Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 5

He 1

Alexander He
Instructor: Carol Lem
English 102
16 May 2007
Essay 3
Womanhood: Unvalued?

Being born and educated in the United States, I’ve adopted many of the mainstream

American values such as the belief in personal freedom and the social and intellectual equality of

the genders. Yet, coming from a Chinese family has exposed me to the stringent ideology and

patriarchal structure of that culture as well. The two poems—“Lost Sister” by Cathy Song and

“Suicide Note” by Janice Mirikitani—remind me of the many times I have rolled my eyes at my

parents when they would try to tell me that I have to make my mark on the world simply because

I am a man (and not a woman). I feel that my background allows me to have a deeper

understanding of the poems because it offers me perspectives from both sides of the issue. In

both poems, there is a woman who tries to escape from the stigma of being female in a male-

dominated culture and desires acknowledgement denied to her on account of her gender. Yet,

while the speaker in “Lost Sister” is trying to convey the virtues of being a woman in that culture

by relating womanhood to the symbol of jade, the speaker in “Suicide Note” laments that she

was born a woman and ascribes the frailties of a sparrow to herself. Cathy Song had written

“Lost Sister” to refute the perception that there is no dignity in being a woman in China. On the

other hand, “Suicide Note” was written by Mirikitani to show how many Asian parents fail their

daughters by not giving them the credit they deserve.

Both poems deal with the values of Asian culture; in particular, they deal with the general

attitudes toward women in that culture. Although the writer of the first poem is Chinese and the

writer of the second poem is Japanese, both poems address the inequality that exists between the

sexes in their culture. Often, in Asian families, parents tend to value sons more than daughters.
He 2
They do so because it was common for parents to use their children as a source of labor on the

family farm; as a result, their culture places a high premium on physical strength. Since men are

naturally stronger—and therefore can do more work—than women, women are not as well

regarded as men. Due to the lower status of women in that society, women often lived under a

pretense of inferiority. “To move freely was a luxury / stolen from them at birth” (1003, lines 12-

13), in Song’s “Lost Sister,” is a reference to the practice of foot binding which crippled women

in China. In contrast, men are expected to “swagger through life / muscled and bold and assured”

(706, line 17-18), according to the speaker in “Suicide Note.” Juxtaposing the image of hardly

being able to move with the image of swaggering clearly illustrates how men and women

literally are not on equal footing in Asian culture. It is not surprising then that the Asian women

in these two poems are not happy with their social situation.

In each of the two poems, a woman wishes to escape from having to live under the

pretense of inferiority to men. Song’s poem makes reference to a “lost sister.” This sister is the

woman who leaves China and crosses the pacific “to inundate another shore” (1003, line 33)—

the shore of the United States of America. She emigrates from China to America because, unlike

in China, there “women can stride along with men” (1003, line 36). The “lost sister” sees this

new country as an opportunity to escape from the oppression by men. She gives up her life as a

woman in China in the hope that her new life will be better.

Similarly, the speaker in “Suicide Note” is unhappy with her life as a female Asian-

American college student. Throughout the poem, there is a recurring motif of “not good enough,”

“not pretty enough,” “not smart enough,” and “not strong enough”. These phrases bother the

speaker because she believes that her parents view her as such. She feels that no matter what she

does, her parents will never be satisfied with her. This gloomy outlook crushes her self-esteem.
He 3
“If only I were a son… I would see the light in my mother’s / eyes, or the golden pride reflected /

in my father’s dream” (706, lines 10-14). All she wants is some praise from her parents, but

having been given none, she suspects that what keeps her from satisfying her parents is the fact

that she’s a woman. Thinking on how Asian parents often prefer to have male children, she feels

as though she is an unwanted child. For want of affection from her parents, she has been working

very hard in order to make them proud of her. Unfortunately, she inevitably receives less than a

4.0 grade point average and that leads her to conclude that she is a failure. Unable to face the

disappointment of her parents again, she commits suicide. In a sense, the Asian-American

college student in this poem does the same as the “lost sister” in the other poem in that they both

try to escape the affair of being women in a patriarchal culture. Sadly, unlike the “lost sister”, the

college student does not seek a new life when she gives up the one she has.

Despite some parallels in theme, the speakers of the two poems do not share the same

view on their social situation as women which is reflected by how the symbol that each speaker

selects to represent womanhood contrasts with the one chosen by the other. In “Lost Sister,” the

dominating image is jade—a semi-precious stone that Chinese people often name their first

daughters after. That the properties of such a valuable “stone that… could make men move

mountains” (1003, lines 5-7) are used to describe Chinese women suggests that the speaker is

proud of being a Chinese woman herself. The speaker of the poem repeatedly refers back to the

symbol of jade in order to emphasize the importance their heritage. When she says “There is a

sister / across the ocean, / who relinquished her name, / diluting jade green / with the blue of the

Pacific” (1003, lines 26-30), she is referring to the “lost sister”, the one who immigrated to

America. What the speaker is trying to tell her is that, by leaving her country, she is abandoning

her identity—the “jade link” (1004, line 55). The question that the speaker wants the “lost sister”
He 4
to ask herself is if freedom is really worth the loss of her heritage. Even though the foot binding

stole freedom from women, “they gathered patience” (1003, line 14) instead. The speaker even

goes as far as to assert that daughters were grateful to their parents for the practice! This may

reflect the values of the Chinese culture, which values obedience to one’s parents—as opposed to

freedom—and admires persistence.

However, the speaker in “Suicide Note” does not see those values. All she sees is the

apparent dissatisfaction of her parents which leads her to view herself—her womanhood—as

fragile and weak. She feels that no matter “How many notes written” that they are like

“birdprints in snow” (706, lines 1-2) because she is a woman—an insignificant “sparrow”—that,

no matter what she does, it is not going to change the fact that her parents look down upon her as

being “not good enough.” Instead of “drawing praises… like currents” (706, lines 19-20) to

support her “wings,” all she gets from her parents are “disapproval” and “disappointment” (707,

lines 26-27). Like everybody else, she needs recognition for her hard work to maintain her

morale. Having never received any, it is no wonder that she loses her will to persevere.

Finally, both poems end on a somber note: the two women shall be forgotten. The speaker

warns the “lost sister” that her life in America will not be the easy, opportunity-filled life that she

had imagined. In America, having given up her own land in China, “lost sister” will now be held

captive by “Dough-faced landlords” (1004, line 47). She shall be free only in the sense that she

can be free to work along side men and hand in the fruits of her work to these landlords when it

comes time to pay the monthly rent. According to the speaker, in that alien land, “the

possibilities, / the loneliness, / can strangulate like jungle vines” (1003, lines 38-40). Then, in the

final stanza of “Lost Sister,” the speaker of the poem directly addresses the “lost sister” and tells

her that “You find you need China: / your one fragile identification” (1004, lines 53-54). The
He 5
speaker invokes the image of past Chinese women “who walked for centuries” and “left no

footprints” (1004, lines 58-61) and tells the sister that she too will leave no footprints. She is

saying that the “lost sister” is not as commendable as her mother—who had the virtues of

obedience and patience—because the sister gave up her virtues when she rebelled against her

origins to gain, futilely, freedom and recognition only to remain bound and undistinguished.

Similarly, throughout “Suicide Note” there are images that demonstrate how insubstantial

the Asian-American college girl feels. In contrast to the tiny “birdprints” that her efforts may

create, “each [single] disapproval” is like “a bootprint” (707, line 26) and easily stamps out—or

erases—her many labors. Since she feels that none of the marks that she can make on the world

can endure the test of time, she decides that there is no longer a point in trying to make new

marks or to continue her struggles. With that in mind, she stops struggling and fighting the “air”

with her “crippled wings” and she allows herself to fall “softly into the gutter below” (707, line

47)—committing suicide. She gives up because she does not feel that she will be remembered

even by her own parents.

These two poems prompt me re-evaluate how my two cultures have influenced my

outlook on the world. I have always felt that my father never really gave me the credit I deserved

regardless of how hard I worked. Even when I proudly showed him my 4.0 GPA from last

semester, he emphasized that it was obtained from a community college rather than from a

university, and so I could still do better. Now having considered the values of my father’s culture,

I feel that I have gained insight into why my father responded the way he did. Perhaps it’s not

that my father isn’t proud of me that he doesn’t give me praises (yet), but because he is proud of

me that he feels that I am capable of doing better and that I can still accomplish more.