Comparing Angelou and Tan

Maya Angelou and Amy Tan each write about being a young minority person in an American culture. Angelou’s short story “Champion of the World” tells about a boxing match of African American boxer Joe Louis against a white contender and how the whole African American community was glued to the TV set and awaited the end of the match with bated breath because a loss or victory of their black guy meant a lot for their lives amidst racial inequality. Tan’s “Fish Cheeks” takes a narrower look at the life of a single Chinese family celebrating Christmas with a white family of the local priest and at how the protagonist feels ashamed and embarrassed for being different from their white guests. Given the fact that Tan uses the first person narration, accepts the viewpoint of the domineering majority, and describes a girl’s alienating experience rather than the communal unity against racial inequality, as Angelou did, Tan’s “Fish Cheeks” more vividly depicts a sense of isolation of minority cultures from the dominant culture.

The action of Angelou’s “Champion of the World” takes place at Uncle Willie’s store where the African American community of Arkansas came to listen to the radio transmission of the “Brown Bomber” defending his heavyweight boxing title against a white rival. First of all, the author creates an atmosphere of community and unity. All the African Americans of the area wanted to come and join the excitement of hearing their man fight. Even though the room was packed, “people continued to wedge themselves along the walls of the Store”. Angelou gives the story a structure through the comments of the radio commentator. The reader sees how the community reacts at what they all hear. The commentator says that Louis is hanging on the ropes and the audience at the store is holding their breath; then he says Louis is getting up and attacking and the audience enlivens. The store workers do not even ring in purchases so not to ruin the atmosphere. The author depicts the time when African Americans were getting used to their new status of free people. She remarks that the commentator “was addressing [them] as ‘ladies and gentlemen’” and they wondered at it. When Louis would miss some blows and there was an odd of him losing the fight, the audience was utterly dumbfounded but at the same time united in their reaction to a hard blow. The author writes, “My race groaned. It was our people falling”. The community perceived the possible loss of Joe Louis as a defeat of African Americans, as if “the accusations that we were lower types of human beings” were true and they “were back in slavery and beyond help”. This method of generalization is efficient to pit an ethnic minority against the dominant majority but it suggests a unity amongst African Americans. Amidst this oppression and pressure of racial inequality they were together and showed a united front.

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Meanwhile, Tan’s “Fish Cheeks” shows a different situation for an ethnic minority. Given from the perspective of a young Chinese girl, the story shows Tan having accepted the viewpoint of the domineering majority. The Tan family had been living in the US for some time and Amy had already been under pressure to conform, at least visually in her appearance. By Christmas she had prayed for “a slim American nose”ф. But this feeling of inadequacy and inability to fit in because of different hair structure and skin color was intensified by her crush on a white boy. Therefore, Tan looked at their Christmas dinner through double lenses of white Protestant Americans. As a teenager she felt it necessary to reject everything. Being in love with Robert, the minister’s son, Amy “pretended he was no worthy of existence” in response to his “grunted hello”. However, this heightened hormone-infused response of a fourteen year old had already been within the framework of the dominant culture. Amy refers to everything Chinese as “shabby”, “lacking proper American manners” and “disappointment”. She already opposed her native culture to the superior American culture. The fact that her family’s traditions were Chinese was already a negative factor and nothing her parents could do would change the way she saw it. 

Comparing the way the two authors use elements of narration and description to depict isolation from the dominant culture, it can be said that Angelou relies on presenting a united front against the rest of the world. In “Champion of the World,” one and all were listening and one and all were participating: “Babies slid to the floor as women stood up and men leaned toward the radio”. However, it was time when African Americans still lived in danger. Angelou clearly shows it at the end when mentions that the people from distant areas decide to stay for the night in this district. Even though one of them was “the strongest people in the world” they still could be abused, beaten, maimed and humiliated in any other way. Meanwhile, Tan shows the utter loneliness of her protagonist because she is alone in her struggle to fit in the new world. She does not want to belong to the habitual world of the Chinese, yet she does not have the appearance of a white American girl. And the gap between what she wants to be and what she currently is creates a great sense of isolation. Tan effectively shows it by depicting Amy as being against all the things Chinese. Amy describes her mother’s Christmas feast with great disgust giving unappealing, unflattering words to traditional Chinese foods mentioning “black veins” in fleshy prawns, “slimy rock cod with bulging fish eyes,” “stacked wedges of rubbery white sponges” of tofu, “a howl soaking dried fungus back to life,” and “a plate of squid”. Therefore, it comes as a big surprise for the reader to find out at the end of the story that what she calls her mom’s “a strange menu” were traditional Chinese dishes and “all [her] favorite foods”. Tan effectively shows the transformation of Amy, the way how she stopped loving all her once favorite things for the sake of all Americans and non-Chinese things. 

In conclusion, both authors presented a masterful depiction of how minorities feel isolation. Tan was successful in portraying an isolation of an individual who does not feel that anyone understands her. Even when Amy’s mother supported her with an early gift and gave a good piece of advice, Amy was not in a position to accept it favorably; she still felt wrongly understood and suffered from not being American. Meanwhile, Angelou takes a wider look at a community where African Americans feel oppressed by racial inequality and derive strength from Joe Louis’ victory at a boxing match against a white boxer. Angelou is also effective in showing isolation of a minority from the dominant culture but she chooses a more global level and in this isolation the people within community are able to support each other and their isolation is less felt, whereas Tan’s isolation is acute and insatiable in the absence of adequate support. Therefore, Tan’s choice of the angle and viewpoint managed to create a more persuasive picture of individual isolation when a girl wants to change her nose, her face, change her relatives for more polite ones in order to fit in.

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