This is my second year teaching a class called Theme of Identity in Literature. I made a list of what that meant to me, and what that might mean to my students. I assumed that I would find seven or eight books to teach young girls, in a senior seminar, about the construction of identity in society or culture or whatever word we felt like using.
As it turned out, the class was not about construction. Instead the class grappled with unmasking or revealing or exposing the identities we offer to people in social settings; in the classroom, at work, with our families, and with our lovers. It meant pointing out or exposing the identities we offer to other people and the identities they offer to us, for us, like a ill-fitting garment. We attempted to cut away or down to the core, to whatever extent that is even possible, towards the kind of identity or identities each of us has chosen and received as our intuitive or seminal version of ourselves.
And so I chose the books A Room with a View by E.M. Forster, Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, The Winged Seed; A Remembrance by Li-Young Lee as well as his poetry from Rose and The City in Which I Love You , also The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke, The Wild Iris, by Louise Gluck, Border Passage by Leila Ahmed, the film Persona by Ingmar Bergman, and the film Salaam Bombay by Mira Nair.
I remember, just before the first class, I was reading a book called Bombay : Meri Jaan , which is a collection of short stories, poems and essays about the city of Mumbai. One of the writers stated that at any given moment, a hundred thousand ecdysiasts worked in the city. He was referring to cage-girls in the red-light district. But ecdysiast, from the latin, is a stripping or a taking-off, the shedding of an outer integument or layer of skin, as in insects and snakes. This became the motto for the class. We were going to be ecdysiasts: we were not necessarily going to attend to the construction of our identities but to the peeling away of the layers of our identity or even the layers of our identities .
We also concentrated on another term: semaphore. If you've had the chance to look out the window as the plane taxied to or from the gate, then you probably saw the employee with the red sticks guiding the plane. Those are semaphores: apparatus for signaling, or signal-bearers. What we intended to do in the class was to turn our attention to the semaphores, the things that give away or signal aspects of our identity.
To do this, I did not propose any essays that involve literary analysis of the text we were reading. All analysis or commentary about the literature took place in the classroom and only by discussion. Instead, all of the essay assignments were about ourselves. A character in Surfacing says that madness is an amplification of what we are right now. The students were to take stock of themselves, as mental creatures, and decide how they would be mad, if they were mad. The literature turned them inward. As Rilke says "Go inside yourself."
The diversity of the classes was as follows: one student's parents were born in India and traveled there fairly often, three or four times a decade. Four students were from the Far East: China, Japan, South Korea. Another student was of Greek heritage, one student was an adopted child, one student had lost a parent to cancer, one student was African American, one student was of Cuban heritage, and two other students spoke Spanish as their first language and still used it as the primary language of their household. I was born in Tanzania of Indian heritage, though Muslim. Twenty-four students were of white European heritage.
The students responded in personal ways to the practical experience of class, gender, race, personal inclination, memory, childhood, nostalgia, heritage, the lessons taught to us by our parents, our languages, our personal mythology. The students in general would discuss all of those topics, but only infrequently linger on the subject of race and class. Color did not often come up.
I think the reason for this quiet omission is a matter of statistics. There were more white European heritage students in the class and, in some way, they did not generally discuss their race, and therefore the subject of race, or color, because it was already a part of the fabric of our setting--the subject of their race or color was exempt by its obviousness, and by the unspoken codes in everything around us, at this private school, in this city, in this country. Whiteness, in the form of homogeneity, the dominant culture, was intuitively traded between them like a currency. They were able to trade in the aspects of their heritage without really mentioning them, because everything around us confirmed them. The privileged, or dominant culture was in fact their own, and all their semaphores accessed this with a kind of ease.
I'm not sure how the students of color or the students of difference felt, but I thought something was missing. When you are of color, or difference, this difference is a part of many of the things that you do, intuitively, in the dominant culture. You can trade your currency in the culture, but you cannot do it with ease. Instead, your transactions are tinged by difference.
I needed an ice-breaker, but had to accept a gradual process, often filled with failure. I needed to somehow aggravate the differences, to make them appreciate the differences. Our writing should polish our strangeness. Even for the students of white European heritage, so that they could also consider their position, I hoped that they would contemplate public issues such as race and class in the private expression of writing about themselves. Find the political in the private, since they are both the same thing anyway.
We received a motto for the class from Samuel Johnson: discordia concors , meaning concordant discord. Polishing strangeness.
This notion of polishing strangeness was brought to the class through a documentary of Diane Arbus, the American photographer who concentrated on images of prostitutes, vaudeville performers, transvestites, and the poor. She said that if you meet someone with two heads, then they know something you don't. For us in the class, it came to mean that our personal education necessarily features the ways we are different from others, and, therefore, the ways we contemplate the world.
Here is an example, an essay by senior Andi Pimental:
Dirt clung to the tip of his fingernails. His worn jeans, short, streaked with grass stains, exposed his bare ankles. Mud stained the once-white t-shirt sweated to his back. Tied to his neck by a skinny leather band, a small worn-out medal of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of all Mexicans, hung like a church bell.
Peeking through the half-open blinds, I slouched on the couch, chin rested between my hands. I silently observed. I had been watching the gardeners outside my best friend's house for fifteen minutes. Something peculiar about this man caught my attention: his face. He frowned in intent concentration, completely consumed by his work. Puckering his lips, he whistled to himself, but the leaf-blowers hushed his song.
Only a few weeks earlier had our family arrived to the U.S. Of our few ties to Mexico, one included watching the nightly newscast in Spanish. A popular topic (one I did not comprehend) discussed "illegal aliens." TV scenes depicted Mexican workers exactly like the one I observed now. Could this man be an illegal immigrant?
Mrs. McCall startled me from behind; she opened the shielding blinds in order to permit the morning light. To my dismay, my hiding wall disappeared -- I lost my invisibility. The movement caught the man's attention: he glanced in my direction; our eyes met. His manner changed instantly. His face ducked close to his shoulder, his arm muscles tensed as he pushed the lawn mower suddenly and with more force. I sat upright on the couch, its inviting cushions no longer comforting. I wanted to speak, to say something -- to clarify that I was like him, that he was my paisano ; we were immigrants from the same country -- but instead I remained a statue: mute and motionless and unheroic. He did not look in my direction again.
Ten minutes later, I watched as he stepped off the newly-cut lawn and signaled to the other men, "ya vamonos!" I understood every word. Turning, he walked languidly towards the house but I ran to the entrance, anxiously standing next to Mrs. McCall who answered the door. The man stood there, the end of his shirt wrapped around his dirty fingers. He said a mere two words, "Finished, sir." Mrs. McCall nodded, thanked him and the door was shut before I could say anything. Disappointed, I returned to the window and watched them load the gardening equipment into a beat up pick-up truck. I noticed an emblem of Our Lady of Guadalupe stuck to the rear glass. Stuck like the words caught in my throat.
Many times I had seen a gardener laboring in Mexico, but this experience was different. As I look back, I realize that my future holds answers to questions I didn't even ask at that young age. One day I hope to gain knowledge enough to answer these questions. Knowledge enough to move, to speak, to think, to help -- instead of standing immobile like I once did, holding the medal of Our Lady of Guadalupe always present around my neck.
I'm reminded of a line from Jean Genet's play THE BLACKS, which was a very early and interesting private and political call to arms: "Is true that all we have left is our sadness, and that now it has become one of our adornments?"
I think for Andi to feel that to truly trade in communication with the class, she needed to value the differences and to encounter the fact of her heritage and mother tongue. To truly trade in emotions with the other students she was going to have to include her personal history.
This brings me to another word very important to the class: witnessing. Philip Lopate quotes Jung as saying that we can spend a whole life discovering about ourselves what another person can see in a glance. To witness is to see yourselves in a glance from a third position, from a vantage. To look back at the semaphores in your life, especially the tiny ones, the minor earthquakes, and view them exhaustively.
I close with an essay by graduate Melissa Wong, titled "Little Happinesses."
Duffle bag and blanket in hand, I approach the door #M0I59, that piece of dark wood with a poster in the shape of a yellow star tacked to it that read MELISSA and an identical star that read MING.
Ming. She must be my roommate. Taking notice of the foreign first name, I wonder whether or not she is an American or an international student. I open the door and I notice she claimed the left side of the room, nearest to our only window; but I always slept on the left side of the room at home.
I dragged my bag, stuffed like Santa's red sack, along the off-white and shabby tiled floor and tossed my blanket on the empty bed - well, I guess I will take the right side of the room. But instead of unpacking my own belongings, my little happinesses, I found myself intrigued with my roommate's side of the room, her accessories, including framed scrolls of calligraphy. I looked around like a sightseer admiring artwork. The written character is its own piece of art. Intricate brush strokes collide with one another, flow with one another, mesh with one another. Yet sadly, I cannot read this language I recognize as Chinese, my native language, my mother tongue.
Unexpectedly, the sound of running water stole my attention. A few seconds pass: I stand still, the water turns off, and the door handle begins to turn. Out steps a girl who mirrors me physically. With steel black hair that grazes the top of her shoulders and with narrow eyes, she steps towards me with a greeting hand. She speaks confidently in Mandarin yet her body language is hesitant, hopeful that I will understand her.
Luckily I still remember some Mandarin from when I was younger; however, I fumble with the words in my mouth: "Hi, name is Melissa, Ming you?" For the first time I feel like an illfitting part, like an unmatchable puzzle piece.
My face turns warm like an electric stove quickly heating up and my pulse starts racing as if someone pressed a fast forward button in my heart - I hope she understands. Unable to communicate with someone who physically mirrors me, I suddenly realize the distance between myself and my own culture.
Fortunately, Ming understood my words. She draws me toward her bulletin board, points with her index finger, and my eyes follow until they meet a picture of her family. She starts speaking and I know intuitively the subject is her family. I hear the familiar words ma ma and ba ba in place of mother and father. I nod politely and pretend to understand her fluently.
Then while trawling through her desk drawer, as though searching for treasure, Ming uncovers another picture of her family. I look up and ask, "Grand Canyon?" Laughing, Ming exclaims, "Yes! Yes! Grand Canyon!" Relieved, I laugh along. With a little hesitation, she asks me in English, "You have family?" I reply with a simple, diffident, "Yes."
I make a polite hand sign: "Wait one moment." I rush over to my black duffle bag and rummage through my things, sifting through clothes and toiletries. Passed my sunless tanning cream, my flat iron, and my high school yearbook, I spot my photo album wedged into the corner of my bag. I lug out the tattered photo album filled with memories of close friends; yet I find none of my family.
Regret floods my mind. I stare at Ming's side of the room, beautifully decorated with the warm feeling of home. Surrounding her are the objects that keep her loved ones close. I envy her sense of family. As I look at Ming with all her paraphernalia, I realize that yes, pictures do tell stories, but so does my handmade blanket, now worn fragile by love. I approach Ming slowly. I show her the delicate blanket. She holds her arms out and lays the intricate cloth in her gentle arms. As she runs her fingers across the elaborate stitching, I catch her eye and say, Lau Lau - the Chinese words for grandmother.