The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri and Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee are novels about Asian immigrants who came to America in hopes of giving their Asian-American children a life better than what they had in their own countries. In The Namesake, the main characters are originally from India, but move to America where they have their son, Gogol and daughter Sonia and raise them as American children, but still with their Indian values. In Native Speaker, the main characters are Korean and raise their son Henry as an American, but still tried to instill the Korean values. This paper will explore the different aspects of Asian culture in both novels as it relates to the world the characters live in. In The Namesake , Ashoke brings his new arranged wife, Ashima, to America, where he is studying and working so that they can start their family. Together they raise their American children with their Indian values, but they also learn that not every value can be preserved. Despite wanting to be American, Asian immigrants do not want their Asian- American children to lose their culture during their assimilation.
Asian Americans appreciate their culture, but also want to be American. In Asian cultures, the name you are called at home is usually not the name you are called at school or at work. When Ashima and Ashoke gave their son Gogol a “good name” for school— Nikhil, he went into his first day of kindergarten expressing to his teacher that he did not want to be called Nikhil, he wanted to be called Gogol. “And what about you, Gogol? Do you want to be called by another name?” (59). Gogol would come to regret that decision he made in kindergarten later in life. In American culture, children have more of a choice in their names and what they’d like to be called, despite the parents wishes. This annoyed Ashoke and Ashima because they knew down the line that Gogol would want to use Nikhil as his good name, but they did not want to start a conflict with his teachers, especially not at a young age. This shows how Ashoke and Ashima had to realize that American culture is different than their Indian culture and they would have to learn how to bend a little.
This is also shown in Native Speaker with the politician John Kwang connecting with “John Kwang’s people” (83). Kwang respects his culture but also wants his people to progress. but also wanting them to progress. Henry, a disgruntled African American customer comes to return a watch he purchased from H&J Enterprises, but the shopkeeper, a seemingly racist Korean man argues with him and does not want to help him. When he see John Kwang approaching, he stops arguing, and Kwang speaks to him privately. Kwang gives the shopkeeper money, and has him give Henry a new watch, and a gift for his wife, “When they returned, the shop owner approached Henry and nodded very slightly, in the barest bow, and offered him another watch” (187). Although the shop owner was obviously a bit reluctant to give Henry anything, with the money and persuasion of John Kwang, he does it. Kwang realizes that yes, his people (Asians) may support him, but he also must earn the trust of other types of people. This shows that Asian Americans want the older generation to learn to be more accepting and try to change their views of cultures other than theirs.
Asian parents want their children to succeed in America, so they lead very strict and almost identical lives. In The Namesake, Ashoke and Ashima want Gogol to have fun while in college, but ultimately, they want him to marry a Bengali woman. That is a value that is similar throughout almost all Asian cultures. The parents do not mind who their child dates, but they ultimately want them to end up with someone from their race. When Gogol experienced his first kiss, he said “it wasn’t me” (96). Gogol gives this explanation to his high school friends after he tells them about his first kiss with Kim at a college party. When Kim asks him what his name is, he tells her his name is Nikhil—instead of Gogol, he then has the confidence to kiss her. Later, when he himself is in college, he will permanently change his name to Nikhil and gain confidence with women as a result. When Gogol started to date a white woman— Max, he does not tell his parents about her for a long time, and when they finally meet, the cultural differences are clear. Max physically embraces his parents with hugs— something he had never even seen his parents do with each other. Gogol knew that the cultural differences would not make for a lasting relationship and his relationship with Max ultimately ends after a couple of years. In Native Speaker, Henry compares himself to his other Korean friend, he realizes their lives are interchangeable, because their parents raised them the exact same way, with the exact same values. This shows that Asian parents have a set of rules and values they require their children to follow, despite the American influences.
Asian culture is definitely preserved for big events such as weddings and funerals. When Ashima finally hears the news of her husband Ashoke’s death from a medical intern, “the young woman tells her that the patient, Ashoke Ganguli, her husband, has expired. Expired. A word used for library cards, for magazine subscriptions” (Ch 7), she breaks down immediately, but also follows her Indian culture which requires her to take off her jewelry and make up. For Ashima, Ashoke is everything: husband, father to her two children. He is the person who organized things around the home, performed the chores, earned the majority of the family’s income. Ashoke is the reason that Ashima has come to the United States in the first place, even though she was terrified of leaving Calcutta. The notion that Ashoke could be simply “gone” is too terrible to contemplate. Gogol also followed Indian culture by shaving his head. As the son of Ashoke, it is customary for him to shave his head and be a big part of the prayers that take place during pouring. Although Ashima told Gogol he did not have to shave his head, Gogol knew that he had to— for his father, and for his Indian culture. This shows how despite being “Americanized” their Asian culture is preserved through different religious ceremonies. Even at Ashoke’s funeral, Gogol’s white American girlfriend, Max, stood out because of their cultural differences. Max wore a sleeveless dress, which is disrespectful, and also tried to embrace Gogol in a hug and kiss, which is a sign of affection, and as previously mentioned, not part of Indian culture. This shows that ugh thy are in America while having some of these ceremonies, their Asian culture and rituals are still preserved, even for the younger generations.
Racism is also interpreted differently by Asians. When the Ganguli’s come back from vacation to their mailbox saying “gangrene” on it. Ashoke claims it was just children being silly, but Gogol is truly offended and want to find the racists who vandalized they mailbox. This shows the difference between India-born Ashoke and America-born Gogol. Racial tensions have always been prevalent in American society, but because Ashoke is from India, they do not experience racism in the way that it is experienced in America. Growing up in America, especially with the name Gogol, it can be assumed that Gogol experienced racism and prejudice from American children in school, solely based on his name and the fact that he is Indian. Gogol’s reaction to the vandalism on his family’s mailbox is how many Americans would react, as opposed to Ashoke’s reaction which was just chalking it up to “kids being kids”. Gogol personified the outrage people should feel when they are being treated unfairly due to their race.
The Korean shopkeeper in Native Speaker reminds Henry of his racist father because of how he acts toward the African American customer, also named Henry. The narrator Henry, recalls his own father explaining to Henry how he tried to hire African Americans and how it never worked out, and that prejudice toward African Americans— that they steal, are lazy, and are bad workers was engraved in Henry’s father’s beliefs, “With blacks he just turned to stone…he always let them know there wasn’t going to be any funny business here” (185). Henry, who, like Gogol, was born and raised in America, so he realized his father’s blatant racism toward black and hispanic people. He noticed how his father would sweep when back people would be in his shop. He is baffled as to how his father’s business is still going well after all those years of treating people the way he does. This shows that Asian people have their own prejudices toward other races despite being part of a race that experiences racism all the time.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri and Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee are great examples of novels that show Asian culture in America, as well as showing how Asian-Americans fuse both cultures into their lives. Gogol grows up in America with Indian parents. He creates his own identity through the years and even though he was raised “American”, he still has his Indian values. All of the values brought from India were instilled in Gogol, but it was up to him if he wanted to adapt them into his own life. He dated outside his race, which his parents were not happy with, but accepted. Gogol ended up marrying within his race, but even though they were from the same place, they were not compatible and they did not last long. Gogol’s sister, Sonia, ended up marrying a man outside of their race, after Ashoke passed away, but Ashima welcomed it. Although all of the Indian values were instilled in the children, the children used their won judgement and life experiences to make their own decisions. Lahiri and Lee do great jobs of showing Asian culture in the realm of American society. It was interesting to read about cultures coming to America, and having to assimilate, but not fully lose their culture. It shows the true meaning of when people refer to America as a melting pot of cultures, because it really is.