Belong & Not Belonging Essay
Belonging or not belonging is a perception, or something that we feel. We are influenced by many factors to feel that we belong or don’t fit in, including our knowledge and understanding of the place where we are in the present and how that it is influenced by our prior experiences of other places. Our perception of belonging can also be affected by how much others know and understand of the places we have come from in relation to where we are now. These ideas are explored extensively in Amy Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club, where feelings of belonging and connection to others are significantly affected by people’s understanding of place.
The Museum Victoria: Immigration Museum website also explores how people perceive belonging and not belonging through connections to place. In particular, the site explores the experiences of people from other countries who are developing strong personal and community bonds in Australia through maintaining connections with their original countries and finding commonalities in Australian communities. The Joy Luck Club begins with place – Jing-mei recounts her parents’ escape from China in 1949 and their arrival in the US. The connection between belonging and place is established here in some contradictory ways.
They are connected to China through birth, heritage and experience, but because of “unspeakable tragedies” they no longer belong there. On the other hand, with no knowledge of or established connection with their new country, they set out, “with hopes they couldn’t begin to express”, to belong in America. They perceive that the land of their birth is no longer where they belong and they perceive that their new chosen country offers the potential for connection and belonging. This potential to connect and belong is referred to throughout the novel in the conversations which guide the reader into different perceptions.
Jing-mei’s mother, Suyuan, believes “you could be anything you wanted to be in America”, suggesting not only personal success, but also that anyone could re-make themselves to fit in and belong. She sees America as a place that accepts all comers. She perceives it as a welcoming place. Waverly’s mother also understands the connection between place and belonging, but leaves it less to chance by naming Waverly after the street they live in. She tells Waverly, “I wanted you to think, This is where I belong. ” She hopes that creating an artificial, named connection will lead to real belonging over time.
There is also a sense of belonging to the Chinese community within the larger, less familiar community of San Francisco. An-mei Hsu says that the old class and cultural differences no longer apply: “Here everybody is now from the same village even if they come from different parts of China. ” This also reinforces the idea that belonging to a place is a perception or feeling, as in San Francisco they can redefine belonging in new ways that suit them, free from stifling ancient traditions. However, it is not possible to entirely think oneself into belonging through connecting to a place.
Rose recounts the day her “Chinese family (was) trying to act like a typical American family at the beach. ” The reader knows they are in danger, because the scene is described in threatening terms: the sea wall is “jagged, eaten away” and “pitted”, the beach is “full of wet shadows that chilled us” and the flying sand blinds them to the unknown and unforeseen dangers. Because they know so little about their new environment and do not yet fit in, they underestimate its danger and Bing drowns as a result. The novel deals extensively with the way connections to place affect relationships and belonging within families.
This is most evident in the mother-daughter relationships. The mothers know two places, China and America, but the daughters only know America. The daughters often fail to understand their mothers because they have only the US perspective. Jung-mei says, “I can never remember things I didn’t understand in the first place,” suggesting the gap of understanding and connection between herself and her mother. On the other hand, the mothers also fail to understand their daughters because their American perspective is only partial, and not as ingrained as the daughters’ viewpoints.
Tan brings these conflicting perspectives together at the end of the novel, when Jing-mei travels to China to meet her half-sisters and finish her mother’s quest. While there is still a sense of not belonging, such as when an apparently familiar construction site becomes unfamiliar close up, there are more similarities and connections than there are differences. The novel finishes with a strong sense of Jung-mei reconciling the differences between America and China, between her mother and herself, and feeling that she belongs in both places.
She knows what to do in the Guangzhou crowds because she has experienced the same thing in Chinatown at home. Her new-found Chinese relatives also want to bridge the divide and belong with her, by staying in the American-style hotel and having an American meal. The website for the Victorian Museum’s Immigration Museum explores belonging in many ways. In particular, people recount how they have connected to their new Australian environment through maintaining some of their home country traditions in a new setting.
By doing this, they can transfer what is similar from their old way of life to the new one, establish community links with others who have the same traditions and use the community bonds they establish to help adapt to their new Australian community. All these ways of connecting the old and new places help them belong, in the same ways as Amy Tan explores belonging through place in The Joy Luck Club. People’s stories are presented in video clips, offering first-person narratives beside still images with written explanation.
The site tags all the individual stories in several ways, so that the user can explore the multiple ways that people adapt to a new place and make connections. A significant way that new immigrants develop a sense of belonging is by connecting the old place to the new. These connections of place are made symbolically, through items or ceremonies from the home culture that are used in the new place to create a link. For some people, the link may be through clothing. Shanaaz Copeland says, “When I wear the footy hijab I feel like I belong, that I’m part of the Australian culture. She is shown in a photograph wearing a hijab in Collingwood colours, as a way of connecting aspects of her Muslim identity with a distinctly Australian place, an AFL stadium. For Eseta Waqabaca Meneilly, a Fijian Uniting Church minister, belonging in Australia has come through making her own ecclesiastical stoles in Fijian designs. She wears these stoles in her ministry and explains the symbolism to her congregation. She says the stoles are a way of “find(ing) my identity” and “be(ing) able to participate and to contribute.
Meneilly has found a way to belong through linking her identity as a Fijian woman with her new role as a minister in an Australian church. Eyerusalem Rudolfo is from Ethiopia and uses the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony to connect her home country with her new place. Coffee originated in Ethiopia and is not only a part of that country’s rituals, but also an important social ritual in Australian life, so she uses the traditional ceremony to both strengthen Ethiopian connections and find a place in her new life to “sit and discuss, talk, chat. For Rudolfo, another important connection to place is that the smell of the coffee takes her “back home … far, far away to Ethiopia. ”
For Visopiano Sanyu, belonging in Australia comes from the journey itself and the sense that she connects strongly with two cultures and two places. She has lived in Australia since she was quite young, but still connects to her family’s Naga culture. She says, “I really like that aspect … that I came from somewhere else and I have that experience and … that I also have the richness of this [Australian] culture. Sanyu feels that she belongs in both Naga and Australian cultures because she knows and understands them both very well and feels a part of them both. In both these texts, connection to place is a significant factor in feelings about belonging. The novel tells us that to really belong and connect to others, we need to understand the ways people have been shaped by the places they have lived in. The website tells us that people can also create feelings of belonging through deliberately creating links between places, to connect the old with the new.