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Break the silence or killed by it

Sherry's picture


In the article “Arts of the contact zone”, 1 the author, Mary Louise Pratt, provided her definition of the term “Autoethnography”: “people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them.”2 In order to set up this explanation, there needs to be at least two groups of people representing any kind of difference, and they then create a specific environment—contact zone. The two groups of people are in different levels, based on their different cultural or educational backgrounds, and sometimes, one group with more cultural or physical power than the other becomes the representative of the strong and another group represents the weak to some extent. Then, for the weak, in order to survive in this “contact zone”, usually involuntarily presents themselves from the dominant people’s perspective. In Pratt’s article “Arts of the contact zone”, an indigenous Andean named Guaman Poma wrote a twelve hundred paged letter to his king in two languages: Spanish and Quechua. He used Spanish as a “dominant” language to write Andean’s history, which could be regarded as showing Andean’s culture from Spanish’s view.

Even though Poma wrote that letter in two languages, people from both Andean and Spanish sides, that representing weak and strong, were not influenced much by the hope and endeavor Poma put into his letter. They did not care much about whether Poma used one language or two. Instead, they tended to think in a way that fitting themselves to satisfy the standard of the dominant culture was a matter of course, by showing the image demanded from the dominant culture. Maybe a dominant and subordinate relationship can be developed (Spanish and Andean), or perhaps they will just influence each other and have a mutual promotion. The situation can be varied depend on levels or even innate tendencies of different groups.

The story “Bloodchild3 is about a human adolescent male who lives on a planet which is the colony of Tlics (aliens). As two different kinds of creatures, humans are living under an absolute power from Tlics. The main character in this story, Gan, even after seeing the extremely disgusting picture of male’s child breeding, still accepts T’Gatoi (one of the aliens) to let him get “pregnant”. Despite the reversal of gender role in the story, Gan finally becomes obedient towards his fate even though he may had the opportunity to give up this “chance” to his sister. It is better to regard the fiction as a “love” story unless you will never feel good about the ending, since we cannot deny Gan may developed some feelings of dependency (like Stockholm syndrome) to T’Gatoi or just really fall in love with T’Gatoi in the end. But what besides the love bond between T’Gatoi and Gan that Gan finally compromises? What if in Gan’s deep heart he prefers to live in a way that T’ Gatoi expects? He has known he is weak and is too tired to rebel.

Actually Gan dose rebels once. He does makes a choice to react against his fate as a powerless creature in front of the absolute power. But he gives up, since he still wants his family to be safe and to avoid the life risk. Everyone would have a “peaceful” life if Gan just accepts his fate and acts as who he supposed to be as a powerless creature. Therefore, He loses part of himself, but that is also the life he chooses. The whole story is not witten by Gan but is from Gan’s view and it can also be regarded as an example of “autoethnography”, which is the in-dominant group representing themselves from what the dominant people have made for them. It seems Gan’s rebellion shares some same properties with Poma’s letter based on their hope to make some changes. However, Gan failed because he was so powerless to against the aliens, and Poma also failed because people’s tendency to follow the dominant culture as a absolute right main trend.

I have never written anything as a way to describe myself from other’s point of view, but I did experienced the kind of involuntary trend to present myself from other’s perspective that I supposed to be. “Chinese students don’t talk much during class.” I heard this comments many times by native students as I was in a summer session in an American college. I had predicted this phenomenon since even before I came to America the people in China believe Chinese students preferred to gather with Chinese and rarely spoke in front of Americans. And as I observed during the summer session I found that was true. As a bystander before I came here, I could not understand why this happened. However, after experienced several classes I was able to share the same feeling with other “quiet” Chinese. Were we supposed to be that way? Why we felt so uncomfortable when we tried to speak in front of others even though we were not a quiet student before? Was that because in our deep mind we just did not want to make a change since it was so uncomfortable and difficult that shared some similarities with Gan’s feeling? In order to protect ourselves in the safest way, we tried to represent ourselves from what other thinking of us into an environment which made us “periphery"—not so much Chinese but also not so much American. We did not want to lose ourselves but on the other hand, we lost ourselves in an irresistible way. And once this pattern of presenting ourselves had determined, it became very hard to change: we believed we were supposed to be quiet, and we became quiet. The less we speak, the more people from other cultures thought we were actually this kind of people. As more and more of them developed this perspective towards Chinese, we feel more uncomfortable to make a change, and the snowball effect occurred.

Standing on an in-dominant people’s point of view the “autoethnograhic” phenomenon looks very negative. Nevertheless, most of the reason is because people who are not on the dominant side are not active. It is somewhat reasonable for Gan to have a “happy” ending since there is a family bond or love story under the surface. Also, he really has no power to prove his “justice.” Poma indeed strived for a better relationship between Spanish and Andean but the reality was so tough based on people’s belief that dominant culture was right.

However, for those who do not want to strive for their value even if they can, it is their own fault but not the “contact zone.” Because in most cases, contact zone offers the weak side an opportunity as well as a challenge to break through the difficulties. For some people from the in-dominant group, contact zone is not a restriction for their development but rather indicates an idea of creating a format of combining two different cultures. Not all Chinese students were quiet during my summer session. There were some students who were brave to break people’s stereotype of students from other cultures and to form a new identity to be part of the dominant culture. That began to enjoy a lifestyle Americans have and discarded part of their old identity like their original names. Nevertheless, they did not abandon all as keeping their own national awareness and when other asked where they from, they would smiled proudly and said the name of their own country. Thus, once some people from the in-dominant group create new images of themselves to live in an environment that belong to others, as long as they enjoy the process, their image will never fade.