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The Role of the Violin in the Chang’s “Hunger” Essay

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Updated: Jan 11th, 2022

In the novella, Hunger, Samantha Chang explores a journey of a Chinese immigrant, Tian, who focuses on his music to keep a grip on his dream in a competitive American society. In pursuit of this, a number of things suffer including his family. This is because Tian equates his approval within the musical circles to the struggle of fitting into the larger American society. He hopes to bridge the construed gap between a Chinese immigrant and an American. When he discovers that he cannot match the ‘‘expectations,’’ he secludes himself violently and only emerges upon unraveling the potential of his daughter, Anna (or Anyu’s) to play the violin. On the whole, the characters in Tian’s family must strive to learn the requirements of thriving or surviving in America. While Tian uses music as an escape route to forget his past and as a bridge to building his future, his family suffers and it is his children who make the rediscovery to pursue life. The family dissonance tailored around Tian’s passion for the violin brings in different symbolic pathways, destiny, roles, frustrations, as well as light moments of the novella’s characters. This is weaved on plot development and symbolism. When Tian and Min finally live together, the music room propels Tian closer to Min. ‘‘…now I can work and be near you, he reached to touch my face. I stood perfectly still, arrested by the scent of his hand’’ (Chang Pg. 4). Tian’s violin music room provides an opportunity for Min to remember their first meeting and eventually fall in love at the restaurant. The music room creates the emotional possibility and physical proximity for Tian and Min to make love besides being a foreshadow of what would happen later. She vividly recalls how they made love in the practice room and how the groans and cries in the English language would later define their life (4). Tian’s love for violin music defines what his life would entail, in his expectation or otherwise. It depicts him as a determined yet desperate person. His connection to music is a link to his career. Upon his completion of a Master’s Degree in Music, he lands a job as an instructor for pre-college students. This portfolio gives him a platform to display both instructional and performing talents as he pursues the position of Associate Professor in Music. He thus spends a lot of time in his practice room in Brooklyn to achieve the dream. Min recounts saying ‘‘he shut himself in the tiny room for many hours every day…’’ (Chang Pg. 4). His practicing and recital sound is symbolic of news of the coming of their firstborn. Min wakes up alone one morning and discovers that she is pregnant at the time when Tian is practicing the violin. She tumbles to the bathroom, but upon deciding to break the news to her husband, she develops cold feet, fearing how her husband would react. She deliberately delays the delivery of the ‘good’’ news of her pregnancy thinking that it is not the right moment as Tian is practicing his violin. She knows too well that violin is central to Tian and any other thing might not matter. She silently walks away in protest.

The Violin also defines Tian’s associates like John O’Neil and Professor Spaeth. Professor Neil in recital hall seems to be an indifferent and disinterested character who is careful of the social status demarcation. Moreover, when Tian is reciting in the school hall that day, his wife, Min, develops a different impression of him and wonders why she chose him in the first place. ‘‘His music shuddered through me with violence I am not sure I can describe….How could I have chosen such an unforgiving man.’’ (Chang Pg. 6) Beyond this, it depicts Tian as an unapologetic relentless man when playing his music, perhaps showing his desperation and self-centeredness to succeed. Indeed, later, she would tell him that the way he played violin in the hall frightened her (Chang 6).

Tian concentrates on his music so much so that he cares little less about other things, and this makes Min creative yet cautious on how to fix things. When she notices that the cover of the violin is torn, she frowns and thinks that her husband’s colleagues would perhaps feel awkward when they see him with old items. She emphasizes to the reader that she often had to fix things to please her husband apart from influencing him to be buying new things. We also see the sudden attention that Tian commands after his musical performance. His mates stay on concentrating on praising him and the wife is arguably perturbed by Lydian Borgamann’s regular touching at him, yet Tian’s seems to take it. He is too overjoyed with his new fete of music. He cannot sense much (Chang 7).

Tian’s successful recital and their celebration of it would later come to haunt him. It would later deny him a promotion because of the fork. Indeed, Min vividly recollects what had happed before when Tian would later reveal his failure to get the position of an assistant professorship. ‘‘This great, forgetful happiness had led to what had happened. Why else would Tian have simply accepted the tuning fork as if it were a gift from heaven?’’ (Chang Pg. 8). What the reader finally sees when failure sets in reveals the destiny of the novella’s character and destiny. Tian’s fixation on failure stifles that of his children. Ann and Ruth rebel by running away from home when they are forced to master playing the violin.

Even way before then, Tian would often get moody after his recital. He would sit alone and think and think, but his mood- swings would grow even colder after his recital. Violin music reveals the true Tian to Min. At some point, Min reckons that Tian only becomes himself when he plays the violin. She asserts that: ‘‘I could sense the shape and location of his soul. Only when he performed; only then had I truly seen my husband’’ (Chang Pg. 9).

His concentration on the violin makes him absent at her daughter’s important moments. When Anna is born, Tian is in school rehearsing on the early morning of Anna’s birth. Even after birth when Anna is growing up, Min feels insecure and has to reassure her daughter most of the time. Anna, even at a young age, often looks up whenever his father stands up to walk in the room. She’s left glued to viewing the door when his father leaves for an ambition that never was. She follows her father to her practice room and yet finds the door locked and she has to sit outside it. As a result, her mother has to make excuses and give her regular assurance of his father’s love, even though she feels empty as she does it. Besides, he seems to be indifferent to the earlier needs of her daughter. At some point, the reader is made aware of how he would sleep on a different bed. Min imagines, this gives him enough sleep to wake up for school early to chase his ‘‘ambition.’’ He does not help her take care of Ann at night and Min has to be waking every few hours ‘‘to feed her and silence her recurrent cries’’ (Chang Pg. 11)

His music practice instills a sense of fear and insecurity in Min. She does not clearly understand him sometimes. Min recalls that ‘‘I imagine how he must have seen me a frightened woman, a stranger in cheap cotton pajamas’’ (Chang Pg.11). When Min tries to indicate that she wants to have a son, he rebukes her claiming that musicians are incapable of fending for many children. In sum, what the reader sees is a husband who smolders with lamentation and a deceptively silent woman who observes with a near eruption characteristic of most women when the heart desires of her husband remain unfulfilled. While he seems to have been treating Anyu (Anna) with love he reveals all the unconscious thoughts of distance and unpreparedness shrouded in an insecure economic base.

While the violin in the novella, Hunger, is not devoid of reflection of light moments, it flashes on disappointments that can eat into a family core of success and happiness. The story truly crystallizes for the reader the experience of some immigrants in American society!

Works Cited

Chang, Lan Samantha. Hunger: A Novella and Stories. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2009. Print.

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