woman warrior paper

Azariah’s paper examines the connection between mental illness and immigration in Kingston’s Woman Warrior.  I learned a great deal form her work and plan on bringing some of the ideas from the paper into class next semester.

Azariah Jelks

English 3980

26 November 2012

“But I am a stranger to myself and a stranger now in a strange land”.

-(Trinh T. Minh-Ha, 16)

Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts recounts the struggle for Maxine Hong Kingston to find her own voice and role in American society through the Chinese tradition of storytelling. Chinese culture and the treatment of women are also subjects that have been examined closely by scholars, but immigration is another reoccurring subject in the novel. In “At the Western Palace,” Maxine Hong Kingston’s aunt, Moon Orchid, has traveled to America in an attempt to reunite with her husband. She is portrayed comically as she attempts to adapt to American life and customs, to understand the language, and in her failure to master simple jobs at the family laundry mat. Unfortunately, her efforts to assimilate are so traumatic that she experiences a permanent psychotic break from reality. While Moon Orchid’s immigration experience is laughable, her ordeal represents one of the more grave trade-offs to migrating to another country, and it provides a unique opportunity to explore the relationship between mental illness and migration, if there is one at all. Applicable psychoanalytic and sociological theories, suggests that there is.  Beyond Moon Orchid’s narrative, they indicate that migration plays a vital role in the development of mental illness in Chinese immigrants.

Dr. Sigmund Freud was the first to suggest a relationship between self-identity and mental illness. Sue Estroff, a professor of Social Medicine and Anthropology, expounds on Freud’s claims about this relationship in her article, “Self, Identity, and the Subjective Experiences”. “Conceptually, we can posit two propositions about the relationship of self to sickness that apply in the Western World: (1) Loss or absence of self results in or constitutes an illness, and (2) sickness results in a loss of and change in self” (Estroff, 193). These two theories, particularly the first concept, are crucial in developing the argument that migration is linked to mental illness. Family therapist and Professor Elise Miller, accepts the first theory as seen in her book, Kingston’s the Woman Warrior: The Object of Autobiographical Relations. In it, she examines how the autobiography helps one to develop a sense of self-identity. She also discusses Moon Orchid’s descent into lunacy as a reminder to Kingston about the tragic consequence of not successfully forming a self-identity. What is most significant is Miller’s brief description of what elements make up the self. “Though Kingston portrays Moon Orchid’s failure to assimilate in humorous terms, she knows that being without a home, family, or country is like being without a self” (Miller, 148). Miller’s analogy clearly defines a homeland and family as some of the components of self-identity.

However, Moon Orchid has immigrated to the foreign land of America and no longer has any ties to her native China, nor can she construct a productive role in her family in the United States because of her inability to understand American culture. She appears to then be misplaced due to her unfamiliarity with America, the customs of her new family, and the loss of established social roles. Brave Orchid actually attributes Moon Orchid’s illness as being a direct result of misplacement: “Moon Orchid had misplaced herself, her spirit (‘her attention,’ Brave Orchid called it) scattered it all over the world” (Kingston, 157). Brave Orchid repeatedly tells her sister, “Don’t go away Little Sister. Don’t go any further. Come back to us” (Kingston, 160). Brave Orchid telling her sister not to go away not only alludes to the idea that Moon Orchid is psychologically losing it, but also that she is literally losing herself. This seems to support the premise that the self as a product of the homeland and family, and the loss of the self as a result of migration are instrumental in the development of mental illness.

Dr. Estroff’s article on self-identity and Schizophrenia further establishes the importance of social roles and social groups in the formation of the identity. Estroff states that humans belong to categories, such as gender, and social groups such as family, that make up the self. What is interesting is that she not only looks at these categories and groups as what encompasses the self, but also suggests that social roles and group attachments shape an identity through the way others see individuals, “Belonging in a normative way to a larger group or groups both conveys and constitutes a sense of self, provides an identity in relation to others and by virtue of others’ acknowledgement of us” (Estroff, 192). This observation is significant because it illustrates that because Moon Orchid is unable to create social attachments and familial roles, she subsequently does not have an identity for others to recognize her either.  She is unable to establish her role as an American aunt, wife, sister, and employee in the eyes of others, so others are also incapable of determining who she is with regards to her self-identity, or more precisely, a lack of one.

Exploring exactly what type of illness Moon Orchid has would be interesting to say the least, but may also give more strength to the argument that migration may make immigrants more prone to mental illness. The symptoms mentioned in the text closely mirror those of Schizophrenia. The National Mental Health Institute has deemed some behaviors as classic symptoms of the disease. One symptom includes delusions, which are adamant irrational beliefs. Common delusions experienced by Schizophrenics involve the belief that people can intercept their thoughts. Other behaviors include hallucinations, paranoia, in which the individual may believe others are tying to harm them, depression, and withdrawal. Much of the bizarre behavior that Moon Orchid exhibits is identical to the indicators of Schizophrenia that The Mental Health Institute describe. Moon Orchid believes that Mexicans are after her and her family to turn them into ashes, which seems to be a paranoid delusion; she thinks that people can read her mind; and she locks herself in her bedroom where she cries constantly. What is also interesting is that Dr. Wen Kuo specifically cites a study done by a fellow sociologist that found high rates of Schizophrenia emerging in Austin, Texas, as a result of social isolation. Social isolation is one concept in a larger sociological theory that supports the connection between mental illness and immigration that will be explained further.

Dr. Wen Kuo has been a sociologist and Asian studies scholar for over thirty years. His 1976 study on the prevalence of mental illness in Chinese-American immigrants attributes four specific factors to the cause of mental illness in migrants: social isolation, culture shock, cultural change, and goal striving stress.  Culture shock, cultural change, and social isolation however; appear to have the most profound psychological effect on Moon Orchid. Social isolation results in a newly transplanted individual having to replace ties to their homeland, familiar social roles and group memberships, and form new social attachments (Kuo, 297). According to Dr. Kuo, when immigrants are unable to do so, they are prone to alienation and depression, and lack of attachments and interaction with society causes psychological stress on the migrant that can lead to mental illness.

Moon Orchid is isolated from the world around her because she is literally unable to communicate as a result of a language barrier. She fails to become Americanized and fails to form a respectable relationship as an aunt that goes beyond being a source of simple ridicule and annoyance for Kingston and her cousins. Her failure to fit in with the rest of the Western world also leaves her slightly alienated from her only source of comfort and familiarity, Brave Orchid. Although Kingston’s mother shares a bond with Moon Orchid biologically and in terms of geographic origins, they have not seen each other in over thirty years and Brave Orchid has managed to adapt to Western culture unlike her sister. Being dissociated from Brave Orchid after being spurned by her husband must be the most emotionally devastating for Moon Orchid because her sister is the only reminder of her homeland. Eventually, Kingston’s aunt is institutionalized, and it is in this institution where she finally finds the social identity and sameness that she previously lacked. “We speak the same language, the very same…They understand me and I understand them” (Kingston, 160). Moon Orchid is speaking of the other female residents in the mental institution who she identifies as her daughters.  Only in her insanity is she able to finally create a social role and self-identity as a mother to the women in the mental asylum.

Culture shock explains why people are unable to forge new social roles and relationships as a consequence of cultural isolation. Kuo cites several different definitions of culture shock, including one that encompasses normlessness and role displacement. Other definitions suggest that immigrants are unable to cope with living in a society that is undefined. Dr. Kuo’s overall analysis of culture shock, effectively describes Moon Orchid’s life in the United States:

“But regardless’ of different emphases, the cultural shock theory posits that those immigrants entering a society extremely different from their native community will find it more difficult to adjust than will immigrants with a similar cultural background. The theory also suggests that the shorter the immigration period, the greater the shock, making mental distress more likely, but that as the immigrant becomes acculturized, his propensity toward mental illness is reduced” (Kuo, 298).

Brave Orchid’s sister has only been in the United States for a few months before psychosis begins to manifest, which aligns with Kuo’s postulation that mental distress is more likely at shorter immigration periods. Chinese society is no doubt very different from American, Moon Orchid herself acknowledges this, and these differences are composed of variances in cultural values, or cultural change.

One of the last ideas that Kuo associates with the development of psychological disturbances in Chinese immigrants is cultural change. Cultural change deals with the stresses associated with adopting American values, and essentially abandoning native cultures (Kuo, 298). Dr. Kuo explains that the stress experienced by immigrants is due to, “a fundamental disruption of and shift in the cognitive, affective and evaluative modes of behavior which were patterned by the immigrant’s native culture. Such changes are believed to be particularly stressful and disturbing because the worth of the immigrant’s native cultural orientation, which has long served as a behavioral guide, is now seriously challenged and perhaps even devalued by the competing American values” (Kuo, 298). Moon Orchid’s nieces, nephews, and grandchildren are not empathetic to the fact that she is struggling to understand and internalize western customs, and she is ridiculed and demeaned. When she confronts her husband, he describes why she meets her subsequent doom with one statement: “You can’t belong. You don’t have the hardness for this country” (Kingston, 153).

Sadly, he is right. Moon Orchid is not resilient enough to abandon the customs and culture of her native land and embrace the conventions of her new world. She has lived as a traditional Chinese woman for sixty-eight years, and such drastic demands and life changes are traumatic.

The story of Maxine Hong Kingston’s aunt is extreme and dramatic, but it does represent a reality for many migrants, in this case, Chinese immigrants. Although they immigrate to other countries in search of a better life and more opportunities, the struggle to assume a new identity, integrate into a completely unfamiliar society, and the necessity to leave behind parts of their heritage can be frightening and psychologically taxing. Many are successful in building lives in their new homelands, but many are not. They are not able to survive financially, and are invisible in their new societies, in the same way as the metaphorical ghosts mentioned throughout Kingston’s book. The tragic fate that Moon Orchid meets represents one of the high costs of immigration, and of being a stranger to herself.

Works Cited

Estroff, Sue E. “Self, Identity, and Subjective Experiences of Schizophrenia: In Search of the Subject”. Schizophrenia Bulletin. 19.2 (1989): 189-196. EBSCOhost. Web. 1 Nov. 2012

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Random House, 1976. Print.

Kuo, Wen. “Theories of Migration and Mental Health: An Empirical Testing on Chinese-Americans”. Social Science and Medicine. 10.6 (1976): 297-306. Science Direct. Web. 8 Nov. 2012.

Miller, Elise. “Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: The Object of Autobiographical Relations”. Compromise Formations: Current Directions in Psychoanalytic Criticism. Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1989. Print.

T. Trinh, Minh-Ha. “Other Than Myself/My Other Self”. Travellers’ Tales: Narratives of Home and Displacement. Eds. John Bird, Larry Curtis, et. al. New York: Routledge, 1995. 9-25. Print.

“What Are the Symptoms of Schizophrenia?” National Institute of Mental Health. The National Institute of Mental Health, 2009. Web. 29 Sep. 2012.

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