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Social Chameleons

Leigh Alexander's picture

People at birth are given a name.   It is this name that follows us through our lives, and gains meaning to those around us as we develop who we ourselves are.  Yet, as we struggle through the process of growth and reform, the gaining of knowledge and the loss of innocence, our names become more pliable to the world around us.  Just as we become more able to define ourselves, as we open our view of the environment we are a member of, we become more aware of the roles we should be playing, and the environment has the ability to pressure our identities to shift accordingly. In Ruth Ozeki’s novel, All Over Creation, her pseudo-heroine, Yumi or Yummy, is aware of the delicate balance between her identity and the environment she is currently occupying.  Ozeki makes this relationship clear through the many shifts of names that both Yumi and her family members undergo. And although Yumi assumes many roles over the course of the novel, and shifts names

            Yumi, given that name at birth, was given “Yummy” as a new identity, as a product of her environment.  Though her actual name was “Yumi” according to her, “…nobody…could say it right,” (Ozeki 5).  As a result, her name became aligned with a jingle that went “Yummy, yummy, yummy, I got love in my tummy,” (Ozeki 5).  It’s clear to the reader that this caused frustration for Yumi given the fact that, when her high school teacher/lover Elliot mispronounces her name multiple times she retorts back, “If you can’t pronounce it right, don’t say it at all,” (Ozeki 27).  In this way, her home life in Liberty Falls, Idaho becomes a place where her identity is misconstrued by her community members’ misunderstanding of her. In the same way that Yumi’s name is warped, so is the town’s perception of her, as an accused “bad seed” and a “little whore” (Ozeki 201-2).

            Yet, Yumi accepts “Yummy” as her name, giving her real estate site the name “Yummy Acres” rather than making use of her given name (Ozeki 32).  Yumi’s use of her pseudo-nickname “Yummy” in her business suggests the whimsical, childlike, or impulsive character of the real estate business, which, given the fact that it was run by her and one of the fathers of her children, whom she describes as someone who drives her “crazy, totally lolo,” and is “a ukulele player when he feels like it,” seems to make sense (Ozeki 128). In Yumi’s teaching career however, she uses her given name Yumi, which suggests her ability to remain true to herself  (or to the name her parents gave her?) when she acts independently, and in a situation of  power, like a professor, rather than a partner. This suggests that Yumi has not only accepted the idea her identity, like her name, will become misconstrued by those who share her environment, but also shows that she also has enough strength to not let others’ misconceptions affect her personal understanding of herself.  

            That being said it is clear that Yumi is aware of the proper names to be used in certain enviornments.  In such a way, she seems to let her identity, in the form of a role rather than personality, shift given the situation she finds herself in. For example, when she returns with her children to Idaho, she says to her son: “Phoenix, remember what I told you.  This is Idaho.  Call me Mommy and stop swearing or the townsfolk will lynch you,” (Ozeki 61).  Here, it is clear that although Yumi’s identity has switched in name from “Yummy” to “Mommy,” Yumi is acting far from parental.  This suggests that although Yumi sees the necessity of shifting surface appearances of herself and her children given their social situation, is comfortable enough with herself to not make an internal shift in her personality.  In this way, Yumi becomes a social chameleon, shifting names instead of colors, but always remaining true to herself. 

            This is also true for Yumi’s understanding of other characters.  Like Yumi tells her children to call her Mommy while they are in Idaho, she also tells her children to call her father “Grandpa” rather than “Tutu Lloyd,” (Ozeki 72). Here Yumi does not deny the fact that this man is the same man whom she had spoken about casually, but she still is aware of the necessity of addressing him in a more socially respectable manner than she would have in the casual environment of her home, which asserts her respect for social politeness.

            Likewise, Ozeki’s other characters also shift the name they use in various environments, in order to fit certain situations.  A character who goes by the name “Y” comments that Yumi’s father is allowed to call him “Melvin” because “…he’s an elder” (Ozeki 144).  In this way, Y is yet another example of a character that is seemingly able to adapt his identity to fit his situation. He knew that the only way to win the respect of Lloyd was to make sure things were done in a way Lloyd would deem acceptable, and after Lloyd’s coy questioning of “What kind of name” Y  was, Y knew better than to continue representing himself through a name that was so distant from the type of name Lloyd was used to.  In this way, Y altered his presentation of his identity outwardly to appeal to his social situation, without consciously changing his objective of winning the respect of Lloyd.

            In summary, throughout her novel, Ozeki makes use of the transitions or shifts in her character’s names in order to establish a shift in their personal goals or audience, or, rather, Ozeki shifts her characters’ identities, with respect to their names, based on the environment they are situated in, creating multi-faceted, realistic characters that are far more believable to the reader.


*Stronger ll btwn name and identity is needed here.


Anne Dalke's picture

Leigh Alexander--

So I’m really liking your decision to locate this project @ the level of the word. Your attention to the minutae of Yumi’s naming and re-naming, pronouncing and mis-pronoucing, construing and mis-construing, is fine-tuned (“Yummy Acres,” vs. “Yumi” the adjunct professor, vs. “Mommy” in Idaho…) And this level of detail raises a series of good, linked questions: What do names mean? How much do they reflect “the real me”? How much are they social constructions? And what is the relationship between the two?  Or: how much might social constructions influence who-and-what the “real me” is-and-does?

In your words, how much is Yumi’s “identity” a “role” rather than a “personality”?  How much does it “shift given the situation she finds herself in”? And how much might these “shifting surfaces” be reflected internally? Does identity alter, based on adjustments we make to new environments? What actually happens to the “true self” when characters like Yumi and Y “outwardly” alter their self presentations to better fit a social situation?

“Social chameleon” is an evocative term to describe this process…and yet, I wonder: to what degree are humans chameleons, just altering surfaces to blend in with our surroundings, and to what degree do such changes alter what’s beneath? You speak of Yumi as a “pseudo-heroine” (pregnant phrase, that!—I’d like to hear more why you use that term….), and yet you also speak of her “true self.” What is that? Some identity beyond all social engagements, all environmental factors? Some aspect of self that cannot be captured by naming?

This puts me in mind of a striking image William James evokes, in his essay on "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results," of philosophers and poets as "pathfinders": "blazes made by the axe of the human intellect on the trees of the otherwise trackless forest of human experience,"who recognize the "accidentality" of their trails, and acknowledge that though they don't give us the forest itself, their "marking and fixing" nonetheless grants us a "sort of ownership" that enables us to use the world.

This seems to me wonderfully prescientfor the work of modern critics of culture and media, such as Robert Scholes, who infamously said, in a book on Textual Power, that "The world resists language as the grain of a tree resists the saw, and saws take the form they do partly because wood is what it is. We sense the presence of things through this resistance....."

What I revel in, in the metaphors of both the ax and the saw, in their encounters w/ the tree, is this sense of a world that resists, that cannot be captured, by our various markings .... Praise be that which is beyond language!

So (yeah, sorry…) all that wandering in trackless forests is to nudge you a bit for this week’s work, towards a claim that goes beyond simply describing what Ozeki does (“shift her characters’ identities, with respect to their names, based on the environment”) to a larger speculation about the relationship between surface and depth, between name and self.