BY RACHEL CHIN AND GRACE ERLINGER
THE AMERICAN DREAM FOR WHITE TEENS A multimodal essay on fluency, language, and race in the American coming-of-age narrative
INTRODUCTION In the collection of short stories Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, how language and speech operate in families of Chinese-American immigrants represents how the forces of assimilation and cultural heritage impact the perceived intelligence and opportunities of immigrants. In many coming-of-age narratives in American popular media, language isnâ€™t assumed to be a primary part of the formation of identity because the targeted audience, white teenagers, have never needed to overcome a language barrier or the challenge of assimilation that immigrants of color do. In the 1997 film Good Will Hunting directed by Gus Van Sant, the protagonist Will Hunting, a young man from suburban South Boston, is distinguished rather than hindered by his accent, which is tied to economic class distinctions. This absence of representation leaves another coming of age narrative for marginalized minorities untold; the stories of Zhangâ€™s narrators help to remedy this absence and highlight the realistic variation for teenagers of different cultural backgrounds. Unlike the narrator in Good Will Hunting, who portrays an inspirational story of success, the narrators in Sour Heart are disadvantaged by their accents which are tied to fluency, race, and language based prejudice.
BELONGING A common theme for Zhang’s coming of age narrators is their struggle with assimilation in American culture. Because of their Chinese accents, the protagonists are marked as “other” when they speak, like failed projects at assimilation. They feel stripped of a voice that was promised in the allinclusive American Dream package.This internal conflict of trying to express themselves and their identities through a strange, unfamiliar language is not one that Will Hunting experiences. In the typical coming of age narrative, the main characters struggle to find their unique voices as individuals, but for Zhang’s characters, the struggle is finding a voice as a person that people consider worth listening to. Even if at the end of their coming of age narrative in developing their individualism, they still face the struggle of expressing themselves accurately through language. During her interview in The Guardian, Zhang says that as a child “when someone was speaking to me and I couldn’t speak back, I felt they had the wrong impression of me: that I was dull, not intelligent” (Guardian). For an immigrant, a non-American accent is non-fluent English, and for a native, an accent is the mark of a community.
From left to right, The 10 Things I Hate About You, High school Musical, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Billboard Dad. All of these iconic teen movies have white protagonists
Because of Mandee’s accent in “My Days and Nights of Terror” she is bullied by the other immigrant children. The fact that the alienation comes not from native speakers, but from other immigrant children attests to the assimilation process in America. The Korean girl who had been in America longer than Mandee felt that because she passed through the gauntlet of ELS, she earned her title as an American child, and as one, she felt distinguished and better than those immigrants who failed to assimilate fully; in Mandee she found an obvious target to prove that she is American in her speech and actions. Because society conflates a pure form of English with an individual’s intelligence, both Will and Zhang turn to mediums that allow them to express their intelligence without the stigma of an accent. Later in the interview Zhang goes on to say that “Writing became a safe haven for me, a place where I wasn’t accented” (Guardian). This same anonymity that Zhang experiences is empowering for Will when he solves math problems, which conveys his intelligence in what is literally considered a universal language.
HIERARCHY OF ACCENTS It is to be noted that Zhang’s characters’ relationships with language come from a bilingual approach. It makes its speakers self-conscious of their portrayed selves in both expressions because of the disparity between the two. Will Hunting’s coming of age narrative includes no such complexity and his relationship with language is not defined by his South Bostonian accent which doesn’t limit his opportunities. This juxtaposition is reflective of race and gender. As a heterosexual white American male, Will Hunting has it easy; he does not need to prove his competency or intelligence because of his sex or his accent. Like the difference between overcoming a language barrier compared to a thick accent, the girls are inherently set up to face more adversity.
As a pervasive theme among all cultures, their gender puts their intelligence and competency into question and their race does not prime them for the same social mobility that Will’s does. Even within the immigrant community, some accents are considered more beautiful or refined than others, and many times, these descriptions are based on the whiteness of the country from which the accent originates. From another lingual perspective, there exists a hierarchy in accents. For Americans in the southern states, the southern accent is a point of pride for a community that attributes to it a rich history.
Regional American accents are like social green cards; for Will, it gives him a community and a natural form to speak to his friends in, but it does not effectively exclude him from higher opportunities. These accents only highlight the fluency of the english speaker. They exist as if to say, “not only am I so good at english, but I have the right to manipulate it as my own yet still be understood.” This fluency translates to cultural fluency as well-- not only being able to assimilate, but to identity with a distinct community.
HIERARCHY OF ACCENTS As a necessary condition for his parole, Will must go to court-ordered therapy. After going through many therapists, the one that truly affects him is one who is from the same region as him, as heard in his Southie accent. This immediate connection based on a regional accent is what allows Will to make a connection with his therapist Sean, and ultimately complete the therapy sessions necessary for his future success. For Zhang’s characters, their Chinese accents do not distinguish them, but rather generalizes them as Asian immigrants. Even within their own community of immigrants, characters like Christina’s family in “We Love You Crispina” is mistaken for a Korean family in the neighborhood. Unlike the way that regional accents differentiate individuals within one race, like a Chicagoan accent to a Bostonia one for white people, America society recognizes the foreign accents of colored Immigrants not as a tool to distinguish a Korean family from a Chinese one, but an opportunity to generalize cultures and identities under the category of Asian immigrant. By equating these two different cultures as the same thing, society dismisses the value of the immigrant cultures, and of the experience in general.
Sean the therapist (Robin Williams) comforting Will (Mat Damon), telling him "It's not your fault."
"I loathed being confused or associated with [the Korean kids] just because to everyone else in our neighborhood, we were the same." - Jenny Zhang, Sour Heart
Exceptionalism vs Otherness
Once Will gains access to this new class of intellectual elites, his lower-class characteristics make him exceptional to his peers rather than culturally other. Will’s Bostonian accent embodies his lower-class background that is juxtaposed with the traditional middle to upper-class background of a scholar. Externally, he represents the common man. He has a working-class job as a janitor, lacks a formal education, and comes from an unstable home life. However, once he proves his intellect to MIT professors, he immediately gains access to their world. They recognize his different accent and personality, but these idiosyncrasies make Will fascinating to his upper-class peers. They find his story exceptional and inspiring. The idea of a common man rising above his class based on his intellect and effort is consistent with a version of the American dream that appeals to them. Will does not feel a need to hide his cultural differences because they are merely on a regional scale. His Bostonian accent is a point of pride, marking him as unique among the class of intellectual elites. In the case of immigrant families in Sour Heart, their accents are markers of cultural otherness that they struggle to hide or erase through the seemingly never-ending process of becoming “fluent.” Attaining fluency is not a matter of working hard and taking ESL classes. Rather, fluency is assigned to immigrants by native speakers, operating to oppress and restrict them. Jenny Zhang herself remembers that “writing became a safe haven” in her youth because she wasn’t “accented” and marked as different from her American peers (The Guardian). Instead of her accent being a mark of pride and exceptionalism, she felt it was a detriment to her perceived intellect and value. The dichotomy between how these two different accents are perceived relates to their geographic origin. Will’s accent distinguishes him on a regional level while the characters in Sour Heart are differentiated internationally. As a result, people with regional American accents are identified as being culturally related to all Americans while internationally accented people are labeled as culturally alien.
"You are bound by nothing" In this scene of the movie, Will solves complicated proofs while working as a janitor. When he is discovered writing on the board, the professor finds the juxtaposition of his job and his genius fascinating and exceptional.
“When someone was speaking to me and I couldn’t speak back, I felt they had the wrong impression of me: that I was dull, not intelligent." This image exemplifies the feelings of exclusion and otherness experienced by Chinese-Americans in a country dominated by white males.
In Zhang’s Sour Heart, the families of Chinese American immigrants desperately cling to the hope of social mobility while Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting has access to mobility by his own volition. For immigrants, the American dream of climbing the socioeconomic ladder is an elusive mirage. In “We Love You Crispina,” a family of immigrants struggles to succeed in America, constantly believing that a change of fortune is on the horizon. No matter their effort and perseverance, each time they start over in a new place, they make no tangible progress. Their location and jobs may change, but they remain stuck in their social class and destitution. The narrator Christina observes this cyclical stagnancy, claiming “there was no such thing as failure, only starting over a million times” (Zhang 13). In contrast to Christina’s cynicism, her parents refuse to admit that their efforts are in vain. After “starting over” too many times to count, they cannot admit that the future promised to them by the American dream is a hoax. As Zhang notes in an interview with Vulture, “the first family [in the book] in some ways is the most Americanized.” (Vulture). They are the ones that have a strongest “commitment to this American notion of freedom” (Vulture), and consequently struggle the most because of their inability to reconcile with their harsh socioeconomic reality. There is no guarantee that hard work will yield significant results. As is the case of many immigrant families, working in America is not a steady, progressive process, but rather a harsh cycle that prohibits mobility. However, the promises of the American dream are revealed to be accessible in the case of a white, American male like Will Hunting. Will is presented the option to move out of his working class status to that of elite academics. He is able to gain access to this new class easily because its members see themselves in him. The class of intellectually elite is dominated by white males. Therefore, they view Will as a familiar peer who fits into their class. They do acknowledge how his background as a foster child distinguishes him, yet they see this as a mark of exceptionalism. Since Will is an American, he does not appear as “other” to his new peers like immigrants would. The comparison of social mobility in these two mediums reveals that the American dream narrative can be a reality for only Americans, specifically those who already fit the qualities of upper classes. Immigrants are excluded from this access based on their “otherness” and misconceptions regarding their intelligence.
"There's no such thing as failure, only starting over a million times" - Jenny Zhang, Sour Heart
Coming-of-age narratives in America appeal to a generalized majority, excluding challenges that derive from different cultural and racial backgrounds. The different effects of language barriers represented in coming-of-age narratives illustrates only one way that these narratives are exclusive to non-American cultures. In this genre, language and cultural differences are not a significant challenge for the narrators. Good Will Hunting only explores cultural dichotomies on a regional level. Stories of international characters like those in Sour Heart are underrepresented or oversimplified in American media. The comparison of Good Will Hunting and Sour Heart reveals that social mobility is only accessible to white Americans, excluding immigrant minorities from these opportunities. In reality, both the American Dream and the traditional coming-of-age story lack the universality that it claims to bestow. The simplicity accompanying fluency are limited only to the assimilated and white because immigrant families are not granted the same opportunities and representation as Americans, no matter their class or intellect.
Works Cited Good Will Hunting. Directed by Gus Van Sant, performances by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Robin Williams and Minnie Driver, Be Gentlemen, 1997. "Good Will Hunting - "What Do You Want to Do?"" Youtube, uploaded by Canceriansoul, Jan 16 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKQBHkzOYvw Zhang, Jenny. Sour Heart. Lenny, 2017. Zhang, Jenny. Interview by Frank Guan. “Author Jenny Zhang on China, Family, Class, and Her Short-Story Collection Sour Heart.” Vulture, 1 Aug 2017, https://www.vulture.com/2017/08/author-jenny-zhang-talks-her-new-book-sour-heart.html Zhang, Jenny. Interview by Kathryn Bromwich. “Jenny Zhang: The young girl has always been reviled and fetishized.” The Guardian, 23 July 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/23/jenny-zhang-young-girl-reviled-and-fetishised-sourheart Zhang, Jenny. Interview by Shu-Ling Chua. “The Short Stories of Another New York: An Interview with Jenny Zhang.” Lindsay Magazine, 11 June 2018, http://lindsaymagazine.co/an-interview-with-jenny-zhang/