The Separate Identities of American and Chinese in No Name Woman

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Two different identities collide. The issue is which one trumps whom? Or can both thrive together? Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir “No Name Woman” challenges this concept and the means of exploring identity. She maneuvers two worlds –American or Chinese culture. Kingston pushes back against social and traditional norms while searching for the meaning of being a Chinese woman in American society. Published in the 1970s, Kingston’s “No Name Woman” explores her Chinese roots and utilizes the power of storytelling that gives a startling representation of the gap between American and Chinese cultural norms.

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Maxine Hong Kingston’s storytelling paints a picture of who she comes from and the exploration of her identity as a Chinese-American woman. She recalls the story of her unnamed aunt, the “No Name Woman” which is told by her mother. The first passage is indicative of the hidden pretense of her aunt’s identity. Kingston writes “You must not tell anyone… it is as she never had been born” (798). The “No Name Woman” is a sham to the family and is a secret in Kingston’s family history. Her mother delivers the story to teach a lesson, a cautionary tale on not bringing shame on the family name or terrible consequences will happen. The author proceeds to describe an “outcast table” in which “powerful older people made wrongdoers eat along” (Kingston 801). The author infers that her aunt was reduced to being a wrongdoer and by deliberately overlooking No Name Woman, her family wishes to erase her name from history and forget that she was born. Kingston’s storytelling highlights the tradition of Chinese culture by depicting family approval and disappointment. Thus, to bring dishonor to the family meant erasure and alienation. The No Name Woman became a victim of her own community’s tradition and culture.

The author explores the differences between American and Chinese culture by bringing in other conflicting narratives of the No Name Woman reimagined by Kingston herself. She wishes to understand her own identity and her developing sexuality between American and Chinese cultural norms. By doing so, she spoke out on breaking free from the rigid conventions of gender inequalities that plagued women in Chinese society. These stories give her aunt the freedom and power that was not given to her when she was alive. Nevertheless, she navigates two very different worlds - honoring a strong sense of autonomy growing up in America while also honoring her Chinese heritage. Kingston provides us with a description of her American side by writing, “Walking erect (knees straight, toes pointed forward, not pigeon-toed, which is Chinese-feminine) and speaking in an inaudible voice, I have tried to turn myself American-feminine” (803). It is also the empathy of her aunt that depicts Kingston as highly American. The author writes her aunt’s story completely disregarding her mother’s wishes of not telling anyone. In addition to revealing her American ways, Kingston exposes her Chinese side by fully adhering to the Chinese belief of giving paper replicas. She states, “My aunt haunts me… I alone devote pages of paper to her” (Kingston 807). According to Chinese tradition, this belief is fundamental in treasuring their ancestors while paying respect. This custom is an even greater importance and meaning to Kingston as she pays homage to her aunt.

Kingston hovers on both American and Chinese identities. She does not decide on one or the other, but instead believes that she is a mixture of both cultures. The author presents the story of the “No Name Woman” as a source of strength. She utilizes storytelling that mirrors her own identity as a tool to liberate herself from social and cultural norms which are used to limit her freedom and sense of self. “No Name Woman” depicts someone with neither a voice, identity, nor a story. Yet, Kingston acknowledges her aunt’s identity and provides her with a voice. She depicts the elusive world of Chinese culture with the concept of roundness which goes along with the black and white yin and yang. The author illustrates Chinese culture as black and white, with no in between. Kingston prioritizes the importance of including the gray area and widening the circle. By concluding the story with an open-ending, Kingston solidifies her identity as a true Chinese-American of whom embodies both cultures within her.      

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