Fiction Paper 1 Birds of a Feather Gish Jen's "Who's Irish?" is full of symbolism, allowing the reader the ability to find many levels of depth in this story. Jen uses a first person narrator to tell of the struggle to understand and live in a completely different culture. There are four pieces of symbolism that assist in the interpretation of this story: Sophie, Sophie's clothes, spanking, the birdfeeder. Jen begins with her largest piece of symbolism, the granddaughter, Sophie. Sophie is the joining of two cultures, with her mother being Chinese and her father being Irish. Jen mentions these two ethnicities coming together, and meeting in the middle, with the transcontinental railroad, solidifying Sophie's role.
"I always thought Irish people are like Chinese people, work so hard on the railroad... ". (179). Sophie forces the narrator to find a way to accept her daughter's choice in marriage.
The granddaughter, being the embodiment of both cultures, brings both sides together in one innocent, little package. Both families have problems accepting the parts of Sophie that are not their own, but Jen focuses primarily on the grandmother's battle. ".. now I know why the Chinese beat the Irish. Of course, not all Irish are like the Shea family, of course not. My daughter tell me I should not say Irish this, Irish that" (179). Each part of Sophie's ancestry is analyzed and compared throughout the story. She looks Chinese, but in the narrator's opinion, acts Irish.
She has brown skin, black hair and eyes, a perfectly sized nose, and is smart. The grandmother enjoys her appearance but. ".. already I see her nice Chinese side swallowed up by her wild Shea side" (Meyer 180). One example of this is when Sophie strips off her clothes. This is the second piece of symbolism because clothing is seen by many as a second skin, a definition of self. When Sophie strips down, the grandmother sees her wild Irish side showing through. The narrator is quite clear about not liking Sophie's insides.
"Nothing the matter with Sophie's outside, that's the truth. It is inside that she is like not any Chinese girl I ever see" (181). When Sophie takes off her clothes she is being open and free. While in America this isn't an uncommon occurrence among young children, it is absolutely appalling to the Chinese grandmother.
The granddaughter was taught by a previous babysitter to love her body and be creative, another thing that makes no sense to our narrator. "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" (181). The daughter, Natalie, and her husband, John, have a disagreement with the grandmother on how to stop Sophie from taking her clothes off all of the time. The grandmother wants to use the same technique she used on her daughter, spank her.
You spank her, she " ll stop, I say another day. But they say, Oh no. In America, parents not supposed to spank the child. It gives them low self-esteem, my daughter say.
And that leads to problems later, as I happen to know. (182) Natalie is trying to embrace the American culture and get away from the way she was raised. The spankings themselves represent one of many Chinese traditions that are trying to be changed in this story. The grandmother uses spanking to try to "beat the Irish" out of Sophie, and at one point, even uses a stick. She does this to try and make Sophie less wild and more submissive, like Chinese children should be. It seems though that the spankings make Sophie wild and rebellious in other ways, such as hiding from her grandmother in the park.
Sophie is exposed through these spankings to the more rigid upbringing that her mother received, and such spankings push the child further away from that which her grandmother is trying to instill in her. Furthermore, our narrator is trying to beat the Irish out of her granddaughter, and ironically ends up being Irish herself. The last piece of symbolism is the birdfeeder at Bess Shea's house. A birdfeeder is a place of constant action, birds come and eat and then leave again, coming back over and over.
This is symbolic of Bess' house. Her sons come and go, eating and consuming, but never really staying to keep Bess company, or to take care of her after her injury. Her sons don't care where the food is coming from, or how the house is paid for, they just take for granted the fact that it is there. Not one of Bess' four boys is employed and only one of them lives outside of the house. .".. her boys, every one of them is on welfare, or so-called severance pay, or so-called disability pay.
Something" (179). A birdfeeder also tends to house many different kinds of birds, with no prejudice. This is also like Bess' house. Not only is her daughter in law Chinese, and her granddaughter half, but Bess even invites the narrator to come and live with her as well. The Shea house becomes the middle ground for the acceptance of that which is not understood.
While the sons are not comfortable with the narrator living there, Bess tells them that she is there to stay, .".. a permanent resident" (185). Sophie is in the center of this whole story. She is the embodiment of that happy medium that most people try to attain in their lives. Her character touched me in the way only a child's innocence can. Her free spirit, that she shows by taking off her clothes, reminded me that ethnicity is only skin deep, but inner beauty can shine through any skin color.
While I have never had the struggle of being an immigrant, I feel everyone has fought to be accepted for who they are. The narrator using spanking to discipline Sophie, against the wishes of her daughter, made me realize that in the end people tend to go back to what is comfortable to them. Whether she is justified or not, the grandmother was simply acting within her character, being herself. If only the rest of the world could be as impartial as a birdfeeder, accepting everyone for who they are and offering equal opportunity to be sustained.
Meyer, Michael. "Who's Irish". The Bedford Introduction to Literature. 6th Edition. Boston, MA: Bedford / St. Martins, 2002. pp. 178-185.