Quest for Identity in Maxine Hong Kingston's Autobiography, The Woman Warrior
Maxine Hong Kingston's autobiography, The Woman Warrior, features a young Chinese-American constantly searching for "an unusual bird" that would serve as her impeccable guide on her quest for individuality (49). Instead of the flawless guide she seeks, Kingston develops under the influence of other teachers who either seem more fallible or less realistic. Dependent upon their guidance, she grows under the influence of American and Chinese schools and the role models of Brave Orchid, Fa Mu Lan, and Moon Orchid. Her education by these counselors consequently causes her to abandon her search for an escort, the bird to be found somewhere in the measureless sky, and she begins to look inside herself for "the ideograph 'to fly'" (Kingston 35). The new song Kingston finally creates with her "talk story" of Ts'ai Yen, verifies her optimistic distinction from her educators, cultural norms, which have indoctrinated and restricted her childhood.
During much of her childhood, Kingston goes to the "American School" during the day and the "Chinese School" in the evening as she filters the conflicting material given in each of these environments to determine what works in her Chinese-American life. In attending the American school, Kingston discovers American ideologies of loquaciousness and arrogance. From the influence of their American schoolmates Kingston and her siblings "never said, 'Oh, no, you're too kind. . . . I'm stupid. I'm ugly.' They were capable children. . . . But they were not modest" (Kingston 134). The children expected their Chinese parents to join in their arrogance, and Kingston proudly tells her mother, "I got straight A's, Mama" (45). However, her mother only thinks, "You can't eat straight A's" (Kingston 46). Amy Ling addresses Kingston's acknowledgment of American arrogance, a consequence of American school, as she compares two culturally different responses to the same question: "'Have you eaten rice today, little girl?'" (147). The first response, "'Yes, I have . . . Thank you.'" signifies the conventional Chinese response, "valuing politeness, displaying modesty and consideration of the other, saving face" (Ling 147). However, Kingston wants to give "the assimilated American response, valuing honesty and directness, frankly looking out for number one, and tinged with humor," and Kingston thinks to herself "'No, I haven't. . . . I'm starved. Do you have any cookies? I like chocolate chip cookies'" (Ling 147). As evidence of Kingston's indecisiveness, Ling clarifies Kingston's cultural disorientation perceptible in her word choice:
The expressed fondness for chocolate chip cookies seems a playful and somewhat greedy response, which I'm sure Kingston intended. Can it then be that Kingston is advocating Chinese politeness at the same time that she is complaining about it? Is she subverting American directness while seeming to embrace it? (Ling...