Identity and Heritage Discussed in Everyday Use and the Oriental Contingent

Michael Chuang
Professor Diamond
Gender and Minority Study – Short Stories
June 29, 2020

In both short stories, Everyday Use and the Oriental Contingent, one prominent theme revolving around the two is cultural identity, which is an often-discussed subject among people of other ethnic origins. Connie Sung, the protagonist of the Oriental Contingent, is a third-generation Chinese American who throughout the story explores her connection with the Chinese culture; Mama, the narrator of Everyday Use, quarreled with her daughter, Wangero (Dee), for holding varied views about cultural heritage, both believing that only through their own way could the heritage be properly preserved. This essay is going to discuss the idea of cultural identity and heritage in Everyday Use as well as the Oriental Contingent.

Firstly, it is essential to understand the similarities as well as the dissimilarities in the character backgrounds between Everyday Use and the Oriental Contingent: In Everyday Use, Mama and her two daughters, Maggie and Wangero (Dee), are African Americans. It is apparent that they have thoroughly assimilated into American society, for they choose English as their main language and Mama is a pious Christian. This does not mean they have lost their African heritage, though. For generations, the family has passed down crafting techniques, notably quilting, from their African ancestors. In fact, the products of Mama’s generation have been improved upon their predecessors with the help of newer, more efficient electric devices involved in the making, making the quilts “last better” (37). It is fair to say that Mama bears the cultural identity of Americans as well as Africans, and these two identities coexist harmoniously in her. On the other hand, her daughter, Wangero (Dee), challenges this notion by highlighting her African identity and renaming herself Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, while criticizing her American (European) name as another legacy of slavery, a tool to perpetuate suppression. 

Similarly, in the Oriental Contingent, the heroine Connie Sung is also a nonwhite minority in the United States. She is the third generation Chinese American and, different from Mama or her daughters, she knows next to nothing about her ancestral origin. She could not speak Chinese, has narrow knowledge regarding China, and therefore considers herself “a failed Chinese” (44). Yet it is interesting that throughout the story she hardly puts emphasis on her American identity; instead, as if not acknowledging it, she tucks it away while amplifying in her brain her desperate need of more Chinese identity. It is not mentioned explicitly why she dismisses her American side, but we know at least it is not done out of spite for her oppressor, like Wangero (Dee) does in Everyday Use.

Wangero’s (Dee) vigorous rejection of her American identity and pursuit of her ancestral heritage as well as identity is not without valid reasons. Getting rid of intangible products of racial discrimination and embracing their original African identity has been a sizable movement for African Americans in the history of the United States to justify and exercise their numerous fundamental rights. While this demand could also be heard from other colored groups in the United States, it is unlikely that this is what Connie has in mind. She is not hostile to the American identity that she possesses; ironically, being an American, she gets defensive when facing Chinese people. It is possible that Connie believes that being a person with two vastly different cultural identities makes her inferior in either of them, whereas Mama in Everyday Use does not seem to bother having two identities at once at all.

Everyday Use and the Oriental Contingent also discuss different perspectives to preserving heritage, or more precisely, keeping heritage alive and meaningful. In Everyday Use, this theme is actually what sets Mama and Maggie apart from Wangero (Dee). When Mama tells Wangero (Dee) that she is going to give Maggie one of the oldest quilt, which Wangero (Dee) deems the most precious, she fiercely protested, saying that Maggie “will probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use” (37). To which Mama agrees, and retorted that nobody is using them for a long time. It is interesting that Wangero (Dee) believes putting a heritage item to use is being backward, but hanging them on a wall in a museum for people to admire would be fitting and acceptable. It is arguable that people who have similar beliefs on this topic also overlook what she doesn’t realize. Acknowledging the significance of our cultural heritage is indeed essential as part of our identity; however, to Mama, the meaning of preserving heritage is lost if people “hang them” instead of “using them”; that is, not engage in the tradition anymore and simply see it as an object to be admired, instead of actually practicing and understanding the traditions, ensuring that these qualities would be passed down. 

In the Oriental Contingent, Connie is upset that she has little Chinese heritage. She mentions her father “was a second-generation gynecologist who spoke hardly any Chinese”, and to make her situation even bleaker, she adds that she is “inferior and totally without remorse.” (44) As a descendant of Chinese immigrants in the United States, it should be natural that the question of self-identity troubles her more than it does to people whose kind has long been dominating the same land. In Connie’s perspective, she “loses” much of her Chinese identity in exchange for her present American identity. In reality, cultural identity is not simply defined by place of birth, first language, or skin color, and Connie completely disregards this. The Oriental Contingent is approaching the topic not by asking “how much cultural heritage does one need to be a real [race]” but “why ‘what one self-identifies as’ is more important than ‘proving what oneself is by quantifying [race]’.” One can argue that Connie’s family has only been staying there for two generations, which were just enough for them to settle down, but still not quite ready to develop their own culture, while families of African Americans like Mama’s has been living in North America for hundreds of years, which enables them to develop African American culture. While this can be factored in the reasons why people like Connie may feel like being the odd one out—they are neither American nor people of their origins, it is important to be aware that Connie, as the third generation of Chinese American, enjoys the place of financial stability and abundance of material wealth which her parents and grandparents very likely worked hard all their life to get her generation into. Without the financial burden that the previous two generations likely to have, Connie could have the opportunity to explore and perhaps “reclaim” what she thinks is lost in her Chinese heritage, instead of inaction.

           Everyday Use and the Oriental Contingent explore different topics inside the same theme: cultural identity. Although approached in different ways, they both provide us with different perspectives on heritage and identity. While there is no one universal answer to the great question, “how to deal with our identity”, Everyday Use and the Oriental Contingent may, through the interaction of the characters, offer us some insights into the most responsible way possible we identify ourselves and interact with our heritage.

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