It is interesting that both Scholes and Linkon address the concept of culture and the skill of rendering interpretations in this week’s readings. These are issues that are not far from my immediate focus in a class I am teaching this semester.
A little background is in order. I teach a level 5 ESL reading class – this is the last reading class students must complete before they can take mainstream “academic” class at NVCC. The syllabus stresses literal, critical and affective comprehension of college level texts as well as novels and poetry. This is not an introduction to literature, but more of a reading skills class. I have 13 students from 7 countries this semester; many have a high school background in their native countries or a few years of American high school. They are not fluent English readers. Many have told me they enjoy reading in their native language, but find reading in English to be a laborious process, fraught with misunderstandings that impede their comprehension and strip the pleasure from the text.
For the last two semesters I have been “piloting” a new novel that I selected because I thought it would be appealing to immigrant students: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinew Megestu. The protagonist is a young Ethiopian immigrant running a small grocery in the late 1970s in a neighborhood of Washington, D.C. that is becoming gentrified. His clients, mostly prostitutes, drug addicts and the poor, are slowly leaving, but instead of taking advantage of a changing clientele and the money they could bring in, he lets his business go down hill. He is emotionally paralyzed as he reflects on the part he played in his father’s death at the hands of thugs during the Ethiopian revolution. At the same time, he is beginning to fall in love with a white woman and her mixed-raced daughter, two of the outsiders gentrifying the neighborhood.
There are an abundance of cultures floating around my classroom; American culture, the author’s culture, the student’s culture, the college’s academic culture, the collective immigrant culture, youth culture, &c. The issue is to get the student to understand and/or explain which cultural point of view they are representing when they speak or write. We’ve discussed the concept of an individual having multiple cultural identities and the possible perspectives it can bring to them as readers, but they seem to be unable to identify any part of their cultural make up that accounts for their views.
A male student from China wrote in a final course reflection that he was “disgusted” with the grocery store owner because he used his father’s memory as a reason for inaction and failure rather than honoring him by working hard to succeed. He then noted an apology for his Chinese view point. Many women students can relate to the gossipy, mean spirited feminine social culture that dominates many immigrant enclaves and regard it as something their mothers or grandmothers would participate in, but they would not because it is “not American.” Most students identify with their role as immigrants and the frequently confusing aspects of American culture. All seem to be navigating a confusing cultural stew.
Like Linkon, I think a lot of my students, when asked to interpret a passage from the book, try to guess what the “correct” answer is. They engage in a kind of cultural code switching; rather than express what their true feeling are and where those feelings come from, they neglect the insight their cultural heritage gives them and try to figure out what a native-born American would say and what I want to hear so they can get a good grade. This is a fairly standard response for Generation 1.5 students; they feel trapped between cultures.
One thing I am hoping to get from this class is an approach to literature that I can use to help students sift through their thoughts and reactions and give them the confidence to express themselves.