The Buddha in the Attic

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The experience of immigrant groups in the United States is something that has interested me ever since I took a multicultural education class a few years ago.  I read some really moving testimonials from people of various immigrant groups (beginning with Italians and the Irish and moving on through Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican) describing their experiences (or the family stories passed down by their grandparents) and how their families never gave up on making it in America.

My own family immigration history is fairly recent.  My paternal grandparents came to America in the early 20th century from Quebec.  They settled in New England, in an area where there was already a community for them to join.  While my great-grandparents spoke Quebecois French almost exclusively, it did not take long for my grandmother and grandfather to learn English and assimilate into mainstream American culture.  My grandfather fought in World War II, and was proud to serve the nation he saw as his, even though he had only been in the US for half of his rather short life at that point.

We as a society have never been particularly welcoming to new arrivals, regardless of where they are from or what the words on the Statue of Liberty may imply about how inclusive we pretend we are.  The myth propagated is that as long as immigrants are willing to work-hard and respect American values we will accept them with open arms.  The reality is that every immigrant group has started out on the lowest rung of American society, doing the jobs that no one wants to do, being discriminated against in public services, and being used as a pawn by politicians who want to scare people with the image of being overrun by the "other". Perhaps the most egregious case of this phenomenon happened to the Japanese in America during World War II.  It is this immigrant experience that Julie Otsuka chronicles in her book The Buddha in the Attic.

Otsuka's book is written in the third person plural, from the perspective of women who were brought to the United States from Japan after World War I as wives to Japanese men they had never met.  This rather interesting literary device  is used to highlight the similarities of the immigrant experience for these women, even as it describes the variety of experiences that defined them as farm laborers, shop clerks, maids, and laundry workers.  This very short novel, spare in its language, presents a portrait of women who try to find some way to survive in a world that has turned upside down, taking them away from everything they know to a world where not even the man they are going to marry is familiar.  Through back-breaking, heartbreaking work, they bring children into the world, and watch them become more American than Japanese.  Despite their fear that their children are moving away from them, they are hopeful that their futures will be better-until World War II brings it all crashing down around them again.

Like Otsuka's first book, When the Emperor Was Divine, The Buddha in the Attic is filled with carefully chosen words, meant to evoke specific ideas and feelings without extraneous language.  While occasionally the long, collective paragraphs start to feel a bit listy, the book works because the snippets of women's stories that are elaborated upon are compelling enough to provide a frame for the rest.  By the end I felt overwhelmed by the struggles of these women-and once more furious and regretful that it is my country, whose ideals I revere, that interned so many of our own citizens out of racial fear and prejudice.

Nothing speaks as well to the way that communities changed after internment as the last portion of the book.  Suddenly, instead of the voices of the women, the narrator changes to a collective white American voice.  That voice describes how ignorant and/or arrogant white society was during World War II, when any injustice could be justified if it was for "national security" purposes (Sound familiar?  Patriot Act, anyone?).   What was startling was not just that people seemed to approve of their improper jailing of their neighbors, but that any negative reaction to it came from a selfish concern about who would pick their crops/clean their shirts/scrub their toilets.  As a reader, I couldn't help but wonder what happened to the women who's lives I had been invited into, and perhaps that's the most startling thing-that an entire group of people can just be disappeared while the rest of us go about our lives.

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