The American Dream refers to the belief that anyone can achieve their highest aspirations, goals and success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everybody. Many people pursue this phenomenon for themselves, their families and their children’s legacy. However, the problem with this ideology is that it is not achievable for everyone; it fails to recognize the pertinent societal, cultural and political structures which prevent the equality of opportunity. The aforementioned claim is evident in Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek as the Yoo family struggles to assimilate to the American expectations after immigrating from Korea. Pak has difficulties learning the American language, causing him to feel like a disappointment to the family. Furthermore, Young is heavily invested in her job, causing her to deprioritize her family’s cultural values. Most importantly, Mary is a victim of racial bullying, which hinders her development. Through Pak’s embarrassment, Young’s oppression and Mary’s discrimination, The Yoo family exemplify the detrimental effects of immigration, which ultimately harms their relationships with each other.
Pak’s struggle to speak in English makes him feel like a disappointment to the family and damages his position as the man of the house. An example that illustrates the humiliation Pak feels is when he attempts to help a customer with her groceries: “He ended up pointing to a Coke and miming drinking it … Pak became quiet” (Kim 162). In this quote, Pak tries to express himself in English to the woman, though she is unable to understand him until he uses gestures to explain if she would like a drink. This situation brings great shame to Pak and causes him to no longer speak in English. It harms the family structure because his embarrassment causes him to obtain a poor self-image that impedes his ability to take action for his family. Also, Pak’s struggle to overcome his language barrier obstructs the family dynamic because it causes his daughter to look down on him and forces her to speak on his behalf. This is best shown in an interview with Pak and Mary’s principal. Mary feels obligated to speak for Pak since all he can do is smile and nod due to his embarrassment. Mary feels that her father is uneducated because she is more fluent in English than him, causing Pak to feel self-conscious: “The thing he regretted most about their move to America is the shame of becoming less proficient, less adult, than his daughter” (Kim 163). The disappointment he feels for his inability to properly speak English results in a damaged relationship with Mary, thus, exposing an unhealthy family relationship. This idea is further demonstrated in Lauren Schwaar’s research paper, Difficulties Faced by Immigrants and Refugees, as she expresses the importance society places on language: “Language barriers cause huge difficulties and make simple interactions seem like daunting feats. Employment, transportation, legal responsibilities and receiving assistance in each of these areas are more difficult without a firm grasp of English” (Schwaar). The importance of language that Schwar expresses in his article illustrates how Pak’s incapacity to fluently speak English causes his daughter to condescend him. Pak’s difficulty with the language barrier threatens his relationship with his daughter.
Young also displays the damaging effects of immigration. Her job causes her to abandon her cultural principals, impeding her relationship with Mary. Upon her arrival in America, she is taken advantage of and forced to work extremely long hours to fulfil Mary’s ambitions. At that time, Pak did not have enough money to immigrate with them, making Young a single mother in America. This is harmful to the family dynamic because Young’s commitment to her job prevents her from being with Mary: “Young hated many things about their American life … discovering that their host family expected her to work from six a.m. to midnight, seven days a week; becoming a prisoner, locked away in bulletproofed isolation. But the thing she regretted most was the loss of closeness with her daughter” (Kim 58). In his quote, Young expresses her hatred of her American life, demonstrating the false reality of the American Dream. Young believes that moving to America will allow her to succeed, but instead, she dedicates a majority of her life at a job where she feels unsafe, solely to provide for her family. If Young does not accept these expectations her temporary family will evict her, leaving her and Mary homeless. This motivates Young to prioritizes her job and jeopardize her relationship with her daughter. Another struggle Young faces because of immigration is her assimilation into the American culture. The negative impact her adaptation has on her family is expressed by her daughter:
Um-ma was the mother who knitted [Mary] soft sweaters, who greeted [Mary] every day after school with barley and tea and played jacks with [Mary] while listening to stories about what happened that day … But that Um-ma was gone, replaced by Mom, a woman who left [Mary] alone in someone else’s house, who didn’t know about the boys who called [Mary] ‘stupid chink’ and the girls who giggled about [Mary] in front of her. (Kim 68)
Young’s transition results in her daughter to feel alienated. This quote serves as an example of the close bond between Young and Mary in Korea. However, when Young is forced to fulfill certain expectations, this bond begins to weaken. Young illustrates how immigration creates barriers that hinder the relations within families who intend to pursue the American Dream. This truth is evident in Gloria Shen’s essay, Born of a Stranger: Mother-Daughter Relationships and Storytelling in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, where she discusses the different mother-daughter bonds present in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club: “The mother wishes for her daughters to live a better life than the one she had back in China … Ironically, this wish becomes the very source of the conflicts and tensions in their relationship” (Shen). Sean proves how Tan uses the migration stories of four Chinese mothers to show how immigration results in strained relationships with their American born daughters. Likewise, Kim also uses Young’s desire for Mary’s success in America as the main factor for their dysfunctional relationship. Young’s connection with her daughter portrays the consequences of family relationships and immigration.
Finally, Mary exemplifies the detrimental effects of immigration through her transformation from a popular school girl in Korea to a victim of discrimination inflicted by bullies in America. She is an easy target due to her differing appearance, language and cultural norms. Mary uses the bullying she experiences to justify her hatred for her mother: “Mary said ‘Farewell’ in Korean—she deliberately chose the formal phrase that implied distance, meant for strangers—then, looking straight into [Young’s] eyes, said ‘Mom’ instead of ‘Um-ma’” (Kim 68). Mary is behaving passive-aggressively to Young by referring to her as ‘mother’ instead of ‘Um-ma’, a term which signifies respect in Korea. Mary’s immigration forces her to experience racism, encouraging a toxic relationship with Young. Another example that illustrates the effect Mary’s immigration posses on her family is when she sets the barn on fire: “Right when it hit, the flames whooshed, and she felt wild happiness that the flames would reach her, consume her, and destroy everything … Her parents, her life. Gone” (Kim 327). Mary uses the fire to represent her feelings of resentment towards her family for forcing her to assimilate into the American standards. This quote suggests that Mary is suicidal because she is depressed with her life in America. The fire she ignites is responsible for killing two innocent people. Pak forces himself to lie to the authorities to protect Mary. Eventually, Pak and Mary are put in prison, leaving Young to survive on her own. This establishes the gravity and intensity of trauma Mary endures due to the racial bullying she experiences as a teenager. Bethan Jones explores the impact bullying has on an individual in his essay, Margaret Atwood's portrayal of childhood bullying and its consequences in Cat's Eye as he states, “Self-harm appears to indicate a way of regaining control: it is a displacement activity in which an immediate, palpable physical pain serves as a substitute or anesthetic for the less tangible and more devastating psychological torture” (Jones). In this quote, Jones explains how the protagonist in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye uses self-harm as a way to cope with psychological torture. Similarly, Mary uses self-injury to cope. She attempts to regain control of her old life in Korea through her attempt to commit suicide. Mary’s immigration struggles arise from her inability to conform to the American expectations, damaging her mental health and resulting in a dysfunctional family.
Through Pak’s difficulties with the language barriers, Young’s assimilation and Mary’s injustice, The Yoo family serves as an example of the harmful effects that immigration poses on a family structure. Pak’s incapacity to speak perfect English causes him to feel self-conscious about his role in the family. Additionally, Young’s preoccupation with her job causes her to neglect the family needs and ignore her cultural roots. Most importantly, Mary is forced to strip herself of her cultural identity due to the bullying she suffers from at school, obstructing her development. The American Dream is a false reality for many immigrants. It is an unrealistic expectation that builds barriers that are responsible for disbanding these families.
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