While learning anything, never be afraid of committing mistakes. Commit as many mistakes as you like since every unsuccessful attempt teaches you a new lesson and eventually leads you to a great triumph.#AKWords Two Ways to Belong in America - By Bharati Mukherjee

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Two Ways to Belong in America - By Bharati Mukherjee

Bharati Mukherjee Image Source: THE AMERICAN BAZAAR

Born in 1940 and raised in Calcutta, India, Bharati Mukherjee immigrated to America where she earned a PhD in literature. She has authored several novels like Tiger's Daughter (1972) and Jasmine (1989), and short story collections such as The Middleman and Other Stories (1988). She teaches literature and fiction writing at the University of California, Berkeley. Her fiction often explores the tensions between the traditional role of women in Indian society and their very different roles in the United States. This essay "The Two Ways to Belong in America" first appeared in the New York Times. It was written in response to proposals in Congress, though defeated, to take away government benefits like social security from resident aliens, aka legal permanent residents. Mukherjee has used resident aliens to address those who live in the United States legally, even for their whole lives but do not apply for citizenship. This essay also talks about issues that all immigrants face in America.

It is a fact that America is the land where one can experience many cultures. People from all around the globe come to this country to improve their lifestyle, to have better education and live the American dream to fulfil their wishes. However, there is a common misconception that every immigrant is similar; thus, they all have similar dreams. This may not be true in all cases. Different people come to America with different dreams. Even people who share the same background may have varying hopes and dreams for their future. This is what we find in Bharati Mukherjee's essay " Two Ways to Belong to America". Bharati and Mira have been exposed to the same kind of environment and situation, yet they react differently to their immigrant experiences. Mukherjee has shown that immigrants can assimilate themselves into the American culture, but if they resist cultural changes, they should not be forced to go away from America in any way by implementing any new rules which may be a betrayal. Mukherjee has expressed this by mentioning her personal experience in America.

This essay talks about Mukherjee's personal experience and the transformation that she finds in her life because of her stay in America. The title of the essay states that there are two ways to belong in America. One is to become an expatriate hoping to be back to their home country one day, and another is to become an immigrant by accepting every rule and regulation, culture, lifestyle and everything of the settled land.

"Two Ways to Belong in America" is a story of two sisters from Calcutta, Mira and Bharati, who are alike in appearance and attitude. They dressed alike, in saris. Both of them had identical views on politics, social issues, love, and marriage before they moved to America to pursue their further study. Both sisters had planned that they would return to India after the completion of their higher study in America and would marry the grooms their father would choose for them; however, everything did not go as planned. Later they found themselves standing on two different sides in the debates over the status of immigrants in America.

Mira went to America in 1960 to study child psychology and pre-school education whereas following her after one year, Bharati moved to the US to pursue creative writing. After two years, Mira married an Indian student in 1962 and got the labour certificate which is necessary for the green card to live legally and comfortably there. She lived there for more than 36 years with Indian citizenship, hoping that she would be back in her home country one day after her retirement. On the other hand side, Bharati married outside of her culture with her fellow student in 1963, an American of Canadian parentage. After being in a married relationship with a Canadian-American man, she knew that she had to face the emotional strain and was ready for that. She welcomed her new life: she explored herself in a new way. By choosing her husband against her father's selection, she opted for fluidity (transformation) and self-invention. She transformed herself from a sari to blue jeans and T-shirts. By doing so, she ruined her 3,000 years old caste-observation and lived in every part of North America. Her scholarly pieces have often been perused as proud writings for cultural and psychological "mongrelization" in that every text reflects that she does not feel sorry for what she has done.

Since they were the single blood relative of each other, they stayed close over phone conversations. Although both sisters have different opinions now, they still maintained polite conversation. They pitied one another. Mira sympathized with Bharati for her marriage out of her ethnic community which is erasing Indianness and unstructured lifestyle while Bharati sympathized with Mira for her narrow perception and superficial understanding of American society. Both have adopted America in their own ways based on their experiences there. Mira wants to maintain her Indian identity, but later Vice President Gore's "Citizenship USA" drive and the increase of illegal migration change the tone of the conversation between the two sisters. Mira felt manipulated, used and discarded by the American government. Mira expressed her dismay that how America can impose its new rules even upon the legal immigrants like me who invested her knowledge for the development of American pre-school and obeyed all the rules. If America is to apply its new rules curtailing benefits of legal immigrants, that should be imposed on those who enter America after those rules are already in place. This voice of Mira is not just of the immigrant South Asian community but of an immigrant community of the millions who have stayed rooted in one job, one city, one house, one ancestral culture, one cuisine, for the entirety of their productive years. Mira wants to stay in America but expresses her strong rejection of getting American citizenship. In her outrage, she snapped "If American wants to play the manipulative game, I'll play it, too." It proves that how passionately Mira clings to her Indian citizenship and hopes to go home to India by renouncing the temporary American citizenship. She is determined to maintain her Indianness. Even after a long stay in America; she resists an American transformation in her life there because she still feels it as a foreign country.

Contrariwise, Bharati has completely adopted the American culture and enjoys her new transformed lifestyle. she feels like a part of the new society. However, she also felt the same sense of betrayal in Canada that Mira feels in America when she went to Canada to live with her husband and was placed in a good job. In spite of her superior position in merit and job, she was discriminated against by the local Canadian society. The feel of betrayal in Canada forced many immigrants to leave the country. Because of the discriminatory behaviour of the Canadian government, she acknowledged the pain of Mira. Therefore, she felt the necessity of acquiring citizenship of the community no matter where (either in America or In Canada) she lives.

In conclusion, Bharati has sketched the difference between Mira and herself. Mira lives there happily as an expatriate Indian with a hope of returning to India after she gets retired rather than living there as an immigrant American whereas Bharati adopts the new American culture and is ready to encounter the trauma of self-transformation in order to become the part of the settled land. This trauma is experienced only by the immigrants like Bharati, but the expatriates like Mira escape this.


1. At first, how long did Mukherjee and her sister intend to stay in America? Why did they change their plans?

At first, Mukherjee and her sister intended to stay in America for two years to complete her higher education and then return to India where they would marry the grooms of their father's choosing. They changed their plans of returning to India because they married men of their own choice in America: Mira married an Indian whereas Bharati married an American of Canadian parentage.

2. What does Mukherjee mean when she says she welcomed the "emotional strain" of "marrying outside [her] ethnic community"(5)?

Mukherjee means that she was ready to face any kind of negative reaction or emotional pressure that was to come from her decision, and she was fully determined to be with her decision, no matter what may come on the way because she felt that making her own decision despite any consequences was a symbol of her strength and independence which would allow her to explore herself in a new way in the adopted culture and society.

3. In what ways is Mukherjee different from her sister? What kind of relationship do they have?

After reaching America, they had different opinions and attitudes. Bharati felt that it was not important to get stuck with her Indianness; hence, she embraced every aspect of American society to feel like a part of that society whereas her sister, Mira valued her Indian background more than anything; thus, she passionately clung to her Indian citizenship. However, they were very loving towards each other but disagreed with each other's views on citizenship.

4. Why does Mukherjee's sister feel used? Why does she say that America has "change[d] its rules in midstream" (8)?

Before Vice President Gore's "Citizenship USA", Mira was comfortable living in America legally but without citizenship. She was able to maintain her Indianness without feeling any pressure to give up her nationality or leave the country. She has honestly done her job there. She has invested a great deal of time, energy and love into her work there, but now due to the implementation of the new rule caused by Gore's "Citizenship USA", she has felt a risk of losing her Indian citizenship and stability unless she becomes an American citizen. When she says that America has "change[d] its rules in midstream", she means that the new laws for immigration should only be imposed on those who enter America after those rules are already in place.

5. According to Mukherjee, how is her sister like all immigrants who "have stayed rooted in one job, one city, one house, one ancestral culture, one cuisine, for the entirety of their productive years" (12)?

According to Mukherjee, her sister - Mira - is like all immigrants because she has a strong attachment and passion for her Indian identity despite living in America for a long time (36 years). She does not have any interest to assimilate herself into the American culture by acknowledging new rules in operation.

Purpose and Audience

1. What is Mukherjee's thesis? At what point does she state it?

The core idea of Mukherjee's writing is that nobody can have similar experiences to others in America. Everybody experiences it differently, and accordingly, they react as well. This thing she clearly states in the line "In one family, from two sisters alike as peas in a pod, there could not be a wider divergence of immigrant experiences."

2. At whom is Mukherjee aiming her remarks? Immigrants like herself? Immigrants like her sister? General readers? Explain.

At a glance, it seems that Mukherjee's remarks are aimed at her sister, Mira as she passionately maintains her Indian root but in fact, her remarks may have targeted other immigrants like herself because she seems to have understood Mira's decision of retaining her Indianness at the end of the essay when she faced the discriminatory behaviour of the Canadian government. Her realization of the validity of resisting citizenship may help others who also have the same views as Mukherjee had to understand the importance of citizenship.

3. What is Mukherjee's purpose? Is she trying to inform? To move readers to action? To accomplish something else? Explain.

The purpose of this essay is to inform rather than something else as Mukherjee has tried to convey the message to her readership that there cannot be a common and universal immigrant experience no matter what their geographical or family background is; hence, each immigrant's dreams and perspective of things are different from each other.

Style and Structure

1. What basis for comparison exists between Mukherjee and her sister? Where in the essay does Mukherjee establish this basis?

After having a minute reading of some beginning paragraphs, the establishment of the basis of comparison between the two sisters is noticed. Both sisters planned to live in the US for the same period of time (two years) to complete their higher education and then return to India. Mukherjee mentioned similarities between them before coming to the US, but when they got married in the US, they stay longer and they shared different views based on their immigrant experiences.

2. Is this essay a point-by-point or a subject-by-subject comparison? Why do you think Mukherjee chose the strategy she did?

This essay is a point-by-point comparison. Mukherjee has chosen specific points to compare her experiences and her sister's experiences. She talks about each specific point to highlight each other's experiences; for example, their views on maintaining nationality, American culture, marriage outside their ethnic community, Vice President Gore's "Citizenship USA" and the like. This pattern of comparison is appropriate here to compare each other's experiences wherever they vary in their lives.

3. What points does Mukherjee discuss for each subject? Should she have discussed any other points?

The points Mukherjee discusses are each sister's marriage, their views on Indian culture and heritage, retaining citizenship, and the choice to embrace American culture and lifestyle. These are the points that Mukherjee considers time and again throughout the entire essay as she finds her views have shifted over time with the country's changing views on immigration.

4. What transitional words and phrases does Mukherjee use to signal shifts from one point to another?

The transitional words and phrases that Mukherjee uses are "Instead... (3)", "I realize... (12)", and "Nearly 20 years ago... (13)".

5. How effective is Mukherjee's conclusion? Does it summarize the essay's major points? Would another strategy be more effective? Explain.

Mukherjee's conclusion is effective. She has concluded that no matter how different experiences one has as an immigrant, s/she has to face challenges. To stay in America comfortably, immigrants must change themselves to get assimilated into the new society. In Mukherjee's case, she has willingly adopted the new culture: the change came more willingly in her. It does never mean that she did not face challenges in Canada and that event made Mukherjee realize that challenges are almost certain to come in the life of immigrants. In her sister's case, Mira was forced to gain citizenship of America which she never wished for. She is happier to live in America as an expatriate Indian and never puts her roots down. Therefore, she avoids the trauma of self-transformation.

Vocabulary Projects

1. Define each of the following words as it is used in this selection.

saris (2)    : garments made from cotton or silk worn by Hindu women
certifications (3) : documents serving as evidence of something's validity
mongrelization (5) : to make impure
perspective (7) : the state of one's ideas or how one sees the world
mythic (7)    : not based on facts
superficial (7) : surface level
scrutiny (7) : investigation; examination
discretion (7) : freedom or judgement
curtailing (8) : cutting short; reducing or diminishing
divergence (11) : difference in opinions or choices
expatriate (11) : a person who lives outside of their native country
trauma (15) : an experience that causes psychological pain

2. What, according to Mukherjee, is the difference between an immigrant and an exile (15)? What are the connotations of these two words? Do you think the distinction Mukherjee makes is valid?

The term "immigrant" is used for the people like herself in America who is ready to assimilate into the new cultural and social structure, and the term "exile" is for immigrants like her sister who passionately clings to her Indian heritage. Mukherjee states that if someone is reluctant to assimilate themselves into the new structure, they are exiled from the new country. This distinction Mukherjee draws in the rest of her essay and is, therefore, an appropriate way to phrase it.

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