Americanisation in Jasmine

Sociologist Ramanju Ganguly proposed that the term globalisation is derived from ‘global’, meaning “quantification of all spheres of life; removal of cultural differences through homogenization of markets; and the removal of local identities.” Globalization is a recent phenomenon, “coined as early as 1959, although its popularity gained momentum in only about 1985…In 1961 Webster became the first major dictionary to offer definitions of globalism and globalisation.” This neutralization of local cultures as part of globalisation closely corresponds to Americanization, where the globalised American identity takes place of local cultures in an “adapted transfer of values, behaviour, institutions, technologies, patterns of organization, symbols and norms from the USA.” World literature provides an insight into cultural globalization, specifically notions of Americanization. The portrayal of Americanization and American identity in the fourth chapter of Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine is negatively depicted through the non-American characters’ departure from their original heritage and an Americanized opposition to all that is deemed as ‘foreign’. The cultural divide is represented both physically and symbolically by the concept of the border and its policing.

The first demonstration of Americanization in chapter four is identified in the characters’ rejection of baggage associated with their ethnicities. Mukherjee is critical of the manifestations of Americanization experienced by Jane and Du. She highlights the way in which immigrants are expected to forget their cultural heritage, rejecting old traditions in favour of conformation to American culture. The notion of “quick study” is defined as the swift rejection of traditions and principles and “hurry” to become “all-American”. Jane understands and sympathises with the process of discarding cultural identity, “Once we start letting go — let go of one thing, like not wearing our normal clothes anymore, or a turban or not wearing a tika on our forehead — the rest goes on its own down a sinkhole.” Here, the hyphens represent the act of distancing the self from tradition. Despite defending his actions and sympathising with the pressure to lose binds to past identities, Jane acknowledges that her adopted son Du is in fact a ‘quick study’, recalling that Du removed his shrine to his birthplace, Vietnam and recalling Du’s adoption of American materialism, “What he owns seems to matter less to him than owning itself. Owning is rebellion, it means not sharing, it means survival.” Here, Du is not only rejecting the socialist values of his home country, but also being the adoptor of objects around him rather accepting his role as the adopted minor.

While Jasmine is sympathetic to ‘quick studies’ in the extract, those who attempt to feign a false and hurried impression of Americanness, later in the novel, she criticises the Asian community in New York as sustaining “artificially maintained Indianness”. She disapproves of their amplified national identities, while ignoring the artificiality of her own. The Americanization of Jasmine is indicated by Bud’s changing of her name to Jane,“Bud calls me Jane. Me Bud, you Jane.” The monosyllabic simplification of Jasmine’s name to match her husband Bud embodies her desire to be uniform, default and free from the “genuine foreignness [that] frightens” her and Bud. (While Du has a Vietnamese name, it is important to note its similar monosyllabic quality, as it also resembles short and snappy American-sounding name.)

The concept of racialization is defined by the anthropologist Julianne Jennings as “the social and historical process of assigning individuals and groups a racial identity and social status, and places them into positions of superior and inferior types”. By renaming and Americanizing Jasmine, Bud implicitly racializes his own culture above Jasmine’s Indian background. Its cultural references are described when Jasmine explains, “Jane as in Jane Russell, not Jane as in Plain Jane. But Plain Jane is all I want to be.” Jasmine seeks to be small, plain and unthreatening in order to escape the bounds of Indian stereotyping, and sees Americanization as a means of becoming palatable to herself and those around her. Discussion of race and identity is written in simplistic, fragmented sentences “In Baden, I am Jane. Almost.” Syntactically, it counters the fluidity of expression that lends itself to myth of freedom and mobility, that any person can go to America and assimilate and self-actualise, creating an smooth and easy identity. In the face of finding oneself in an American environment, individual identities become confused and fragmented but redefining the self can be an act of violence, “there are no harmless, compassionate ways to remake oneself. We murder who we were so we can remake ourselves in the images of dreams.” Despite evidently criticising Bud’s racialization of American over Indian culture, it could be argued that the novel is guilty of the same crime. James Annesley critiques the novel for its “equation between Americanization and globalization”; the assumption is that America is not only an escape route from archaic and oppressive traditions, but also as the natural end-result of all non-industrialised societies on the planet. For example, its assumption suggests America as the superior over seemingly less-developed countries such as India. Critic Susan Koshy notes that the text “attest[s] to the oppressiveness of India and the liberatory appeal of America.” It seemingly criticises America’s racism and assumption of superiority whilst implicitly suggesting it is the end-goal of all societies.

Another key concept in the text is borders and border control. Indian-American Jasmine’s narrative offers a brutal representation of immigration control from her simultaneous insider (somewhat Americanized) and outsider (Indian) perspective, highlighting the dehumanisation of immigrants. The Mexican men are degraded and referred to using pronouns such as “them”, “two” or “ones”. Humans are compared to animals, “The border’s like Swiss cheese and all the mice are squirming through the holes.” Verbs such as “scampered” and “squirmed” reduce the men to vermin. Du and Jasmine’s emotional distance from the immigrants suggests how Americanization can allow people to believe that they are the majority and turn against other minorities.

Reflecting the brutalising effects of the American media, the perspective of the camera, rather than the characters is used to perceive the violence, “The camera caught one Mexican throwing up”. This distances Du and Jane from the humanity and relatability of the situation. The verb “caught” implicates the Mexican in the ‘crime’ of being an immigrant, while using a passive voice to lessen the reality that the man was so fearful he vomited on himself. The malice of the guards is also underplayed, “The INS fellow wouldn’t uncuff him for long enough to wipe the muck off his face,” suggesting that forcing the man to leave vomit on his face was not a deliberate act but a practical issue. Here, Mukherjee makes the guards seems more affable by calling them “fellows” and reduces perceived responsibility over their actions. The vomit on their faces symbolically marks the Mexicans as different, lesser or disgusting. Rather than reinforcing this racist ideal, Mukherjee puts the reader into the Americanized perspective of relating to the American and numbing the sympathy with the oppressed minority. The public perception of the cultural Other reflects a dark perspective on the American identity. The border is both a physical and ideological boundary. It provides a standpoint from which to judge difference, a barrier between Americanness and Otherness. The “woman in flowered dress” embodies the judgmental public, confused about “what to feel” about Mexicans and unsure on whom or what to blame her husband’s job loss and late “car payments”. Her floral dress recalls connotations of ‘rosy’, white and privileged Middle America. Symbolically, the woman embodies a culture of confusion and scapegoating, where a lack of satisfaction breeds xenophobia. This attitude is evidenced in a 2012 poll by the National Hispanic Media Coalition found that almost a third of non-Hispanics in the U.S. believe that a majority of Hispanic people in America are “undocumented aliens.” Such ignorance shows that cultural difference sparks an instability in American identity, and a view of non-Americans as inherently ineligible and unwelcome in the U.S. Unfortunately, Du is exposed to racism through the media and subsequently also adopts an attitude of hostility to the foreign as means of feeling American.

The perspective of both Du and Jane illuminates their perception on what it is to be American, or Americanized. Du feels confusion towards the immigrants that aligns itself with the dominant ignorant body, represented by the interviewed woman. Similarly, Du distances himself from Jasmine, his adopted mother by sneering at her assumed lack of American knowledge, “Speak softly and carry a big stick. I bet that’s all you know about Teddy Roosevelt.” This suggests that Du’s Americanization is constructed in his lack of empathy, even indifference or resentment to the non-American outsider. He resists empathy or identification with the Mexicans by remaining deliberately detached and showing little emotion. Its intentional and consideration nature is emphasised when Jasmine notes, “he is very careful about that.” Du consciously establishes his Americanized identity through ridiculing or rejecting all that he deems foreign, in order to forget that he has more in common with the oppressed than the oppressor. Jasmine remembers that “Du and me, we’re the ones who didn’t get caught” as they were also illegal immigrants.

Conversely, the television scene reminds the reader that despite Jasmine’s apparent victimhood, she is often the privileged overseer. Jasmine’s own migration experience is relatively unhindered, perhaps because she is shrouded in American exceptionalism and somehow outside and different from foreignness. Although Indian, Jasmine follows the established archetype of much American fiction. Her uncertainty surrounding about who the cowboy or Indian is reflects the contradiction in her own character, perhaps embodying the conflict within the whole book, Jasmine is literally Indian but behaves much like a cowboy. While the extract is seemingly critical of Americanization, placing the chapter within the context of the rest of the book is vital in maintaining a holistic and fair viewpoint. For instance Du’s Americanized fixation with consumerism reflects Jasmine’s own attitude of being “greedy with wants”: Her travels follow the mythological “cowboy” travelling Westward across America, and in the conclusion of the novel she follows the individualist ideology and chooses to abandon her disabled husband Bud in financial difficulty in order to find her true self. This plot trajectory is at odds with the critical message of this particular chapter.

In conclusion, the extract embodies the confusion and contradiction of Jasmine as a global text. It at once criticises and contradicts itself, misunderstanding what it means to be American, or portraying misunderstood notions of Americanization. Acknowledging the placement of this extract within the framework of the whole novel identifies more criticisms and more hypocrisies. Many parts of the text are contradictory, for example it depicts the brutal treatment of the immigrants through the detached perspective of the television, seemingly criticising the border system, whilst also implying American superiority and exceptionalism. Jasmine sees herself as an outsider and victim of her circumstance, and yet adopts negative aspects Americanization and individualism when she abandons her disabled husband. In many ways, Jasmine is guilty of its own criticisms. However, these contradictions do not discredit the novel as a whole, but reflect society’s conflicting attitudes surrounding Americanization and American identity.