Reflection on Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies”

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, a strong sense of cultural divide consumes the story. The way that Mr. Kapasi views the Das from the very start is indicative of the viewpoint of non-Americans toward their American ethnic peers. Much like the way that British persons see white Americans as rather odd and uptight and in some cases abusive of the Queen’s English, Mr. Kapasi seems to feel that the Das family has lost its “Indianness”. It isn’t until later that he recognizes that although they are very American in their approach to culture, child rearing, and travel, they are very similar in terms of the relationships they share.

This fact then begs the question; does the American experience enhance or trivialize ethnic cultures? It seems as though, much like the Native American characters in The Death of Bernadette Lefthand, a story which found American Indians going to rodeos, eating Frito pies and drinking Orange soda, and being sequestered to reserves, the Das family had lost much of its root in ethnic tradition and cultural belief. They had come to see being Indian as something you read about in a travel guide or a quaint stand that you buy an “exotic” food item from. In many ways, they had blended strong American sentiment with token ethnicity. This is evident in Mr. Das’ desire to stop the van every ten minutes to take a picture of this guy and that thing over there. Every aspect of the trip was turned into some sort of slide show for the vacation album with no real connection being made. It seems that being American many times means assimilating your personal ethnicity with the American processed persona. Sure, we love St. Patty’s Day as much as the next guy, but don’t be too Irish the rest of the year unless you want to wear shamrocks, drink too much, or woof down potatoes and corned beef. And you can always be Canadian as long as you wear flannel and watch hockey; just don’t try to force your healthcare on us buddy. And Indian is just fine as long as you own a gas station, dress nice, and talk like Deepak Chopra. We just aren’t sure what to do with you if you are tall, have no accent, or want to play basketball instead of being a doctor. There is just a certain amount of racism inherent in the American experience. It’s not a racism that is overtly pressed by individuals but more so by circumstance. These experiences stem from institutionalized behaviors which then become unconscious beliefs. We don’t necessarily mean to be racist Americans, we just kind of are. We learn these unconscious beliefs in the formative years through marketing and all forms of social interaction. It is a systemic problem which must be unlearned in later life to be overcome, but it also must be then passed down to our children. We can never hope to change this if we just believe that they will unlearn it when they get old enough. Many times, as we can easily see when we turn on the television or open a magazine, some people never unlearn the racist conditioning of their youth. The Das family is just one example of the American experience being less of a melting pot and more of an assimilation chamber.

 

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