Cultural Identity Crisis

identiyThe Namesake Chapters 1-4


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My 13 year old self, wearing Algerian clothes at my school’s multicultural show.

As a first-generation immigrant – moving from my homeland Algeria at the young age of 4 – I have lived most of the life I remember in a country whose culture was foreign to me. Growing up, I would struggle to find a middle-ground between my Algerian and newly-Canadian roots. On saturday mornings, I would attend language school and learn how to speak, write, and read in my mother tongue. I would celebrate events like the Algerian New Year and the Arab Spring (…not the revolutionary war in the middle-east, but the start of the season of spring in arab countries). While trying to keep in touch with my roots, I would also be exposed to the canadian culture that would soon shape my identity. I learned French at the age of 4, and English at the age of 11, then spanish at 15. I started celebrating holidays like Halloween, Christmas, “American” New Year’s, and even Easter! It had never occurred to me that growing up in a different environment would change my identity so much until I made my first trip back to my homeland. My family members were baffled at the clothes I wore (too short, in their opinion) and in awe when I told them I celebrated Christmas, a holiday that was only seen in American movies. I then began to see the differences that distinguished me apart from my algerian relatives, but also my canadian entourage. I began to feel like I didn’t fully belong in one group, and that only parts of my identity would exist in either cultures.

 

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In the novel, The Namesake, the Ganguli family all experience internal conflicts that leads them
to through their own cultural identity crisis. As the Bengali couple, Ashima and Ashoke, move to America, they struggle to adjust to the American Life while preserving their Bengali culture. This struggle is enhanced once they have son, Gogol and daughter, Sonia, as their children are born in the United State – a country with limited resources to expose their children to their Bengali Heritage.

 

In the first few chapters of the book, while Gogol and Sonia are in their early years of life, their parents attempt to connect them to their culture through bengali rites of passages. Both children are spoken to in Bengali and are hosted a rice ceremony. Their efforts to maintain their heritage is heavily affected by their American environment from the moment their first child is born. When Ashima is holding Gogol shortly after giving birth, she thinks to herself,

“Without a single grandparent or parent or uncle or aunt at her side, the baby’s birth […] feels somewhat haphazard. […] As she strokes and suckles and studies her son, she can’t help but pity him.” (Lahiri, 24-25)

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The celebration Ashima was hoping to have after labour, with all of her family members.

 

Gogol was just born into this world, and already, his mother is struggling to preserve his roots. She realizes how different her son’s life will be compared to her’s, and accepts that through his childhood, he will be shaped by the American life. This realization surfaces during Gogol’s rice ceremony, and again on his first day of school, but becomes apparent during Gogol’s fourteenth birthday. To begin with, during the rice ceremony, Ashima and Ashoke

“ask Dilip Nandi to play the part of Ashima’s brother, to hold the child and feed him rice.” (Lahiri, 39)

Dilip is neither part of Ashima or Ashoke’s family, but since their relatives live so far away, they have no choice but to ask a friend to hold the ceremony with them. This situation furthers the theme of cultural identity crisis as Ashima has to find a way to host a bengali ritual in an environment where caucasian was the dominant culture. She was able to find a Bengali American, but he still doesn’t compare to her real brother being there. 

To see an example of a traditional Bengali rice ceremony, click me!

Furthermore, we see the parents’ struggle to maintain their kid’s heritage as they grow older once Gogol begins attending elementary school. In the Bengali culture, individuals get two names. Their pet name is the one they are called by close family members and at home, while their good name – the official name on legal documents – is used in the public and professional world. As Gogol’s childhood is only filled with memories of being addressed by that name, he struggles to understand why it is important for him to go by a different name when not at home. He opposes the Bengali culture for the first time in his life when he gets to school in the following excerpt,

“And what about you Gogol? Do you want to be called by another name?” [the principal asks]
After a pause, he shakes his head.
“Is that a no?”
He nods. “Yes.” “ (Lahiri 59)

It is the beginning of Gogol’s cultural identity crisis as he is old enough to distinguish between both cultures, and begins to deviate away from the Bengali and more towards the American one. His parents’ wish to preserve the Bengali norms, but decide to let Gogol ‘win this battle’. Their internal conflict begins as they realize that preserving his roots would be harder than they’d believe. Finally, the distinction between Gogol’s identity and the one his parents want for him are evident during his fourteenth birthday. The contrast between the parties helps demonstrate the cultural shift that Gogol has experience throughout his childhood and into his teenage years. The birthday party Gogol wanted was described with

“His own friends from school […] pizzas [..], a baseball game watched together on television, some Ping-Pong in the den” (Lahiri 72)

While the party his parents threw for him consisted of

“Women […] in saris. […] A group of men [sitting] in a circle on the floor immediately [starting] a game of poker.” (Lahiri 73)

….as well as a LOT of food. Through these two parties, we can see the contradictory points of views of Gogol and his parents. Gogol, who has now been fully americanized, seems to only enjoy the party thrown with his friends as well as identify more with the american side of his identity. Gogol’s continuous preference towards his american roots create an internal conflict for his parents as they strife to preserve his Bengali heritage. They value and prioritize the Bengali culture, and in accordance respond to his birthday by hosting a Bengali party. However, Gogol does not enjoy the party thrown for him by his parents, furthering him away his cultural heritage.

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Gogol’s image of a birthday celebration
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Ashima and Ashoke’s idea of a birthday celebration

As can be seen in the pictures above, the two teams have very opposing views on the same idea.

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These first few chapters end with Gogol coming to terms with his identity and choosing to engage in a lifestyle that fits the american norms and standards, displaying a level of inadequacy in his parents’ continuous attempts at shifting him towards accepting his Bengali roots. However, his parents’ cultural identity crisis is not resolved, as they have complied to the american life to make their children happy, while they themselves don’t believe in those values. Just like Gogol, by living and being affected by my Canadian environment, I have grown to accept the western world’s norms and values and appropriating them to myself. Although I am still proud of my Algerian roots, I understand that most of my identity is shaped by my life as a Canadian. Unlike Gogol, I will continue to make efforts to preserve the Algerian heritage that has been passed onto me. However, I understand his struggle to live life through two different cultures, as if I were living through two different identities, or owning two pairs of lenses…

Bibliography

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13 thoughts on “Cultural Identity Crisis

  1. I have a similar experience as you. I remember going to Sunday school to learn how to read and write in my mother tongue; even now I can only speak fluently, and read and write basic things. It’s hard to preserve a culture in a country where things are so different. But it’s great that in Canada others value different cultures, and “Canadian” culture is really just a mix of the best of every international culture.

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    1. Hi Jessica!

      Thank you for your insight, I completely agree. I believe a country this diverse has helped preserve my cultural identity as there are many opportunities present for me to be in touch with my roots.

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  2. This is really well constructed and analyzed. WELL DONE!
    I have a question. When you make a connection to yourself with Gogol having 2 identities, did u also have the traditional 2 parties similar like Gogol’s culture? OR Was it’s just 1 party for everyone you knew/wanted?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Andy,

      Thank you for your positive feedback, it is much appreciated! As a child, I would have a birthday party that was a mix of both. I would be allowed to invite my friends from school and my mother invited our relatives. I would wear traditional Algerian clothes as I was the birthday girl but I would be the only one. As for the party in itself, it would be celebrated the Canadian way: cake, presents, games, etc.

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  3. I found this post relatable to the lifestyle of most children of immigrant parents especially the part about going to Saturday school to learn your cultures language. I still remember waking up early to learn how to read, write and speak my native language. I also found the part about you visiting your family back in Algeria and them seeing you in a different light quite insightful. I have a question how ever if you were to go back more recently to Algeria would they still question you for the style you have adopted from Canada or would they be less surprised?

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    1. Hi Sy!

      They have started to get more accustomed to my ‘different’ behaviour but they are still very much so surprised. However, I am more ready now as I am older and understand the different norms in that country. I know not to pack any revealing clothes anymore because I know that it will stir controversy with my family. However, there are things I cannot escape. I am not a Muslim, but most of my family is. My uncle on my mom’s side is heavily religious and gets angry at my mom every summer we go to Algeria because I do not celebrate Ramadan, and do not fast. So it’s still 50/50!

      Thank you for your comment.

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  4. Hey Lisa,
    This was a very well done blog, 10/10. It was interesting to read about how your family have looked at you differently for the certain habits you’ve inherited as a Canadian teen like dressing differently and going out at night, kind of like how Gogol drinks (like american teens do) to rebel against his culture. As for me, the only ways I rebel against being a newfie would probably be that I don’t enjoy fishing as much as I should, and I don’t drink LOL. I’m curious, you say that you will continue to preserve your Algerian heritage and I believe that is a great idea. So if you were to start a family in the future and have kids, and these kids were to follow similar habits that you have now, like dressing differently than how your family believes you should, would you react the same way your family did to you? Would you look down on them for going against your culture, or would you have a different approach? Thanks, and very well done ^^
    ~Marcus

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    1. Hi Marcus,

      Thank you for the positive feedback, I really appreciate it! That question has actually been a huge debate in my family. I would raise them through Canadian norms as that is the culture I identify more with in terms of lifestyle. My parents have also adhered to that lifestyle when they moved here and except that of me. It will be less surprising for my family as they know that I already have these habits, therefore I will probably pass them onto my children. There have been other arguments as to how I would raise my kids culturally as well. As we like in a such a diverse country, odds are I will marry a non-Algerian man. In this case, we will have to choose what norms from all three cultures we want to bestow upon our children!

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  5. Your connections to the story are quite interesting, and lead me to second guess my initial impressions of the book. I thought that the novel was quite bad to be honest, with very limited flow and a horribly realistic plot to be considered a fiction, and I pretty much couldn’t figure out who this book would actually appeal to. After reading your post as well as those of some other foreign students, I understand more who the target audience is: foreign individuals adapting to a different culture’s customs. That being said, even though I now realize that relating to the book is probably its main selling point, I think its still fundamentally broken and lacking of many aspects that make books actually good.

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    1. Hi William,

      I’m glad that my blog post, amongst others, has enlightened you on a different side of the story. While I agree with you that the book may be lacking some content, I believe that is due to two reasons. First of all, it has only been 4 chapters! The introductory chapters of most books start out very slow because the author wants us to know the characters so we can understand their motives for their future actions. If you hadn’t been confined to only reading and stopping after the first four, you might think otherwise! Secondly, I agree that it should not be considered a fictional book, but I believe that it is still a great book to foreigners as this is the first time in my 16 years of life that I was able to completely relate to the book in all it’s aspect: characters, plot, settings, etc. It might be the reason for my bias, but I found the story to be interesting as I could really understand the feelings of the characters.

      I hope you grow to love this book as much as I do over the course of your reading! 🙂

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  6. Hey Lisa! I loved your connections back to the story, very interesting! Would you consider Algeria a home just like Canada or have you drifted and really only see Canada as your home? I’m surprised to hear how strict your uncle is after all these years. Do all your aunts and uncles still live in Algeria? If they do would you still go back as frequently as you do now to visit when you’re older?

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    1. Hi Christina 🙂

      After many years, I have come to consider only Canada as my home. I love traveling to Algeria, but I always feel like a tourist there. My norms and values are so different from the ones back in my homeland that I don’t feel like I comptent belong there. Most of my family lives in Algeria but I have some family in France and Belgium! I usually visit every 2-3 years now but as I grow older and move out of the house, I might not be able to visit until I am financially stable. I might have to wait until I am out of university as my parents will not be paying for my flight if I move out. However, once I live a financially independent life, my goal is to be able to visit Algeria annually.
      Lisa

      Liked by 1 person

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