Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Social Chameleons

Leigh Alexander's picture

At birth we are given a name as our identification.  It is passive: “the state of being identified,” (“Identification”). But slowly, as we begin to grow into the environment we were thrust into, as we learn and develop and interact with our world us, we actively define that name we were given for ourselves to the people we are surrounded by. We become doctors, lawyers, mothers, fathers, and friends, and that is our identification.  In the office we are a co-worker, in the classroom we are a student, in the bar we are a patron in the bedroom we are a lover. Yet these are all things the world defines us as also, they shift and change as we lose our jobs and boyfriends, or graduate from school. Despite that, the moments and memories of these roles and states remain in what we should call our collective identities, compilations of identity, “the condition of being” that makes us us “not another,”  (“Identity”). Our identity in the sense of our various roles or social identifications, is adaptable, however, a person’s collective identity, including all of our various roles, moments and memories,  remains consistent, though accumulating, as we traverse through roles, and throughout our lives.

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 clear through the many shifts of names that both Yumi and her family members undergo. And although Yumi and many of Ozeki’s other characters assume many names and roles over the course of the novel, Ozeki makes it clear that the underlying passions and personalities of her characters do not drastically alter from cover to cover. In this way, Ozeki supports the concept of societal identification being adaptive, while a person’s personal identity remains undeviating.

            Yumi, given that name at birth, was given “Yummy” as a new identification, 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 initial identification, her birth name, is misconstrued by her community members.  Yet her bitterness towards this shift, seen through her reaction to Elliot’s mispronunciation,  suggests a stagnancy in her identity. Though Yumi adapted “Yummy,” because she still identities herself as ‘Yumi,” she would not stand to hear it mispronounced.  Had she disregarded her birth name entirely she would have just as easily disregarded its mispronunciation.  Being that she did not, it is clear that although Yumi accepts her community’s shifts in her identification, she has not altered her own identity in the process. 

            Moreover, the reader is aware that Yumi accepts “Yummy” as her identification, when she gives 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 accessibility she wishes her clients to have in her real estate business.  By using a name which is more easily pronounced than her given name, Yumi establishes a real estate name that is both friendly, inviting and whimsical, and avoids any uncertainty or confusion a client might feel trying to figure out her Japanese name.  In Yumi’s teaching career however, she uses her given name Yumi, which suggests her desire to cultivate a professional learning environment, and establishes herself in a more authoritative role.  Though she still may wish to be accessible as a professor, by using “Yumi” rather than “Yummy” as her identification to her students, Yumi firmly establishes herself as a separate entity from her student body, giving herself a sense of foreignness from her name that may not have been there otherwise.

            Yumi’s continued use of both her given name and her altered name from her hometown suggests her stagnant sense of personal identity.  When she left home at fourteen, she left behind a dresser “filled with…clothes” (Ozeki 17); she relinquished her home, her family, and many of her things. The fact that, during this upheaval of her life, Yumi left her home and material items, suggests her desire to begin again in a new place and leave the old behind, yet her continued use of her given name and her Liberty Falls name, “Yummy” a suggests that though she can distance herself from Liberty Falls, her identity as Yumi and identification as “Yummy” had made their way into her collective identity and could not be purged.  This suggests that even in a time of relinquishment, where a person abandons all else, their identity remains consistent.

            Moreover, it is clear that Yumi is aware of the proper names to be used in certain environments.  Yumi lets her identification, in the form of her various roles, 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.  Yet her use of dry humor is consistent with her snarky comment to Elliot as a fourteen year-old: “If you can’t pronounce it right, don’t say it at all,” (Ozeki 27).  This consistency of mannerisms suggests a consistency of identity despite the shift in her roles. In this way, Yumi becomes a social chameleon, shifting names instead of colors, but always remaining true to herself. 

We shed and switch identifications like clothing as we traverse through the jungles of life, but we carry one thing consistently within us, something we cannot escape from: our identities. Like a backpack only filling with moments and memories, we trek onward until the end.



Works Cited

"Identity." Web. 31 Oct. 2014.

"Identification" Web. 31 Oct. 2014.

Ozeki, Ruth L. All Over Creation. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print


Anne Dalke's picture

Leigh Alexander--
I’m noting, once more, all the nice attention you give here to the nuances of naming in Ozeki’s novel….and am also wanting to talk some more this week about your investment in some sort of identity that exists beyond all social engagements, all environmental factors, some aspect of self that cannot be captured by naming and re-naming. The social self, you say, is adaptable, malleable in response to the world, but this is just “identification.” There’s another self (“collective, consistent, accumulating”) that persists in some space “beyond,” an identity that “makes us ‘not another,’” but one. Wherefrom that self? If “identification” is the clothing we constantly shed, and “identity” the backpack that carries it, wherefrom the backpack? Of what fabric is it made? (Yup, pushing you on the limits of the metaphor here, asking how capacious it might be….and these are, to me, delicious questions!)