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What do I care about?

melal's picture

At the end of our class on last Thursday, Anne asked if we cared about the characters in the book. Acutually this is also my question. I felt that we put our focus mainly on the language during our class discussion, reading this book as a ‘textbook’ for an English course, trying to get something out of the writing style. Did we really ‘taste’ its taste? Or we just ‘analyzed’ its taste? To tell the truth, reading by only paying attention to the language itself seems a ‘cold’ way of reading for me. Analyzing the writing style of a book is definitely an important part of reading experience, but language, no matter how beautiful it is, is used to express people’s emotions.

Binh, not fluent in French, not upper class, not well educated, is a Vietnamese exile. He is the colonized in the land of the colonizer–an outsider in a way that Stein and Toklas can never quite understand. In Paris, Binh’s identity is reduced to his skin:

“(My body) marks me, announces my weakness, displays it as yellow skin… Foreigner, asiatique, and, this being Mother France, I must be Indochinese. Every day when I walk the streets of this city, I am just that. I am an Indochinese laborer, generalized and indiscriminate, easily spotted and readily identifiable all the same. It is this curious mixture of careless disregard and notoriety that makes me long to take my body into a busy Saigon marketplace and lose it in the crush. There, I tell myself, I was just a man, anonymous, and, at a passing glance, a student, a gardener, a poet, a chef, a prince, a porter, a doctor, a scholar. But in Vietnam, I tell myself, I was above all just a man." (p152)

He knows doesn’t belong to Paris, neither his home country Vietnam. It is easy to connect his situation with mine. We are both in a foreign country, both need to make a choice of staying or leaving, both face the dangers of losing identities…I care about Binh, because I feel his story relates to mine. This reminded me of my past reading experiences. Sometimes when we are really ‘into’ a book or like a certain character, it is likely because we can see ourselves in it. We care about these characters, we cry for their misfortunes, we laugh for their success, since their past reflects our past, their future implicates our future. We always interpret a work, whatever a book, music, a movie, by injecting our experience into it. I think that explains again why it is so difficult to explain or describe something to a person who does not have any concept of the object, for example salt, only by using language.