Reading, and Writing
|Border Texts and Places||Critical Reading Across Borders|
|The Language of Border Texts||From Reading to Writing|
|Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue"||from Gloria Anzaldua's "How to Tame a Wild Tongue"|
Texts and Places
is a book about the many borders that hold together the United States and
its people. To say that our borders hold us together may seem a little
odd. Normally, when we think of a border, we think of something that divides
two places, such as the border between two states or between two countries.
We usually think of borders as geographical lines-dividers that have some
kind of physical presence or political meaning. And indeed, that kind of
geographical and separating border is one of the many kinds of borders
that this book addresses. But this book's idea of a "border" implies much
more than something which merely divides two places.
A border in this text could be defined as any place where differences come together, whether these are national differences, cultural and social differences, differences in values or language, differences in gender, or differences in family heritage or economic status. Therefore, this book focuses on all of the many borders that shape individual identity as well as American cultural identity itself. Whether individual or cultural, our identities are constructed by borders: racial and ethnic borders, economic and class borders, borders of sexuality and gender, and borders that separate different levels of community, such as family and neighborhood. Borders even define America's sense of itself as a nation and its place in the international community. Such borders are both real and imaginary, physical and symbolic. A border can be something you can see, like the Rio Grande River that runs between the United States and Mexico, or something you can't see, like the hidden prejudices that might keep one kind of people out of a neighborhood or away from the higher paying jobs in a company.
The idea of borders in this book is much like the idea of borderlands described by contemporary American writer Gloria Anzaldúa1. For Anzaldúa, who comes from Texas, the borderlands are, in part, the social territory on both sides of the Southwestern U.S.-Mexican border. But, she explains, other kinds of borderlands also exist, such as psychological, sexual, and spiritual borderlands. These borderlands are not particular to the Southwest, she says. In fact,
the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle, and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.The flexibility of Anzaldúa's concept of borderlands aptly expresses the kinds of borders this book explores, borders that we all live within and cross and share every day, whether walking in the city, riding the bus, watching the news, cruising the mall, navigating the Internet, dealing with our families, or sitting in the classroom.
To say that borders are "places where differences come together" implies something beyond mere differences. Where differences come together, people or groups are rarely on equal footing. There is usually an imbalance of something: power, resources, capital, trust, understanding, or desire. No matter who you are, throughout your life you will be negotiating these borders-making transactions across boundaries and maneuvering among differences.
However, the thesis of Border Texts is that borders are not static dividing lines or barriers of difference but rather places where something happens. Borders are never neutral. They always convey some kind of difference: differences in status, resources, power, ideas, values, hopes, history, language, or culture. And the medium through which these differences find expression-whether a poem, a photograph, an essay, a story, or a billboard-is what this book calls a "border text." Border texts express the stress, creativity, tension, energy, hope, and power that exist where differences meet. Although differences may often be the source of conflict, they are not necessarily negative. What "happens" where differences meet is fundamental to social relationships, acts of communication, and the expression of one's own identity. In border texts and at "border crossings" both exciting and difficult things can happen.
this sense border texts are a lot like border places: that is, in this
book we'll look at writing as places where something happens; places where
people meet across their differences, places where differences are overcome
in the attempt to create meaning. There are always multiple levels of meaning
in any text. All texts are formed by a perspective, and all writers and
texts are embedded in cultural contexts and are thereby influenced by them.
Border Texts encourages you to see how your own identity and perspective
are shaped by cultural influences and to reflect on those influences so
you can be more thoughtful about the texts you read and write. This book
urges you to pay attention to how ideas travel across your cultural environment
through images and media, through politics and journalism, through music
and fashion, from graffiti written on freeway abutments to interactive
Web sites. Finally, looking at books as border texts is a new way of looking
at certain fundamental American issues, including what it means to be an
American and what it means for the United States to survive as a nation
of diverse peoples. And it means thinking about the world as a whole, determining
whether it is coming together or breaking down into hostile, small pieces-or
perhaps doing both. Back to top
Reading Across Borders
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you begin to consider the concept of borders, it may be useful to start
by thinking about maps, the places where traditional ideas of borders are
most graphically represented. So, for starters, here is a "map" of our
country. Actually, it’s not a map at all, but rather a poem by Adrienne
Rich about a map. Rich is one of the best-known contemporary American poets
(see her essay in Chapter 4). This excerpt is part of a long poem called
An Atlas of the Difficult World.
An Atlas of the Difficult World
What might Rich mean when stating that the difference between a map and mural is a "small distinction"?By saying this, she implies that "maps" work with one set of rules, codes, and symbols, and "murals" work with another. Maps have one purpose, and murals have another, just as maps are one medium and poems another. One difference might be that maps are supposed to represent a place "objectively" while murals tell stories, perhaps from a particular point of view. However, Rich may be implying that even maps tell stories since "places" carry a certain history and certain cultural connotations. Maybe maps and murals are not all that different because places and their stories are hard to separate.
Now, let’s try to put Rich’s poem in perspective. One of the many ways to do this is to look at a few other maps. First, look at the two maps on pages 461 and 462 of Chapter 6. The map on page 461 is a conventional map of the world. The map on page 462 is called the "Peters’ projection" map. The Peters’ projection represents the countries of the world strictly according to their actual size in square miles. Traditional Western projections (such as the Mercator’s projection and the more contemporary Robinson’s projection) correct for the curvature of the earth by exaggerating the size of areas near and above the equator. Consequently, the United States and Western Europe appear proportionally larger than they really are. The Peters’ projection de-emphasizes the United States and Western Europe. Many people feel that the Peters’ projection more accurately represents underdeveloped nations. Others think that it is misleading, unscientific, and merely propaganda. (You can read more about the debate over the Peters’ projection map in the selection "Maps, Projections and Ethnocentricity" in Chapter 6.)
Next look at a third map image, Plate 1 of the Image Portfolio. This map, created by Jesse Levine, is called the "Turnabout" map. Unlike the Peters’ projection map, which was intended to help plan accurately for world economic development needs, the Turnabout map was made strictly for rhetorical purposes. That is, it takes the convention of putting North America at the top of the map and purposely turns it on its head. What the Turnabout map tries to show is how disorienting it can be to see something so familiar in reversed perspective. The Turnabout map tries to displace the United States from its usual "superior" location on the map for special effect. But do you think that the effect of viewing the Turnabout map would be the same for everyone? Would someone from Latin America have the same feelings about the reversal as someone from the United States?
of the texts we have looked at so far—the three maps, the mural, and the
poem—in some way represent the United States. None of the texts is the
United States itself. In other words, texts are not the things they talk
about, but rather representations of the things they talk about. And each
kind of text uses its own particular symbols and language to create its
representation. Each text, then, requires that you know certain things
in order to make sense of it. You have to know something about a map to
read a map, and you have to know something about a poem to read a poem.
(Of course, in this case you have to know something about a map—and something
about history and geography—to make sense of the poem, too.
I promised to show you a map you say but this is a muralWhen you consider the three maps side by side, you can see that even maps are a matter of perspective and that each map tells a story about the context from which it is drawn. Even maps are made to serve particular interests, represent certain histories, and argue certain ideas. Similarly, Rich seems to be implying that maps and murals are not that different because all acts of representation are embedded in a particular context and cannot be separated from the perspective that produces or sees it.
So what does this have to do with "critical reading"? We live in a world significantly shaped by texts: visual texts, written texts, printed texts, electronic texts, texts that tell stories, texts that try to inform, persuade, confuse, excite, or entertain you. Each of these texts operates by different rules, using different languages, strategies, symbols, and styles. In order to live wisely in a world filled with texts and images, it is important to be not just a reader but also a critical reader. Being a critical reader doesn’t mean that you have to interpret, analyze, and dissect every text you encounter all day long but rather that you can if you want and need to do so. Furthermore, as much as we are shaped by texts, we can also shape ourselves through our own articulated texts. Every time we represent or express ourselves in writing, we actively exert a shaping influence on our immediate world. Becoming critical about your own expression is as important as reading critically.
Being a critical reader and writer has a lot to do with this book’s central theme of borders, not only in terms of content but also in terms of its whole approach to reading and writing. Whenever you sit and examine a piece of writing or art—whether a work of fiction or poetry, a magazine article, a photograph, or another student’s essay for a class assignment—you are standing at a border. To return to our original definition, if a border is a place where differences meet, then as a reader of a text, you are always at the border of someone else’s meaning. On the other side of that page, on the other side of those words or images, is a whole set of ideas and experiences. To understand a writer’s or artist’s meaning, you have to encounter that expression on its own terms—its language, its images, its points of tension, and its manner of combining parts into a whole. The process called critical reading involves learning how to cross that border and get into the text’s world of experience and meaning. It is a means to understand a text’s influence or the ways that it has been shaped by a culture.
When you are critically reading a piece of writing, you’re not just paying attention to what it says. You are also able to recognize and think about how it is saying things, able to read beyond surface meanings to understand the assumptions, arguments, and strategies behind them. Critical reading means learning about how texts work: how they express their meanings, how they appeal to your emotions and intellect, how they present arguments that are explicit and implicit, how they reason with you or try to persuade or even manipulate you.
way to think of critical reading is to see it as the process of slowing
down your reading. This doesn’t mean you ought to read more slowly; it
means that you need to read in such a way that you learn to be aware of
a text’s or image’s various parts and processes. As you run your eye over
the words on a page, for example, it is easy to think of any piece of writing
as a smooth and solid object. But all writing—whether a short story by
a famous writer or a paper by one of your classmates—is the result of a
process and the product of a context. Both the process and the context
that produce a piece of writing are reflected in various ways in a text’s
parts and layers. When you slow down your reading, you will see better
the many components that come together during the writing process to create
something that seems whole. Back
Language of Border Texts
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is a very important and basic connection in this book between what it means
to think critically about texts and the formation of individual and cultural
identity. If all texts are formed by a perspective, constructed through
a process, and embedded in cultural contexts, then something similar is
true for the individuals and cultural contexts that produce them. Individuals
have perspectives that have been shaped by the complexity of the contexts
in which they've lived, just as a text is shaped by its context.
Exploring the relationship between individuals and these contexts-and their
shaping power-is central to this book's purpose.
In fact, the focus of Border Texts is three fundamental sets of ideas: (1) how individuals derive and express a sense of self-identity; (2) how they connect to each other through groups of various kinds and affiliations, such as cultures and communities; and (3) how groups define themselves, interact with other groups, and exist in either harmony or tension within larger social units such as nations or international communities. Individuals and groups, identity and difference, community and conflict: in many ways these form this book's subject matter. For each of these key ideas, we'll basically ask the same kinds of questions, regardless of whether we're looking at individuals, groups, or something larger, like the United States:
What are the many shaping influences on identity?Let's look more closely at how these questions are raised across the chapters.
In the next two chapters of Border Texts, the emphasis is on the self and self-identity. How do we come to be who we are? What are the shaping influences on our identity? In what ways do the stories, expectations, and rules of our immediate culture shape us? The focus here is really on what David Sibley, in a later essay, calls the ecological self, the self that is constructed by the social, spatial, and cultural elements of the environment. The idea behind the ecological self is that our identity as individuals is not formed in some isolated or autonomous way. Although our sense of individuality is very much based on a feeling of freedom and autonomy, we derive all the aspects of our personality and beliefs (including our belief that we're free and autonomous) from some shaping system.
Therefore, the initial questions of this book revolve around self-identity: how we're shaped and how we make connections to others. That is, when thinking about the influences that shape our self-identity, we should consider how we connect ourselves to larger contexts. How do we develop a sense of belonging? What makes us feel at home-or not feel at home? What creates a sense of alienation? How do we feel and express connections to a community and a culture? How does our belonging to a culture shape who we are? There are also several layers of complexity to these questions about belonging because most of us belong to many different communities at once, and at times those communities conflict or exist in tension. In addition, there are vast differences in the ways that people feel connected to each other: sometimes through shared values, sometimes through shared physical space, and sometimes just through a sense of interdependency or a network of interrelationships. Furthermore, within social groups there is rarely equality. Within communities and cultures there are usually imbalances among members: insiders and outsiders, those closer to the center and those at the margins, even those who resist fitting in but who still play a vital role in the functioning and identity of the community.
Focusing on how individuals and groups define themselves leads inevitably to questions of how individuals and groups define others. How do we define insiders and outsiders? Is it possible to have a sense of community without outsiders? Whereas Chapters 2 and 3 look closely at individual identity and the ways individuals connect to each other, Chapters 4 and 5 look at how definitions of community and cultural identity depend on recognizing differences and the construction of otherness. How is "otherness" an ever-present factor in the way we construct culture? On what do we base our sense of differences?
People perceive and act on their sense of differences from others in many ways and for many reasons: out of fear, repulsion, disagreement, curiosity, fascination, attraction, indifference, habit, or ignorance. Even if constructions of otherness are based on irrational motivations (which they usually are), they can have very real, significant ramifications. In what ways do we see constructions of otherness and images of difference all around us? In what ways do our cultural values (i.e., the nature of identity within the groups to which we belong) instill and reinforce images of difference? How do differences drive us together as well as apart? How are differences appealing as well as the source of tension? To what extent are differences real or imagined?
The purpose of raising these questions is not to pass judgment on communities or groups that have a sense of self or of others. Human beings seem to need a sense of identity and belonging. In a heterogeneous society that means creating and maintaining borders between groups. What do vary are the different strategies for negotiating those borders and surviving what Mary Louise Pratt, in her essay in Chapter 5, calls "contact zones." A contact zone, according to Pratt, is any place where different cultures come together with some "asymmetrical relations of power." Whether this contact is at the level of cultural groups (as in the colonial situation she discusses) or at the level of individuals (for example, in a dating context that is potentially violent, as described in Mary Gaitskill's essay), a contact zone can be an important means for looking at how people communicate across their differences. What strategies do people use, either privately or publicly, to manage asymmetrical relations of power? How do people appeal to each other across differences? Do they appeal to fear, values, morality, shared destiny? When are contact zones positive and productive places?
One of the questions raised by the readings in Chapter 5 is to what extent contact zones are about imagined power and perceived differences. Indeed, this question echoes the place where the book began, with Sibley's idea of the ecological self. How we see ourselves, as well as how we see and interact with others, is based on a whole ecology of influences that are both real and imagined, physical and symbolic, simultaneously based in the world and based in language. If individual self-identity is shaped by physical and imagined forces-shaped by cultural ideas as much as by cultural places-then so too are cultures. That is, if individuals and groups are both shaped by an ecology of forces, they are also shaped by a geography that is both physical and imagined.
Chapter 6 looks at the ways that culture and communities imagine themselves as wholes existing in a particular place. Another way to think of this is to imagine that individuals as well as groups construct a whole reality for themselves that is partially based on cultural values and partially based on physical place. In other words, who you are is shaped in part by where you are. Similarly, how you perceive where you are is significantly shaped by your beliefs and values.
This brings us back to the ideas of perspective and context. Chapter 6 asks some of the book's most abstract or difficult questions: how are the perspectives of groups, cultures, communities, even nations formed by a context that could be characterized as an imagined reality-a reality based on a geographical place yet developed in the mind? How is geographical space culturally perceived? For example, how was the notion of the American frontier both a description of physical reality and a particular way of looking at cultural space-one that already had a sense of a center and an edge, of an old world and a new world, of a place where civilized peoples were settling in opposition to a wilderness? In what ways does physical environment shape cultural perceptions? Conversely, in what ways do cultural values shape our perceptions of geographical space and the physical environment?
Looking at the American notion of the frontier is useful because it is such a persistent and powerful myth in U.S. culture. The concept is also useful because it seems "natural" to people who grew up in the United States, so pervasive and ingrained are the images of frontier conquest and settlement. Yet, as more than one reading in Chapter 6 points out, thinking of a "frontier" as a dividing line between civilization and wilderness (or between culture and savagery) is not inevitable. It is possible, for example, to think of a frontier as a boundary or zone between two cultures. Along this divider there is not an inevitable sense of conquest or progress moving in a single direction (as in the movement of European civilization across the continent), but rather a more dynamic process of give-and-take across cultural boundaries. Whether one thinks of a frontier as a line or a zone brings us back to the book's most fundamental topics: the concept of borders and the human processes of self-definition and behavior that happen there. Borders, like frontiers, are places where something happens; and the construction of reality that governs what that something is has as much to do with the cultural values of the people involved as it does with the place itself.
The discussion becomes more complicated when we shift our thinking from American frontiers to "electronic" frontiers. Beginning with Columbus's discovery of the "new world, Chapter 6 concludes with a look at "cyberspace," the current new world being discovered and settled. Why do we think of cyberspace as a "space"? Why do people think of places on the World Wide Web in spatial terms as they maneuver among "home pages" and move among "sites"? Cyberspace is the ultimate expression of the conjunction of border texts and border places. After all, what are places on the Internet but texts and vice versa? And as a place built out of texts, cyberspace is nothing more than constructed realities: homemade, online communities whose structures, participants, and environments are conceived in people's minds and played out in an imagined environment with new sets of rules and limits. What can these new communities and contexts tell us about how we look at ourselves and others? How might online communication and interaction in virtual space shape the way individual or communal identity is imagined in ways face-to-face communication cannot? How do these new communities relate to the ones we already know? How will they interact? Will they compete? Will we all get bored with cyberspace? In a few years will it seem as habitual and humdrum as television? Or will we fundamentally change and not even realize it?
compelling questions about the shape of new communities and even new geographies
are what occupy the book's final chapter, which looks at the world's "new"
borders. As we move into a world of interactive global technologies, is
the world getting smaller and becoming more connected? Or, as seems likely
with the growing number of worldwide ethnic and group conflicts, is the
world becoming more fragmented? In this final chapter, the book's major
questions come full circle. Border Texts begins by asking how individuals
define themselves and connect with each other through groups. Chapter 7
looks at how groups define themselves and either connect or resist connection
with some larger social identity at either the national or international
level. Here we consider the issues of identity, community, and difference
in terms of what Benjamin Barber calls "Jihad vs. McWorld." That is, we
examine the tension between intense devotion to a group identity (symbolized
in this work by the Islamic "Jihad") and the phenomenon of an increasingly
homogenized global culture (symbolized by the worldwide proliferation of
McDonald's and other exports-"McWorld"). Our look at borders concludes,
then, with the questions of the twenty-first century: What borders and
boundaries are competing for our attention? In what ways are differences
increasing or decreasing among us? What will be the fate of individual
self-definition and community rights as the world becomes both more coherent
and more fragmented? Back to
Reading to Writing
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book is intended to be a resource for critical reading and writing.
No book of readings could be comprehensive or fully representative of American
culture; nor can any book teach you how to write. What Border Texts
attempts to do is to serve as a springboard for thinking and writing about
these fundamental and complex issues.
If being a critical reader involves seeing how all texts are written from a perspective that has been shaped by a variety of contexts, then it is important to see yourself, as a writer, in the same way. That is, in order to read critically, you need to read actively, ask critical questions about the text, and build connections among other texts and broader ideas. To move from critical reading to writing, you need not only a critical understanding of the texts you read, but also a context for the ideas you're dealing with and a perspective from which to write about them. Just as with texts you read, with texts you write, perspective and context are very important. Border Texts offers a set of resources to make developing both possible.
In order to do both, Border Texts poses questions that continually ask you to reflect on the issues, the readings, and your own responses to them. There are three kinds of questions in Border Texts:
Critical Questions: Critical Questions are large, overarching questions that begin each chapter. These should help frame your reading and rereading of all the selections in the chapter as well as give you a broad context for your writing.
Writing Topics: At the end of each chapter is a set of broad writing topics addressing the overall themes in each chapter. Grouped under the heading, "Thinking and Writing: Critical Questions Revisited," these writing topics revisit the Critical Questions and reframe the chapter's key issues as topics for exploration in papers.These three types of questions, along with the written texts and visual images, are designed to help you frame your reading and then move from reading to writing.
Let's look at how this process works with a couple of sample texts. First, consider a few Critical Questions that form the heart of this introductory chapter's discussion of the themes of identity, perspective, language, and writing.
Critical QuestionsNow, with these questions in mind, look at the following short reading by Amy Tan, a novelist and Chinese American writer who is best known for her novels The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife.
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For many American students, the language spoken at home is far different from the one spoken in school. For that reason, many students learn to switch back and forth between two languages, the one they use with their family and the one required for their education. Such switching, however, need not be confining or demoralizing. Rather, it can enhance one's sensitivity to language and can even be creatively enabling, as the Chinese American novelist Amy Tan suggests in this charming personal essay. "Language is the tool of my trade," Tan writes. "And I use them all-all the Englishes I grew up with."
Born into a Chinese family that had recently arrived in California, Amy Tan began writing as a child and after graduation from college worked for several years as a freelance business writer. In the mid-eighties, she began writing fiction, basing much of her work on family stories. She is the author of two best-selling novels: The Joy Luck Club (1989), which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award and was made into a motion picture directed by Wayne Wang, and The Kitchen God's Wife (1991). In 1992 she published a popular children's book, The Moon Lady. She lives in San Francisco, where she is at work on a new novel. "Mother Tongue" originally appeared in The Threepenny Review (1990) and was selected by Joyce Carol Oates for The Best American Essays 1991.
I am not a scholar of English or literature. I cannot give you much more than personal opinions on the English language and its variations in this country or others.
I am a writer. And by that definition, I am someone who has always loved language. I am fascinated by language in daily life. I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power of language-the way it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth. Language is the tool of my trade. And I use them all-all the Englishes I grew up with.
Recently, I was made keenly aware of the different Englishes I do use. I was giving a talk to a large group of people, the same talk I had already given to half a dozen other groups. The nature of the talk was about my writing, my life, and my book, The Joy Luck Club. The talk was going along well enough, until I remembered one major difference that made the whole talk sound wrong. My mother was in the room. And it was perhaps the first time she had heard me give a lengthy speech, using the kind of English I have never used with her. I was saying things like, "The intersection of memory upon imagination" and "There is an aspect of my fiction that relates to thus-and-thus"-a speech filled with carefully wrought grammatical phrases, burdened, it suddenly seemed to me, with nominalized forms, past perfect tenses, conditional phrases, all the forms of standard English that I had learned in school and through books, the forms of English I did not use at home with my mother.
Just last week, I was walking down the street with my mother, and I again found myself conscious of the English I was using, the English I do use with her. We were talking about the price of new and used furniture and I heard myself saying this: "Not waste money that way." My husband was with us as well, and he didn't notice any switch in my English. And then I realized why. It's because over the twenty years we've been together I've often used that same kind of English with him, and sometimes he even uses it with me. It has become our language of intimacy, a different sort of English that relates to family talk, the language I grew up with.
So you'll have some idea of what this family talk I heard sounds like, I'll quote what my mother said during a recent conversation which I videotaped and then transcribed. During this conversation, my mother was talking about a political gangster in Shanghai who had the same last name as her family's, Du, and how the gangster in his early years wanted to be adopted by her family, which was rich by comparison. Later, the gangster became more powerful, far richer than my mother's family, and one day showed up at my mother's wedding to pay his respects. Here's what she said in part:
"Du Yusong having business like fruit stand. Like off the street kind. He is Du like Du Zong-but not Tsung-ming Island people. The local people call putong, the river east side, he belong to that side local people. That man want to ask Du Zong father take him in like become own family. Du Zong father wasn't look down on him, but didn't take seriously, until that man big like become a mafia. Now important person, very hard to inviting him. Chinese way, came only to show respect, don't stay for dinner. Respect for making big celebration, he shows up. Mean gives lots of respect. Chinese custom. Chinese social life that way. If too important won't have to stay too long. He come to my wedding. I didn't see, I heard it. I gone to boy's side, they have YMCA dinner. Chinese age I was nineteen."
You should know that my mother's expressive command of English belies how much she actually understands. She reads the Forbes report, listens to Wall Street Week, converses daily with her stockbroker, reads all of Shirley MacLaine's books with ease-all kinds of things I can't begin to understand. Yet some of my friends tell me they understand 50 percent of what my mother says. Some say they understand 80 to 90 percent. Some say they understand none of it, as if she were speaking pure Chinese. But to me, my mother's English is perfectly clear, perfectly natural. It's my mother tongue. Her language, as I hear it, is vivid, direct, full of observation and imagery. That was the language that helped shape the way I saw things, expressed things, made sense of the world.
Lately, I've been giving more thought to the kind of English my mother speaks. Like others, I have described it to people as "broken" or "fractured" English. But I wince when I say that. It has always bothered me that I can think of no way to describe it other than "broken," as if it were damaged and needed to be fixed, as if it lacked a certain wholeness and soundness. I've heard other terms used, "limited English," for example. But they seem just as bad, as if everything is limited, including people's perceptions of the limited English speaker.
I know this for a fact, because when I was growing up, my mother's "limited" English limited my perception of her. I was ashamed of her English. I believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say. That is, because she expressed them imperfectly her thoughts were imperfect. And I had plenty of empirical evidence to support me: the fact that people in department stores, at banks, and at restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her.
My mother has long realized the limitations of her English as well. When I was fifteen, she used to have me call people on the phone to pretend I was she. In this guise, I was forced to ask for information or even to complain and yell at people who had been rude to her. One time it was a call to her stockbroker in New York. She had cashed out her small portfolio and it just so happened we were going to go to New York the next week, our very first trip outside California. I had to get on the phone and say in an adolescent voice that was not very convincing, "This is Mrs. Tan."
And my mother was standing in the back whispering loudly, "Why he don't send me check, already two weeks late. So mad he lie to me, losing me money."
And then I said in perfect English, "Yes, I'm getting rather concerned. You had agreed to send the check two weeks ago, but it hasn't arrived."
Then she began to talk more loudly. "What he want, I come to New York tell him front of his boss, you cheating me?" And I was trying to calm her down, make her be quiet, while telling the stockbroker, "I can't tolerate any more excuses. If I don't receive the check immediately, I am going to have to speak to your manager when I'm in New York next week." And sure enough, the following week there we were in front of this astonished stockbroker, and I was sitting there red-faced and quiet, and my mother, the real Mrs. Tan, was shouting at his boss in her impeccable broken English.
We used a similar routine just five days ago, for a situation that was far less humorous. My mother had gone to the hospital for an appointment, to find out about a benign brain tumor a CAT scan had revealed a month ago. She said she had spoken very good English, her best English, no mistakes. Still, she said, the hospital did not apologize when they said they had lost the CAT scan and she had come for nothing. She said they did not seem to have any sympathy when she told them she was anxious to know the exact diagnosis, since her husband and son had both died of brain tumors. She said they would not give her any more information until the next time and she would have to make another appointment for that. So she said she would not leave until the doctor called her daughter. She wouldn't budge. And when the doctor finally called her daughter, me, who spoke in perfect English-lo and behold-we had assurances the CAT scan would be found, promises that a conference call on Monday would be held, and apologies for any suffering my mother had gone through for a most regrettable mistake.
I think my mother's English almost had an effect on limiting my possibilities in life as well. Sociologists and linguists probably will tell you that a person's developing language skills are more influenced by peers. But I do think that the language spoken in the family, especially in immigrant families which are more insular, plays a large role in shaping the language of the child. And I believe that it affected my results on achievement tests, IQ tests, and the SAT. While my English skills were never judged as poor, compared to math, English could not be considered my strong suit. In grade school I did moderately well, getting perhaps B's, sometimes B-pluses, in English and scoring perhaps in the sixtieth or seventieth percentile on achievement tests. But those scores were not good enough to override the opinion that my true abilities lay in math and science, because in those areas I achieved A's and scored in the ninetieth percentile or higher.
This was understandable. Math is precise; there is only one correct answer. Whereas, for me at least, the answers on English tests were always a judgment call, a matter of opinion and personal experience. Those tests were constructed around items like fill-in-the-blank sentence completion, such as, "Even though Tom was ---, Mary thought he was ---." And the correct answer always seemed to be the most bland combinations of thoughts, for example, "Even though Tom was shy, Mary thought he was charming," with the grammatical structure "even though" limiting the correct answer to some sort of semantic opposites, so you wouldn't get answers like, "Even though Tom was foolish, Mary thought he was ridiculous." Well, according to my mother, there were very few limitations as to what Tom could have been and what Mary might have thought of him. So I never did well on tests like that.
The same was true with word analogies, pairs of words in which you were supposed to find some sort of logical, semantic relationship-for example, "Sunset is to nightfall as---is to---." And here you would be presented with a list of four possible pairs, one of which showed the same kind of relationship: red is to stoplight, bus is to arrival, chills is to fever, yawn is to boring. Well, I could never think that way. I knew what the tests were asking, but I could not block out of my mind the images already created by the first pair, "sunset is to nightfall"-and I would see a burst of colors against a darkening sky, the moon rising, the lowering of a curtain of stars. And all the other pairs of words-red, bus, stoplight, boring-just threw up a mass of confusing images, making it impossible for me to sort out something as logical as saying: "A sunset precedes nightfall" is the same as "a chill precedes a fever." The only way I would have gotten that answer right would have been to imagine an associative situation, for example, my being disobedient and staying out past sunset, catching a chill at night, which turns into feverish pneumonia as punishment, which indeed did happen to me.
I have been thinking about all this lately, about my mother's English, about achievement tests. Because lately I've been asked, as a writer, why there are not more Asian Americans represented in American literature. Why are there few Asian Americans enrolled in creative writing programs? Why do so many Chinese students go into engineering? Well, these are broad sociological questions I can't begin to answer. But I have noticed in surveys-in fact, just last week-that Asian students, as a whole, always do significantly better on math achievement tests than in English. And this makes me think that there are other Asian-American students whose English spoken in the home might also be described as "broken" or "limited." And perhaps they also have teachers who are steering them away from writing and into math and science, which is what happened to me.
Fortunately, I happen to be rebellious in nature and enjoy the challenge of disproving assumptions made about me. I became an English major my first year in college, after being enrolled as pre-med. I started writing nonfiction as a freelancer the week after I was told by my former boss that writing was my worst skill and I should hone my talents toward account management.
But it wasn't until 1985 that I finally began to write fiction. And at first I wrote using what I thought to be wittily crafted sentences, sentences that would finally prove I had mastery over the English language. Here's an example from the first draft of a story that later made its way into The Joy Luck Club, but without this line: "That was my mental quandary in its nascent state." A terrible line, which I can barely pronounce.
Fortunately, for reasons I won't get into today, I later decided I should envision a reader for the stories I would write. And the reader I decided upon was my mother, because these were stories about mothers. So with this reader in mind-and in fact she did read my early drafts-I began to write stories using all the Englishes I grew up with: the English I spoke to my mother, which for lack of a better term might be described as "simple"; the English she used with me, which for lack of a better term might be described as "broken"; my translation of her Chinese, which could certainly be described as "watered down"; and what I imagined to be her translation of her Chinese if she could speak in perfect English, her internal language, and for that I sought to preserve the essence, but neither an English nor a Chinese structure. I wanted to capture what language ability tests can never reveal: her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts.
Apart from what any critic had to say about my writing, I knew I had succeeded where it counted when my mother finished reading my book and gave me her verdict: "So easy to read."
Working with the Text
One of the most important ways to respond initially to a reading (and one that will often be posed in the questions following each reading) is to relate it to your own experience. For example, consider this reading question, one you could respond to in a journal entry or in classroom discussion:
1. Amy Tan talks about the many "Englishes" that she speaks. How many Englishes do you speak? Does the language that you use with your family differ from the language you use with friends? At school? At work? How does using different kinds of language help you survive in different contexts? If English is your second language, or if English is your parents' second language, then you probably can identify with her point about using different "Englishes." But even if that is not the case, consider the different "languages" that you speak during any given day. Surely you speak differently to different people and in different contexts.Reflecting on a reading by considering your own experience is a good way to begin thinking about a writer's meaning. Now, let's look at her essay a little more closely in terms of its ideas. Let's consider some other reading questions that you might ask as you read the selection a second time.
2. Why does the presence of her mother make Tan "keenly aware of the different Englishes" she uses? How does the English that she uses with her mother differ from other kinds of English that she uses?There are many ways to respond to Amy Tan's essay. It is best to read it actively the first time, writing down your own questions and comments and keeping track of questions or points that interest you. You should particularly jot down notes when you read the essay a second time and have specific analytical questions in mind.
You can take this line of response further by acting on the reading in different ways. One way would be to do some writing and reflecting about the language issues that Tan is raising. This kind of activity involves you in getting writing from reading. For example:
4. Keep a journal throughout the course of an entire day, being very conscious about the language you use with different people. How does your language vary? Does your own language change in ways that surprise you? What about the language you use to write as opposed to the language you use to speak?Alternatively, instead of being conscious of your own language and writing a response piece about that, you might engage in a fieldwork experience in which you listen to other people. Here is a different kind of journal entry assignment:
5. For one day, listen very closely to how people talk. Don't just listen to what they say but also to how they say it. Listen to a number of people interact in conversation. This might be at a table in a coffeehouse, at the cash register in a store, or in an office where you work. How do people speak differently to each other? How do people react to others differently based on their language ability or tone?That's one kind of fieldwork-research that you conduct out in the world. There is also a different kind of fieldwork that this book asks you to do on the Internet and World Wide Web-what we might call "electronic fieldwork." The Internet is filled with language: written language and visual language, public and private language, and language conveyed through colors, fonts, and pictures. It is filled with the language of commerce and intimacy, politics and entertainment.
In some ways Amy Tan's essay is really about the relationship between language (her many "Englishes") and identity. The Internet is a perfect laboratory for reflecting on the relationship between language and identity precisely because it is an environment built out of texts. After all, in electronic mail, in chat rooms, or on MUDs and MOOs, the only way people can establish their identity is through the language they choose to use.
How, then, could we use the Internet to further explore Tan's essay and its issues? How could we use the Internet to help put her essay in perspective? Here is an example of an electronic fieldwork assignment:
6. Look closely at the language that is used in some Internet setting (E-mail, a bulletin board, a chat room). As with the previous exercises, pay particularly close attention to how people are talking: What kind of language are they using? Is it formal language, academic language, or conversational language? Is it more like talking than writing? If, for example, you think that it is more conversational or oral than formal and written language, try to explain why. You might also distinguish for yourself the differences between spoken and written language.After you have found your examples of Internet text, you might print them out and bring them to class for another assignment, working together in groups:
7. Discuss each of your examples and collectively try to compile a list of language tendencies common to all of them. What kinds of generalizations or claims can you make about the way people talk on the Internet? What makes language seem oral or informal? What makes it seem formal?These activities illustrate the kinds of things you can do using a text as a springboard for research and further exploration. Another important set of activities involves putting a work in the context of other pieces of writing. Let's compare Amy Tan's piece to the writing of Gloria Anzaldúa, who was mentioned earlier in this chapter. First, reread one particular passage from Tan's essay, although her whole essay is relevant here. She writes:
Just last week, I was walking down the street with my mother and I again found myself conscious of the English I was using, the English I do use with her. We were talking about the price of new and used furniture and I heard myself saying this: "Not waste money that way." My husband was with us as well, and he didn't notice any switch in my English. And then I realized why. It's because over the twenty years we've been together I've often used that same kind of English with him, and sometimes he even uses it with me. It has become our language of intimacy, a different sort of English that relates to family talk, the language I grew up with.Now, here is a selection from Anzaldúa's book Borderlands. This chapter, "How to Tame a Wild Tongue," deals specifically with issues of language and ethnic identity. In it Anzaldúa is discussing Chicano Spanish, which she calls "a border tongue which developed naturally."
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How to Tame a Wild Tongue
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Chicano Spanish is not incorrect, it is a living language.
For a people who are neither Spanish nor live in a country in which Spanish is the first language; for a people who live in a country in which English is the reigning tongue but who are not Anglo; for a people who cannot entirely identify with either standard (formal, Castilian) Spanish nor standard English, what recourse is left to them but to create their own language? A language which they can connect their identity to, one capable of communicating the realities and values true to themselves-a language with terms that are neither espanol ni ingles, but both. We speak patois, a forked tongue, a variation of two languages.
Chicano Spanish sprang out of the Chicanos' need to identify ourselves as a distinct people. We needed a language with which we could communicate with ourselves, a secret language. For some of us, language is a homeland closer than the Southwest-for many Chicanos today live in the Midwest and the East. And because we are a complex, heterogeneous people, we speak many languages. Some of the languages we speak are:
1. Standard EnglishMy "home" tongues are the languages I speak with my sister and brothers, with my friends. They are the last five listed, with 6 and 7 being closest to my heart. From school, the media and job situations, I've picked up standard and working class English. From Mamagrande Locha and from reading Spanish and Mexican literature, I've picked up Standard Spanish and Standard Mexican Spanish. From los recien llegados, Mexican immigrants, and braceros, I learned the North Mexican dialect. With Mexicans I'll try to speak either Standard Mexican Spanish or the North Mexican dialect. From my parents and Chicanos living in the Valley, I picked up Chicano Texas Spanish, and I speak it with my mom, younger brother (who married a Mexican and who rarely mixes Spanish with English), aunts and older relatives.
With Chicanas from Nuevo Mexico or Arizona I will speak Chicano Spanish a little, but often they don't understand what I'm saying. With most California Chicanas I speak entirely in English (unless I forget). When I first moved to San Francisco, I'd rattle off something in Spanish, unintentionally embarrassing them. Often it is only with another Chicana tejana that I can talk freely.
We raise a number of issues by putting Anzaldúa next to Tan. One possibility is to look at the two pieces and engage in straightforward comparison and contrast:
8. How does this passage about language and identity compare to Tan's essay? What is similar? What is different? How is Anzaldúa's approach to the reader different?Another response is to use her essay as a way of rethinking the earlier reflective exercises:
9. In reading Question 1 you were asked to think about the different kinds of languages that you speak every day. If you were to make a list of your different languages (one like Anzaldúa's), what would it look like?Putting the two essays side by side helps us begin to move toward some larger issues and a broader set of critical questions:
10. One of the differences between the two essays is that Tan talks about language in relatively personal terms whereas Anzaldúa is more political. The two essays together suggest that there's a larger context in which to place the idea that language is closely tied to individual identity. How would you describe this larger context? What are some critical questions you might start asking about these issues?
language and ethnicity
Reread both essay selections carefully. Write a "critical" question about language in its social or cultural context. Use a specific passage from one of the readings as the springboard for your question.For another approach, think about the broader context by looking at an additional reading question that points to the larger political or cultural meaning of Anzaldúa's essay:
11. Anzaldúa asserts that "Chicano Spanish is not incorrect, it is a living language." What does she mean by that statement? Why are "incorrect" and "living" opposites in this context?Also, since this chapter began by looking at maps, we might ask whether all of this talk about language is really about borders and geography:
12. What geographies are implied in the essays by Tan and Anzaldúa? How is Tan's relationship to China the same as or different from Anzaldúa's relationship to Mexico or Spain, as described in their essays? How are their relationships to America the same or different?Probably our most natural tendency is to want to read something rapidly and to "get it" as quickly as possible. All of these reading questions relate to an idea mentioned earlier about "slowing down" your reading: where the reading process consists of a variety of stages, and your experience of a text is ongoing and increasingly rich and expansive. Reading, thinking, and writing are not separate processes that take place in some kind of mechanical sequence. They are activities that overlap and cycle back and forth over each other. That is why this book has so many levels of questions asking you to think, reflect, and write at different stages during the writing process.
Ultimately, the purpose of Border Texts is to get you to reflect on some fundamental questions, not only about identity and culture but also about writing and communication. If reading is an act of negotiating borders, then so is writing. As a writer, you create a place where something happens, a text shaped by your personal and cultural identities that differs from that of any other writer. While not a border in the traditional sense of a dividing line, writing is a border in the larger sense that is the focus of this book: a space where people-writers and readers-come together more or less successfully across their differences in perspective and knowledge. To return to an idea stated at the beginning of the introduction, writing is one kind of border that holds us together-despite perhaps deep differences-because it provides a crossing point for communication. Back to top