to literally integrate one’s thoughts, opinions, experiences, and beliefs into acting in a way that is congruent with those understandings and principles. Although by being completely true to oneself an individual can fulfill this desire to live with integrity, preserving and protecting one’s personal identity, consequences are brought about when this identity is regarded as minor or powerless in relation to the dominant group in society. In “The Bridegroom,” Baowen who identified as a homosexual listened to what his heart sought in the end, admitting to the fact that he liked men, “[h]is lips curled upward as if he prided himself on what he had said” (p.234). Like most of the men in the Men’s World club, whom could be heard saying things such as: “Now I feel alive! Only in here can I stop living in hypocrisy,” (p.232) it was in this acceptance of the fact that he was homosexual that he could live his life with integrity. Unfortunately, the setting in which he found himself was one that viewed homosexuality as a “mental, moral disease like an addiction to opium” (p.244). It was described as a “social disease” (p.233), and a crime of “indecent activity” (p.232), in which the individual committing such a crime was considered disruptive in society. Ha Jin focuses metaphorically on sparrows to represent this tension between integrity and social conformity. A sparrow flying way behind a flock catches Old Cheng’s attention as he studies the effects of his handicap (a yellow string tied to one of its legs) on his integration into and ability to follow the group (p.243). In Chinese society, the individual pays an awful price for having what is considered an unusual trait. In comparison, the narrator in “Babies” sacrifices an important part of her identity to the powerful forces against her. The narrator would have loved to have a child but the realization of the consequence of having one kept her from such a reality. Her opinions on motherhood had to change as she re-evaluated her situation. In that sense, identity is always in the process of formation; it is about the process of ‘being’ and ‘becoming’. Although each person has their own individual personality, ideas and thoughts, every individual is shaped by the society and culture by which it is surrounded.
Identity is largely influenced by outside forces, uncontrollable to the individual, that can force a person into sacrificing aspects of their personal identity. One’s self is inseparable from society for the simple reason that an individual is to exist and live in relation to other individuals. Society shapes people and categorizes people into groups leading to discrimination. Thus, some individuals are required to sacrifice certain aspects of their identity in order to fit in. Baowen, had he conformed to society’s views, would have had to deny his sexuality in order to live without consequences, for not doing so led to him being institutionalized and eventually imprisoned. Misrecognition and misunderstanding of the term homosexual, which was an important aspect of Baowen’s personal identity, is what ultimately led to this oppression of which he faced the harsh consequences. He was perceived as a threat to the stability and national unity (p.233) thus measures were taken to make his identity small. Similarly, the narrator in “Babies” also had to keep her identity small. She was forced into accepting the fact that having a child was unacceptable and poorly looked upon in her situation, given that she would be a heroin-addicted, single-parenting, teenage girl trying to raise a kid without money or stability. Although she believed she “could be a great motha” (p.277) and would have loved to have a baby of her own, society’s influence and the certain prejudiced remarks in regards to the kind of life people in the narrator’s environment — including herself — lived, had her questioning and redefining her abilities and the way she personally identified. Stereotypes and demeaning reflections such as “[b]uncha junkies” or “dirt like you,” (p.281) had the narrator question her identity. Through her circumstances, society and the dominant group’s views dictated what was suitable and acceptable and what was not for her. Her social identity was made up of the labels projected onto her and didn’t quite align with her personal identity, so she made the choice to live according to society’s standards, sacrificing a significant aspect of her personal identity. However, sometimes it isn’t so easy to choose between sacrificing individual integrity or social acceptance.
The difficult decision that is choosing to sacrifice personal integrity or integration into society is one which an individual may try to escape by trying to be equidistant or rather midway in between the two, but living this way is no less limiting. When one tries to live in the margins of it all, not identifying totally to neither their personal identity nor to their social identity, it is undeniable that this individual refrains from living to a full extent. It is implausible to defy the principles of individualism and freedom of choice when trying to give in completely to societal conformism. This trial and error can be seen through Ha Jin’s character Old Cheng and his mentality. Cheng had built his life on appearances, related to his standing in society. In the Chinese society, ugliness and curves — those that Cheng doesn’t fail to mention in describing his nominal daughter — but also all individual differences, including homosexuality — portrayed in Baowen’s character — stand out as undesirable and conflicting to the overall social system. To fit in and avoid society’s judgments, without defying his sense of morality, Cheng was put in a position that would have consequences no matter what he chose to do for was impossible for him to avert the decision. The notion of integration and identity can be questionable when the relationship with an individual or place is shaped by a society’s narrow view. Even though he could have accepted to view Baowen fully as a good man even with this latter being homosexual; “What a wonderful husband he could have been,” (p.242) when he would step outside into society, he would have had to allow for the society to identify him differently, in this case, as a homophobe, for otherwise he would be going against what was viewed as politically correct. At first, Cheng tried to understand it and felt saddened by what was happening to Baowen (p.234, p.241), but in the end, he was forced to take position. He couldn’t allow what was happening define him and let personal integrity affect his ability for social integration. “Everybody thought homosexuality was a disease except for Doctor Mai, whose opinion I dared not mention to others. The factory leaders would be mad at me if they knew there was no cure for homosexuality. We had already spent over three thousand yuan on Baowen” (p.244). Nonetheless, Cheng “kept questioning in [his] mind, if homosexuality [was] a natural thing” (p.244) He dared not mention it though for people would know he had been on Baowen’s side all this time, and having a criminal as his son-in-law would affect his social and work status. In the end, all variants would lead to consequences, and he chose the one he thought was least painful to him; never seeing Beina again.
Whether one chooses to adhere to their personal values, to go along with what is expected by society, or to try and live without making a choice, the individual in question is always faced with consequences that don’t allow for a life without limits. Living fully with integrity will not allow for social integration and vice versa, while trying to avoid choosing to live through one or the other is impossible. In the end, integration through individual self-construction, the construction of social identity related to an individual’s experiences, or by living in the margins of it all, inevitably leads to a fall into imprisonment in a false, distorted and circumscribed way of being.