Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Motifs and Themes in Carlos Bulosan's Literary Works

carlos bulosanHere is an essay I wrote for an American literature course that utilizes some of the underlying issues and themes in some of Carlos Bulosan's works. Before reading this, I just wanted to point out that I have no problem with and I am personally not against those who go after the "American Dream." In fact, I very much appreciate the opportunities that the U.S. has given for so many individuals including myself, as well as the benefits and freedoms that abound. I certainly would not be the person I am today without America.  So, please just keep in mind that I had to write this essay on multiculturalism, cultural struggles, and Carlos Bulosan's works. I could have just as easily written an essay on the advantages of living in the U.S.  Regardless, this is still a strongly supported article; I just had to focus on one perspective.

Chasing Mythical Dreams: The Implausibility of a Culturally Cohesive America
Written by David Poarch
On 19 April 2009

The United States has long been known as the “melting pot” due to the continual influx and amalgamation of immigrants from all over the world who are attracted to the opportunities that abound in the “Land of the Free” and remain fixated on the shimmering “American Dream.” Ironically though, the nation’s nicknames suggest the total opposite of the numerous and ongoing problems caused by multiculturalism in America where all individuals are revered as “free” yet remain enchained to their race and heritage, which in effect prevents social blending and cultural assimilation from occurring. Like many immigrants, Filipinos blindly leave their homeland in search of greener pastures in the U.S., yet many depart relatively unaware of the unfavorable circumstances for communal cohesion in America and the psychological and sociological difficulties faced by transnational migrants, as exhibited in the literary works of Carlos Bulosan.

As with Carlos Bulosan, many Filipino-Americans come to the United States with an aching hunger not only to create a better life for themselves and their families but also to become an American. Since the American annexation of the Philippines in 1913, the American presence has undoubtedly left an indelible impact on the land, culture, government, language, and people of the Philippines. National hospitality has allowed the Americans, as well as other foreigners who are often given special treatment, to not only utilize the land for military occupation but to reside peacefully in the country, form businesses, and miscegenate with Filipino women. The congenial acceptance of foreigners in the Philippines resulted in an American cultural penetration that left behind American-based educational and governmental systems, the English language, and a large number of abandoned mestizos. Just as the Malay, Chinese, Spanish, and Japanese left their “seeds” to sprout and mold the Philippine culture into what it is today, so did the Americans. Due to such complaisant induction of American influence and continued strong government ties, the perception some Filipinos have of a similarly amiable or at least acquiescent reception in return upon migration to the U.S. is understandable, yet not necessarily realistic. In the semi-autobiographical novel “America is in the Heart,” Bulosan narrates some of the economic hardships and difficulties with assimilation encountered by Filipino immigrants in America. He recounts the toil spent in the canneries of Alaska and Seattle, where the fishing company pays him only $13 for a whole season of work. Then, unable to find work in Seattle, he begins his long and debilitating journey as a migrant farmhand, traveling in such states as California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Here, the places of work symbolize the financial and career constraints placed on many Filipino immigrants who have overseas, and thus undervalued, education. In combination with an individual nature that is humble and submissive plus a willingness to perform hard manual labor, the Filipino is an easy target to take advantage of. Furthermore, Bulosan recalls many cases of racial prejudice and violence throughout his narrative. For instance, in San Diego, where tries to get a job, he is repeatedly beaten up by restaurant and hotel proprietors and is refused service at a drugstore fountain. When the narrator and his friend Jose reach the town of Calipatria, California, they are told that “local whites [are] hunting Filipinos at night with shotguns” (Bulosan 144, “America is in the Heart”). In Holtville, the narrator sees a Filipino come into town with his American wife and their child. The white owner of a local restaurant refuses service and yells at the Filipino, “You goddam brown monkey have your nerve, marrying our women. Now get out of this town!” (Bulosan 144-145, “America is in the Heart”). Such violations of individual rights are illegal today, but racial violence, ethnic discrimination, and anti-miscegenation acts and/or sentiments continue. And though this may seem morally wrong, tense interracial group relations and the formation of encapsulated communities appear to be quite natural. A sociological study confirmed these two paradoxes of culture that are a result of transnational migration: [1] in settling down in a new country, transnational migrants typically separate themselves culturally and socially apart from the majority; [2] within these minority groups, culture can be seen as having a conflicting force that prevents social coalescing (Werbner 745). Thus, though the U.S. is commonly referred to as a melting pot nation—one that reputably holds a “promise that all immigrants can be transformed into Americans, a new alloy forged in a crucible of democracy, freedom and civic responsibility” (Booth A1)—communal cohesion and fluid assimilation within America remains implausible while greatly contrasting cultures and racial barriers exist that have not been eroded and permeated by time.

Also, just as the United States is known for being a so-called “melting pot,” it is also a nation touted as the “Land of the Free,” where human rights and individual freedoms are emphasized more than in any other country in the world. Yet, most colored immigrants remain helplessly enchained to their race and heritage, even after the legal benefits received from the civil rights movement and anti-discrimination laws. Growing up in predominantly black and white America, I was quite aware of the racial prejudice Filipinos endured had I not experienced them myself. Filipinos raised in the Philippines naturally had greater difficulty in adjusting in the U.S. as they were ridiculed primarily for their accent and/or poor English, while American-born Filipino-Americans who spoke English fluently were still viewed as “foreigners” in the eyes of many Americans due to their skin color, oriental facial features, and/or short stature. Moreover, in the event of perceived foreign threat such as after the September 11 terrorist attacks, racial discrimination becomes further amplified and total cultural assimilation and social cohesion is made further complex if not impossible. Filipino Muslims in particular, who constitute a significant portion of the Filipino-American population, have found increased difficulty in coalescing due to the crippled reputation Muslims now hold within American society after 9/11 and the occasional exposure of Filipino Muslim rebel groups such as the Abu Sayyaf in the media. In fact, experiments investigating individual endorsement of assimilation and multiculturalism following stimuli from foreign and domestic threats show that strong nationalism follows such stimuli among whites, who have a general preference for assimilation over multiculturalism, while minority groups have a general preference for multiculturalism over assimilation (Davies et al. 308). Furthermore, it was found that ethnic identity is positively related to national identity for white Americans and negatively related for minority groups (Davies et al. 308). This general intolerance of diversity among white Americans and enchainment of immigrants to their respective race and the rigid cultural barriers further solidify racial homogeneity and segregation in the U.S. However, although Filipinos who come to the United States often find themselves met with some degree of xenophobic treatment, many are actually self-alienated by their inherent attachment to their heritage and, oftentimes, their social class, whether real or perceived. Carlos Bulosan exemplifies this in “The End of the War,” where the relationship of two cousins in the same U.S. infantry camp, Private Fidel and Sergeant Tongkol, are rifted due to the rank promotion of Tongkol. Growing up together in the Philippines as best of friends and as equals, both in age and regard, the artificial superiority of Tongkol was hard for Fidel to accept. Such is the fissuring effect caused by an ingrained adherence to one’s home culture and a need/desire to participate in or become a part of one’s adopted culture. Hence, like the juxtaposition of the word “American” to ethnic minority group labels such as in “Filipino-American,” it is the meaning of the prefix in this hyphenation that one cannot forget nor get rid of, yet it is the embodiment of the suffix that they can never quite attain.

Still, despite the numerous setbacks, many a Filipino continue to vie for the American Dream. Disappointed by economic hardship in the Philippines and fixed on striking “gold” in the U.S., Filipinos are driven like fish to a luminescent “trap” with unrealistic expectations of easily making the conversion from “rags to riches.” Filipino immigrants many times find themselves working service-oriented if not menial jobs and are sometimes in lower social standing than they were in the Philippines. Despite the budding sensitivity to minority groups, historical trends and case studies show that efforts to bridge the gaps between social justice and multiculturalism have still been largely unsuccessful (Reisch 788). Thus, it does not take long to come to the realization of Filipino inferiority, whether extrinsically induced or mentally perceived, and white American hegemony in a nation where the predominantly white majority and higher classes obtain most of the white-collar jobs. Yet, once arriving in the U.S., it is too late to return for the majority of Filipinos who would rather save their pride than fly back to the Philippines empty-handed. Thus, many Filipinos persevere in the U.S. in hopes of amassing wealth, gaining upward mobility, becoming a citizen, and utilizing their freedoms in order to help their families, their community, and their nation. Carlos Bulosan illustrates this alteration of the American Dream into the Filipino Dream in “The End of the War” where Private Fidel’s dream of the Japanese’ surrender to the Filipino infantry is slightly molded into a differing yet unquestionably similar dream as it is passed from one soldier to another. Though each Filipino injects a bit of their own personal wants into the dream, in the end it remains a shared dream for the empowerment of the entire community and their motherland, not just for individual self-gratification. This key difference between the individualistic foundation of capitalist America and the close-knit community orientation of the Philippines that Filipinos remain unaware of reflects their lack of appreciation for their own country as well as their naivety and general ignorance of American life, society, and culture that leads many to cross the Pacific and perhaps distance themselves even more from the essence of the American Dream—individual happiness and success—which may not actually lie in the United States but in their homeland.

Though the U.S. continues to be the assembling point for aspiring immigrants such as Filipinos in search of greater opportunity, it lacks a unified string that threads its constituents, and thus the nation, together. In reality, America is a land of capitalization and exploitation, where the country uses and gets used. This claim is best exemplified by the nation’s own citizenship process. Packaged with several years’ wait yet easily passed by a few days of memorization, the examination to become an American citizen neither tests true understanding of what it means to be an American nor does it help in cultural assimilation. This disconnection is well-illustrated in Carlos Bulosan’s “The End of the War,” where Mess Sergeant Ponso says:

“‘Maybe it is not much I make, but I got the beautiful Ford from Detroit. When I come home at night from work, I ride it to town, pressing the horn and whistling. I ride and ride and I am happy. In the bank I got money—maybe not much, but it is my money. When I see the flag, I take the hat off and I say, ‘Thank you very much!’ I like the color of the flag and I work hard.’”

The description of America may seem a bit shallow, but I find the statements quite concise and just—more just than the United States Congress’ decision in 1946 to pass the Rescission Act which stripped Filipinos who served during WWII of their promised full benefits to enlist. More than 60 years after breaking their promise to the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who fought and risked their lives for the United States during World War II, the U.S. government will soon be sending out checks to the few that are still alive—$15,000 to U.S. citizens and $9,000 to non-citizens. Thus, until the nation as a whole can comprehend that their existence was formed and remains bounded by like-minded immigrants, the United States will continue to only exist as a divisible network of predatory organizations and groups preying on each other, only to emanate a sense of false unity, fallacious freedoms, and fictitious dreams.

Works Cited

Booth, William. "One Nation, Indivisible: Is It History?" Washington Post 22 Feb. 1998: A1.

Bulosan, Carlos. America Is in the Heart A Personal History (Washington Paperbacks,
Wp-68). New York: University of Washington P, 1974.

Bulosan, Carlos. “The End of the War.” The Bedford Anthology of American
Literature. Vol. 2. Ed. Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. Boston: Bedford/Saint Martin's, 2008: 1032-1035.

Davies, Paul G., Claude M. Steele, and Hazel R. Markus. "A Nation Challenged:
The Impact of Foreign Threat on America's Tolerance for Diversity." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95 (2008): 308-18.

Reisch, Michael. "From Melting Pot to Multiculturalism: The Impact of Racial and
Ethnic Diversity on Social Work and Social Justice in the USA." The British Journal of Social Work 38 (2008): 788-804.

Werbner, Pnina. "The Translocation of Culture: 'Community Cohesion' and the
Force of Multiculturalism in History." The Sociological Review 53: 745-68.


Eric said...

I just wanna thank you for posting Bulosan's writing...
Going to USA has been a childhood dream for me especially that I am started to save for my fare and the processing of my papers.However, when you posted the writings of Bulosan, my desire melted just as the world stops to revolve around me.
I grew up in Olongapo city and the former US Naval Base was just a little America for me.I never had any tenacious desire in life but to be in USA.
I am trying to encourage myself to see the brighter side of life which many of my kins and friends are enjoying the opportunities that America has to offer.
I guess, discrimination in USA right now is no longer as rampant as I am expected.
would you discourage or suggests every Filipinos to stop dreaming of America?

SuperSawsaw said...

David, this is a very well written essay and everything you say is true. However, it must be noted that this mentality is not just happening in the Philippines but in most developing countries. Heck, even citizens of Singapore want to migrate in the U.S. in some point in time.

It will take at another generation to realize that success and happiness does not equal to immigrating to the U.S.

@eric, if you ask me, I suggest that we stop dreaming of America. I think the problem with us, Filipinos who are still here in the Philippines, is that we automatically think that "individual happiness and success" can only be found in the U.S. or elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

of course there would be challenges moving to another country, but no other country on Earth benefited and gave back to immigrants than the United States. There is a large majority of European-Americans 65%, but you don't have to be white to be "American". I am a Filipino-American, but that does not make me Half American, I am a full American. "American" is not a race, it is a nationality and cultural identity. I could not care less how some white-Americans think of what is or is not American, the only definition that matters is your own. If you believe in the ideals of America, freedom of choice, freedom of speech, and the right to take your destiny in to your own hands then you are American. Some Whites don't even think they're Americans. There are secessionists elements in the South, Texas, and Alaska. Try immigrating to Japan, or Dubai, you will never become a citizen of those countries. America has been the most welcoming country to immigrants, more than any country in history. There are some issues to be resolved, but America has managed to reinvent itself countless times and bring the change that is needed. It is still the beacon of hope around the world. The world is a better place because of America. It will take time before American society will become "cohesive" as Bulosan would have wanted. Here in California 55% of the population were born somewhere else. China has been unified for 2,300 years, and yet there are still remnants of ethnic minorities. Maybe one day when the entire United States becomes more like the North East or California, then it would be easier for new immigrants.

Anonymous said...

eric, never stop dreaming,
but also know that it will not be easy, prejudice is not gone and it will be something that you will unfortunately have to deal with your entire life, but luckily you will not be shot for no reason, turned away from "white only" restaurants, or ignored by the law, and there is always forward progress, i hope that you are able to make it here and be a proponent of even more socio-economic equality for all.

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