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Native Cultures in Jen’s and Lahiri’s Stories Essay

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Updated: Dec 30th, 2020

Both girls from the stories “Who’s Irish?” by Gish Jen and “When Mr.Pirzada Came to Dine” by Jhumpa Lahiri are in America, but they did not originate from there. Lilia was born in the United States, but her parents came from India. The Chinese woman is from China and immigrated to the United States. It is why at first she does not know how to speak English, and it shows in the way she describes her current situation.

She describes it using broken English. Lilia, on the other hand, speaks fluent English, but she can feel the pressure of two cultures pressing on her. Lilia is aware that she does not look like the white girls in her classroom, and she is also aware that they behave differently than the others. It is evident in their food and their customs. Both girls had learned to adapt to the American way of life, but there are times that they feel that they are from another world.

There are similarities and differences when it comes to the native culture of the two women in the story. Lilia is still a young woman, not yet in her late teens, but she can be considered as a woman. On the other hand, the old Chinese woman is a mother to a daughter who happened to marry an Irish, hence the title of the short story. But this paper will not talk about the difficulties that they encountered in America or as they interact with other cultures. This paper will take a closer look at their native cultures.

Lilia comes first. Lilia is already presumed to be an American citizen because she was born and raised in the United States. However, in her house, it seems as if she was living in India. She said, “I turned to my father, who was leaning against the refrigerator, eating spiced cashews” (Lahiri, p.727). The food was different from what the Americans were used to eating. There is nothing that was said about hamburgers or steak. Instead, the most common food that was taken was curry. There were mentioned of pickled mangoes and other herbs and exotic food. It can make an American stomach turn because of the strangeness of the food. It is one of the crucial pieces of evidence that will show that Lilia is not American.

There is also the color of her skin and her overall features. It was made clear when she went on trick or treat, during Halloween. Her neighbors made comments regarding how she looked. No matter how she tried to blend in by putting on the costume of a witch her neighbors were able to tell something was strange. They said that it was their first time to see an Indian witch. On her part, Lilia was quick to notice differences between the West and East as she pointed out the food served to her that contrasts with her curry and pickled fruits: “Her mother gave us bandages for our blisters and served us warm cider and caramel popcorn” (Lahiri, p.735). It did not register to her at first, but when she was older and able to remember what happened that day she was able to recall that there is something different from her.

If compared to the Chinese old woman there could be a clash of culture as well. It does not matter if they are in the same land, in the same country, and even if they are labeled as American citizens the Indian culture and the Chinese culture that are part of their lives can set them apart. If Lilia and the Chinese woman would meet in the street, they will not be friends immediately because their clothes, their habits, and their diet will be very different, and one will comment that the other one is strange.

The Chinese woman’s native culture is Chinese. Thus, she talks about the differences in their diet. She made comments that she cannot understand why the Irish are contented with plain stuff. Why they were contented with simply boiling their food? She then commented that this is perhaps the reason why they talk plainly and like the Chinese, which has spice. It is what she implied by the way when she commented on her son-in-law’s behavior.

She said, “Plain boiled food, plain boiled thinking. Even his name is plain boiled: John” (Jen, p.602). The Chinese culture is very different from that of the Indian culture, as seen in the story of Lilia. If the Indians love to curry Chinese, on the other hand, seem unable to survive without their special sauces. Lilia loved her pickled fruits, but the Chinese woman said that her egg rolls are the best, and it is the reason why she was able to build a successful business.

Lilia’s Indian culture can be characterized by the desire not to confront. It seems that in her house, in Lilia’s house there is no need to fight. The father and the mother are accommodating. They always need to be with those of their kind. It is the reason why they kept on looking at the campus directory to find out if there were Indian-sounding names.

Lilia seems to dislike being the center of attraction, and, therefore, there is so much energy used to make her appear as if she does not want to be the center of the discussion. It seems to be not the case with the Chinese woman. She seems ready to confront others. She was not hesitant when she gave her opinion. It has to be pointed out, that the Chinese woman was in the house of her in-laws, but this is not a problem with her. It is difficult to imagine Lilia being so vocal about what she felt and think if she is in the house of another person.

Remember the time when Lilia was in the house of her friend Dora, she was just like a timid child. She does not want to draw attention to herself. But the Chinese woman was not hesitant in voicing out her opinion. She did not mind talking to her in-laws about the things that she wanted to say to them. She could not help herself when she found out that none of the men in the house was working. When they gave their excuses, she did not hesitate to speak her mind, and she said, “They say they cannot find work, this is not the economy of the fifties, but I say, Even the black people doing better these days, some of them live so fancy, you’d be surprised” (Jen, p.601).

When she overheard the discussion about business propositions, she could not believe that these men are all adults who have no jobs but kept on talking about their dreams of someday striking it rich. And she offered her unsolicited advice saying that it would be better for them to just choose any business opportunity and work on it.

She implied that they just have to do it and not keep on talking about it. It is easy to imagine that Lilia will feel embarrassed if placed in the same situation, and she would comment on the livelihood of other people. This old Chinese woman revealed another aspect of the culture clash between the American way of life and the Chinese way of life, and she said, “In China, we talk about whether we have difficulty or no difficulty. We talk about whether life is bitter or not bitter. In America, all day long, people talk about creative” (Jen, p.604). It means, that she cannot figure them out because they seem to talk in coded messages. She wanted them to be realistic about what they see and feel, but she is frustrated because it is difficult for her to understand what they are trying to communicate with her.

There are indeed differences, but at the same time, there are similarities. Lilia and the Chinese woman share the same passionate love for their families. Lilia would love nothing else than to spend her evenings and most of her time with her family. The same thing can be said about the Chinese woman. She can afford not to go to the house of her daughter. She had a restaurant, she had money, and she did not need the assistance or monetary support of her daughter, and yet she kept on going back.

She kept on going back not only to visit her but to become the baby sitter to her granddaughter. She complained about the problem of being a babysitter because she is already 68 years old, and yet the following day, she shows up for work even if she does not get paid. She even said, “But, okay; so my son-in-law can be man, I am babysitter” (Jen, p.602). It is how she shows her love and support for her daughter and even her extended family.

Lilia’s native culture and the Chinese woman’s native culture are also similar in one aspect – both show their passion for food. Food is the center of life. The Indian culture is so saturated with food that they eat with their bare hands. The food is not only good, delicious but also very healthy that everything must be savored. There is no better way to savor food than to go away with the utensils and instead of using nothing but their bare hands.

The passion for food is also seen in the way the mother of Lilia and even the whole family were used to preparing food. They seem to be eating all the time. In the opening scene of the story, the father of Lilia was eating spicy peanuts with salt. He was munching on this food while waiting for the food to be cooked in the kitchen. When the food was ready, he automatically ate without wasting another time. It is also interesting that their culture encourages them to eat some seed crops in aid of digestion. Only in a culture that loves food so much can people think of consuming seeds as a form of dessert to digest their food.

The Chinese woman’s culture is also saturated with food. She said that her business was so successful because she happens to know how to cook food that the world loves. She is so proud of the cooking traditions that she cannot understand how people can survive without the ability to spice their food and make it exciting. She cannot understand why some Europeans are contented with the simple food preparation they have.

Lilia’s native culture and the Chinese woman’s native culture are also similar when it comes to how they will take care of and protect each other. It was evident when the parents of Lilia did not allow her to walk by herself at night. She had to wait to be at a certain age before her parents were able to give her permission that she can walk, accompanied by a friend of course but allowed to walk without her parents.

The Chinese woman, on the other hand, demonstrated her fierceness when it comes to protecting her family when she was very much concerned that her son-in-law was not working. She showed her determination to intervene for the sake of her family when she wanted to teach her granddaughter the proper way to behave. She cannot accept the fact that her granddaughter was growing up like a wild child. She disciplined her by spanking her even if her daughter and her son-in-law said that it is not the right way to train up a child.


There were differences in the way they interact with other people, and there were differences when it comes to their diet. But there were also plenty of similarities. Both cultures love food, and they are fierce and loyal when it comes to their families. They were both affected by the clash of cultures, and they tried their best to adjust. At the same time, they were proud of their native cultures. They were not ashamed to share it and talk about it. For both women, their family is the center, and everything that happens within that circle is the most important and most cherished part of their lives.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. When Mr. Pirzda came to Dine.

Jen, Gish. Who’s Irish?.

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"Native Cultures in Jen's and Lahiri's Stories." IvyPanda, 30 Dec. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/native-cultures-in-jens-and-lahiris-stories/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Native Cultures in Jen's and Lahiri's Stories." December 30, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/native-cultures-in-jens-and-lahiris-stories/.


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