Having two cultures co-existing within one person or one society implies biculturalism. It means that the people in question have been exposed to two different cultures but manage to practice both without assimilating or even killing one culture in favor of another. It is a very difficult occurrence in that cultures are often known to die when exposed to co-existence, especially where one of the cultures is considered better than the other. The US is one of the countries in the world, where biculturalism is prominent considering high numbers of first-generation immigrants from various parts of the world. These immigrants went on to have children creating the second generation and eventually the third generation of immigrants who are indeed American citizens, except that they have some attributes of their native cultures.
The concept of biculturalism has numerous advantages and disadvantages depending on the prevailing circumstances. It affects individuality, self-expression, sense of belonging, public separateness, confidence and cultural identity among other things. When it comes to being exposed to different cultures and having to encounter them both at the same time even in different contexts, most people feel cornered having to choose between the two and in some cases feeling like they have disappointed or betrayed their family members and relatives, especially when they become more fluent in the foreign culture. It means that the first consequence of biculturalism is guilt.
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This paper explores the concept of biculturalism in context of Richard Rodriguez and Zora Neal Hurston in order to determine how these authors were affected by exposure to two different cultures as well as advantages and disadvantages of being bicultural. The paper will draw from the authors’ works on their personal experiences.
Zora Neal Hurston
Zora Neal Hurston is a young colored woman born in Orange County and considered as a daughter of the slaves. In her hometown, she is accustomed to seeing people from different parts of the country and different ancestry and she actually likes the idea of having different people in the world. Here, her skin color or ancestry is not nearly as important as her personality as a bubbly young girl with a zest for life. In her essay titled How it Feels to be Colored Me she sets out to introduce her life before moving to Jacksonville as one in which people were different and yet the same in their own uniqueness. She concedes that being exposed to a new culture altered her perception of life, as all of a sudden she was conscious of being different. She may not have felt it all the time, but she did notice it every so often under different circumstances.
While in Eatonville, she felt proud of herself and actually did not even notice her skin tone. She considered herself fortunate as an individual and even found time to interact with the tourists that passed by her town, often welcoming them to her country. It, however, changes completely when she has to encounter different people and thus change the way she looks at life. She feels different, although in her case there is not any hint of feeling socially disadvantaged.
What it means is that biculturalism leads to some level of consciousness on one’s heritage and individuality. The fact that she was being considered different by other people made her feel different and in some instances, she may have wished to do away with her conspicuousness. She liked who she was, but may have been discontent by the way she thought she was perceived by others. In this way, biculturalism brought about many questions and desires in Zora’s experiences in Jacksonville compared to her happiness and content in Eatonville.
Richard Rodriguez, on the other hand, is a Hispanic American also born in the United States but living or rather growing in two different cultures. As a boy, he was enclosed in a completely Hispanic environment, in which English was the alien language for communicating with strangers. His scope in culture and more so, in language, was limited by two divisions: there was a Hispanic division of intimacy, warmth, and safety, and there was dangerous English division of coldness, seriousness, and strange white people. For him, biculturalism entailed having a private and a public world divided by language more than anything else.
In the essay Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Child Rodriguez speaks of having to reconcile the two worlds eventually in order to identify himself fully as an individual. In his case, biculturalism brought about a conflict much deeper than just which language to speak. It brought about the question of belonging, where understanding a second language implied moving away from familiar intimacy of the language used at home into that of the public in which an individuality comes from belonging to the larger group.
Richard Rodriguez had to lose the comfort of family language before he could find himself in the public before he could claim his public identity. It means that being bicultural creates a hunger for an identity beyond one’s family. In addition, while he at some point regretted learning English given that he could no longer feel the warmth of his closed home, he was content at finally finding a place in the public. He was not an outsider anymore and he could make friends and run errands just as easily as any other child of his age. It means that for him biculturalism was a hindrance until he decided to venture out into the public domain and away from his private lair of Espanola.
Each of these authors was affected uniquely when they had to get out of their first culture and embrace or rather encounter another one. On one hand, they had a great experience similar to an awakening of their minds, as was the case when Richard Rodriguez finally embraced his new name and started speaking English confidently. On the other hand, there was the aspect of conspicuity, in which they knew they were different based on how they were treated by others. They became part of another culture, and yet they still carried with them the fond memories of who they really were beyond the assimilation and fitting in.
Advantages of Biculturalism
Biculturalism, based on the experiences of these two authors, is laced with numerous advantages as well as disadvantages. These are often contextual and only hold in similar circumstances considering that specific circumstances have specific contexts within which things happen.
The first advantage is that it enables one to separate him or herself from the rest of the world at a time when people often are lost in the consumerist culture and simply become part of the mass market. In the case of Richard Rodriguez being Hispanic, descent amongst the white kids at school made him stand out to himself and to other kids. Although he saw himself as the ‘problem child’, he was able to identify his personality from amongst many children at school. He felt different meaning that he acknowledged his individuality.
Another advantage is that in many ways the bicultural individual is able to experience and understand more than one culture. The fact that such people are exposed to a different culture other than the one that they have been accustomed to implies that they are presented with a chance to learn new things and open up their minds. Richard Rodriguez states in his essay that he learned how to speak confidently like gringos and got to express himself fully in English, unlike his father who could only do so in Spanish. It implies that from his understanding of American culture, he got to adapt American qualities that impressed him, including the ability to communicate confidently in public using the public language.
Being bicultural also allows one option when it comes to identity and self-expression. As he got to learn English and managed to speak fluently, Richard Rodriguez could communicate with his parents and siblings in both English and Spanish implying that he could express himself in whichever language that served his purpose best. To be able to express one’s self is the primary objective of language and thus having more than one is a great advantage.
As is with most cases, where two things that are sovereign and independent of each other are forced to co-exist, the first significant disadvantage of biculturalism is confusion with respect to identity. When Zora leaves Eatonville she is a bubbly colored girl who is loved by all in her hometown. Her skin color is not a problem at all and even passing tourists have no problem exchanging pleasantries with her from time to time, as they pass through the town. In Jacksonville, however, she had to come to terms with expectations of people. She was different and everything she has been doing had to be judged more harshly or praised more loudly. At this point, she has to decide whether she is better off as just another brown girl or as ‘the colored’ girl.
Another disadvantage is that one culture will always take dominance over the other implying the loss of an important part of life that often fades into the distant memory. Richard Rodriguez in his essay recalls that he lost the feeling of warmth that came with recognizing the sounds made by the members of his family as they communicated in Spanish. Without sounding too regretful he states that his home was no longer the safe haven he had gotten used to but rather just another place like the grocery store or the classroom, where people spoke English. The fact that the English language took dominance over the Spanish language made him more English than Spanish thus losing his Spanish side more than he could admit. In this case, biculturalism led to an erosion of one culture in favor of another. It is how cultures end up extinct in today’s globalized framework.
Biculturalism is a great concept in relation to how much it opens up the world to people who would otherwise be restrained by virtue of their ethnicity and language proficiency. It means that being bicultural is being privileged in some way. It has both advantages and disadvantages such that bicultural individuals have both their triumphs and their lamentations, like Zora Neal Hurston and Richard Rodriguez. Both authors had to live within two different cultural contexts, one in which they were normal and the other, in which they were aliens. This way, they chose sides and in both cases, they ended up inclining towards the dominant cultures. As a colored girl, Zora chose to be strong and defiant against all odds and as Hispanic American, Richard opted to be confident. These authors are great examples of merits and demerits when it comes to biculturalism.