American literature written by authors from different backgrounds than the standard white majority often revolves around the difficult struggle to solidify and define identity. Writers such as Amy Tan, Anna Raya, and Langston Hughes continually explore how complex the search for identity was while they were young and faced with two cultures; that of ethic tradition and that of the dominant white American youth culture that they were exposed to.
With Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B" providing the backdrop for this discussion about heritage and identity, these themes will be further explored by examining Anna Lisa Raya’s essay “It’s Hard Enough Being Me," and Amy Tan’s narrative “Fish Cheeks. " It should be noted that all three of these pieces are written from the perspective of youth and although the authors are writing in retrospect, the central theme throughout all of them is that for young people that are different than the “norm" (white) the search for identity is quite taxing.
In the three pieces discussed here, “Fish Cheeks" by Amy Tan, “Theme for English B" by Langston Hughes and “It’s Hard Enough Being Me" by Anna Lisa Raya, there seems to be no way for these young people to find a place for themselves that embraces their cultural identity while at the same time integrates them into white American society. When set against the backdrop of Langston Hughes’ poem about attempting to reconcile white American ideals with his cultural reality, both essays by Tan and Raya can be better understood as rants against the isolation that comes about when a young person feels they must “decide" and choose one cultural identity or another.
In many ways, this poem by Langston Hughes offers the most reassuring message because instead of floundering with identity issues, he simply states a few rather angry thoughts about how his work for his English class will be received. He wonders if it will be “tainted" by a color of its own and remarks on the idea that others reading it might wonder if, just because he is not of the same ethnic background as the majority, he has the same thoughts, interests, emotions, or feelings. Again, this presents the “great divide" of youth growing up on the cusp of both their “true" cultural identity versus the one designated by white American society.
There is a definite sense of isolation and loneliness in Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B" which is both directly stated and implicit. He mentions “I am the only colored student in my class" which immediately isolates him but there are also other suggestions of loneliness such as when he follow the above statement with the details of a solitary trip back to his room where he writes. One does not get the impression that anyone else is present either at his lodgings or with him on his trip and by the time the next stanza begins, “It is not easy to know what is true for you or me" the sense of seclusion in solidified in the obscurity of a line about how many people do not know one another. When Langston Hughes states in his poem “Theme for English B" that “I guess being colored doesn’t make me NOT like / the same things other folks like who are other races. / So will my page be colored that I write?" he hits on an important point that is carried through in all of the works mentioned above: that there is the sense that there is some great divide between people of non-White or non-American that cannot be crossed, that somehow these differences might cause one to question if the author likes different things just because of an ethnic difference or even more importantly, that their difference “taints" everything. When Hughes suggests that his paper might “be colored" he is making this difference seem even more pronounced.
For the other authors in this discussion, the same theme is continued. Anna Lisa Raya feels as though everything she does, simply because of ethnicity might have to smack of “Latin-ness" just as Amy Tan in her essay wishes to erase all pf her cultural markers to hide the “taint" of her culture that she perceives at the Christmas dinner. The fact remains that these are all young people looking to strike a balance between the truths of their identity against the powerful forces of the dominant white American culture. Since all of these pieces are written in retrospect from childhoods in which the struggle between this cultural and ethnic “truth" was constantly battling with notions of what they should be to conform to American society, there is a subtler theme of isolation. None of the authors make reference to other people they interact with meaningfully outside of their own culture and this suggests that part of the trouble of seeking an identity is based in this feeling of loneliness.
Isolation because of a difference in cultural identity is also a theme expressed in “It’s Hard Enough Being Me." The very title alone indicates that for anyone—even they are white and American is difficult enough and when she claims that “it’s hard enough" to be her, she is stating that throwing the difference in culture into the mix only makes the quest for identity even more difficult. Like the speaker in Hughes’ poem (whom the reader can fairly assume is Hughes himself) Raya is isolated and struggling to mediate her cultural differences, or at least what she perceives they should be, and her attempts to fit into the upper-crust, mostly white and American social structure away from her home and family. For Anna Lisa Raya, her struggle in searching for an identity became more complex when she moved away from her native Los Angeles and came to New York to attend the prestigious Columbia University. As she began searching for identity it became clear to her that even though she had been labeled a “Latina" she couldn’t write or speak Spanish, did not know how to salsa dance, nor did she even know anything about Mexican history. While in the end she is able to reconcile her identity crisis by remembering that it is important not to let other’s perceptions of who she should be not get in her way, she went through a difficult time and felt as though she was a “sell out" to her culture. Raya’s essay reveals the pressures put on young people to conform to a cultural ideal and although she is able to figure out in the end that its important for her to please herself and be happy with being a woman of an interesting heritage and not feeling as though it was necessary for her to take on all the trappings of what society feels is the proper way to be “Latina." In order to emphasize her point about the way Americans view Latinos, she makes a point of using the derogatory term “spic" to indicate that she has, just by proxy of being surrounded by white American culture, picked up on some of the more negative associations of being Latino.
Breaking the unapologetic tone of Hughes’ poem and deviating from the confusion and veiled anger in Raya’s, Amy Tan’s essay “Fish Cheeks" takes on the language and tone of a young frustrated teenager who is mortified at her own culture. She relates the story of a Christmas in which they had a white minister over to their house with their blond son whom Amy Tan had a crush on. The awkwardness of her teenage years are made even worse by the “embarrassing" behavior of her family which makes her want to “disappear" which is a significant statement because she not only wants to disappear from existence at that moment, she wishes for her whole culture to disappear and meld into that of the white dinner guests. “When I found out that my parents had invited the minister’s family over for Christmas dinner, I cried. What would Robert think of our shabby Chinese Christmas?" she laments. The fact that she uses the word “shabby" indicates how she views her own culture’s celebrations and when she says they’ll be having “Chinese food" it is with distaste and embarrassment. Unlike Hughes, she is not at all proud to state her place and rather wishes to become white herself so she can be more American and not have Robert look at her as though she were so different, so alien. At the beginning of the essay, she claims in one of the important quotes from “Fish Cheeks”, “For Christmas I prayed for this blond-haired boy, Robert, and a slim new American nose" which shows that none of her desires for identity were based in her Chinese culture. She is embarrassed when her father burps to show her enjoyed his meal and cringes as her family eats a whole fish, even with the eyes bulging out, and she notices with horror that her blond guest has a perpetual look of disgust on his face. One feels the narrator’s pain as she is humiliated and even the message at the end is positive—that her mother cooked all foods that she liked and tried to teach her a lesson—loses its power because this is a merely an observation in hindsight. Through the pain and easy embarrassment of youth it is difficult for her to see the message and in many ways, this essay is more about the problems of identity multicultural children face rather than about a happy and wise message at the end.
It is clear that all of these authors are isolated by their culture in one way or another. Anna Lisa Raya is isolated within her culture because she feels there are invisible boundaries set up to confine and define her as “Latina," Langston Hughes is isolated because of his culture, because he feels that the expectations from him are supposed to be different to the rest of his white class and teacher, and Tan is isolated by her dreams of shedding these cultural bounds and integrating completely into the dominant culture. While all of these works have a somewhat hopeful message at the end—in short, that the authors should not care what anyone thinks and just express themselves unhindered—the fact remains that these is a lasting pain suffered by these writers. American culture, especially in recent decades, has made great efforts to “reach out" to what they term, in politically-correct fashion, “minorities" yet even still, one can imagine that the problems associated with identity Tan, Hughes, and Raya faced are still common among children today. In a culture like America’s—one dominated by images and messages attempting to define people, particularly on television, it is always going to be difficult for these young people. Through stories and poems like those mentioned it can only be hoped that we begin to realize that identity is a tough thing to come by for any young person, and is made even more complex by the difference in ethnicity or culture.