The subject of ethnic and heritage has for a lengthened duration of time taken precedence in many parts of the world. In the US though, it is one of the major issues that affect a majority of the different ethnicities that have converged, living and are working there. The argument that ensues between the two young men, therefore, is a reflection of the varied notions that are held by different people.
These two clashing personalities and perspectives find themselves at the Lower East Side of New York City. Benjamin Wong is a Caucasian male with an Asian-American heritage. He traces his childhood in Kansas City and it is evident in the way he speaks as he has a drawl that is easily placed as Midwestern. He has blond hair and his eyes are blue in color (Hwang, 1859-65). It was also his first visit to New York and as a result, he wanted to visit Chinatown which was his late father's birth-town. Benjamin, therefore, is not well conversant with the City as it is his first time there so he asks for directions to get to Chinatown. The person that he chances to meet is Ronnie who looks Asian and Benjamin makes the assumption that he must know where Chinatown is.
Ronnie, on the other hand, is a talented violinist who is able to play a wide variety of tunes ranging from jazz to classical music. His choice of music is however not appealing to Benjamin's ears who is accustomed to the country-westernized music. When Benjamin strikes up a conversation with Ronnie, he accidentally identifies the instrument that Ronnie is playing like a fiddle. This mistake cause tempers to flare between the two. The two are charming and easily likable though they engage in a thought-provoking argument on how ethnic heritage does or does not play a role in the identification of an individual. While Ronnie believes that ethnic heritage is not a determinant to his identity, Benjamin disagrees and views it as the vital component in establishing a person's identity. This essay will argue for the importance of ethnic heritage to identify and offer support to Benjamin Wong's belief.
Ethnic Heritage and Identity
Benjamin Wong found it impossible to judge his ethnic heritage from the "WASP" definitive look that Ronnie gives him (1859; 70). Benjamin looks views ethnic heritage as the being one with his people and taking pride in common practices like the worship of their Chinese god Gwan Gung (1859; 75). He sees ethnic heritage as important for it offers one the opportunity to revert back to his beliefs without feeling alienated and emasculated. He is prideful of the fact that he took Asian American liberal studied in Madison at the University of Wisconsin. His last name depicts the ethnic identity he was given as an infant. It draws to his roots as a child of adoption and he was brought up by an Asian-American family.
For Benjamin, his visit to New York City had some sentimental meaning to him as he was paying homage to his deceased father. Ethnic heritage, therefore, gave one the ability to identify them further and go beyond the name and facial compositions that made a person seem or look Chinese. He argues that one cannot identify a dog as "just a dog" and leave it at that (1860-90). The dog has more attributes other than the animalistic obvious definition it would receive. This is the same view he holds for himself as a Chinese man living man living in the US.
For Benjamin, identifying himself with Chinatown as part of his community is important and he sees it as an extension of himself. The practice of eating with chopsticks and having headless ducks hang at his windows made sense as it was a part of his Chinese heritage, therefore, they were one element. In visiting his father's old town was attempting to immerse himself into the life and the activities that his father undertook while he was still alive. He even recalls the Number 13 as the place where his father grew up and shaped him into the man he was (1861-90).
As he was passing along the streets where his father grew, Wong ascertains feeling one with his community as the ocean of dialects made him feel at home. The richness in the different dialects of Chinese named, Cantonese and Sze-Yup made put a sprint in his steps. He becomes emotional when he finally makes it to the building with the number 13 inscribed on it. The building though old, with paint peeling off its walls was a temple of sorts of Wong.
In addition, Wong visualizes Gung Gung his grand-father coming home every day to the same building with candies for his son after a long day of work. His grandfather's work entailed pressing of shirts for the rich. These shirts he could not afford to purchase for himself. Gung Gung, however, was hopeful that his son, Wong's father would make it in life and get out of the ghetto they were living. Wong sits in the place in constant awareness that his ancestors once thronged the very streets where he was. He wanted to become one with them and as he sat there smoking a Hua-moi, he felt his father's spirit return to him. He sits silently for a lengthened duration of time, painfully relocating how the lost souls were denied the opportunity to know who they truly were (1861-90).
From the above experiences, Wong establishes the sentimental feeling he gets in identifying himself as Chinese and how his heritage matters in the process. He is able to merge his childhood, his father and the life he has now as one. It is important for him to make such trips as he is able to identify himself as Chinese and the values he upholds equally speaks of the same. It is important for Wong, therefore, to identify merge his heritage and his identity as they are one. They made him whole.
For Ronnie however, the above practices do not make him Chinese. He does not understand why he needs to follow these seemingly outlandish practices for him to be label himself. He believes in the universal identification through the jazz music he plays. He is "white" as he equally tells this to Benjamin (1859-65). For him, jazz associated legend such as Joe Venuti, Svend Asmussen, and Noel Pointer went beyond the netherworld and crossed the boundaries. These boundaries are what he terms as the traditional, narrow-mindedness that people like Wong possess.
Ronnie lays a claim to the notion that legacy and pride was inspired through the modern music these gentlemen played. He says that it cannot be found in some clinking of a pickax or the practice of banging a gong. These are all Chinese practice which according to Wong described their heritage and union. Ronnie, however, finds that the playing of a note in his violin makes more sense to him than getting involved in the above practices. He equally speaks of his music as not sounding like a Chinese opera. Of this, he questions whether it has to sound like so in order for the society of people like Wong to identify him as a Chinese man.
For Ronnie therefore, his music, mode of style did not have to portray any Asian cultural behaviorisms and mannerisms. He is Asian, fully immersed in the aspect of it but he does let it identify him or dictate for him what to do, how to do it or how to play. He does not allow the constricted mentality of conforming of oneself to doing what an Asian ought to or any other race for that matter. His jazz music and the heroes he admires have given him the opportunity to identify himself as a "white" period. He does not or will not the supposed ethnic-based lifestyle for people to ascertain his identity. He is a free modern human being who refuses to be defined by the color of his skin, the accent and the mannerisms he possesses. Jazz music has had a liberating effect on him, thus making him a free individual communicating his message of identity through music (1860-90).
In conclusion, the two characters indeed possess differing suppositions and as the essay has illustrated above, Wong's belief took precedence. It is safe to conclude that neither belief overrides the other. It is important to respect other people's opinions and beliefs. There are people like Benjamin in the world who believe that in order for them to function and thrive then they need to go back to their roots and identify themselves according to their ethnic backgrounds.
There are, however, people like Ronnie who believe that ethnicity and heritage have nothing to do with an individual's sense of belonging. A human being is a human being. he is finite by design and magnificent in his own way. He does not need further definitions based on ethnicity and heritage backgrounds. He can function just fine as he is.
Hwang, David Henry. Trying to Find Chinatown: The Selected Plays of David Henry Hwang. Theatre Communications Group, 1999.
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