Cultural Adaptation in Sour Sweet

Sinan AKILLI, M.A., Hacettepe University, Turkey.

[Part 2 of "Culture of Balance and Balance of Cultures: A Gendered Approach to Cross-Cultural Adaptation Process in Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet. Note: In-text citations refer to the bibliography, which opens in a separate window.]

Among all the novels of Mo, Sour Sweet is the one which deals specifically with the issue of cultural adaptation in the socio-cultural context of Britain of the 1960s. Ramraj argues that "Sour Sweet is about Chinese immigrants in Britain who cope with problems of assimilation" (1991: 475). Although this definition is acceptable in general, the conceptual mistake made by Ramraj should be corrected here. The problems encountered by the characters in Sour Sweet do not arise from a condition of "assimilation," but rather from a process of "initial adjustment" and "adaptation." The difference between these concepts is of utmost importance in terms of understanding the experiences of the characters in the novel. Assimilation is a concept which foresees the complete loss of the original cultural identity to be replaced with that of the members of host society. Adaptation, on the other hand, is a state of reconciliation and of coming to terms with the new socio-cultural environment by making "adjustments" in one's cultural identity. Whereas total assimilation is very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, adaptation is a concept that explains the real life situation of the immigrants.

Another point to emphasize in explaining the misuse of the word "assimilation" is that it has its basis in post-colonial theory itself. Unlike "assimilation," "adaptation" implies the existence of a state of standing in between two realms, without aligning to any of the sides. This state of being in between two -- or sometimes among multiple -- realms in the post-colonial context is most efficiently reflected by the term "hybridity." It is certain that a hybrid formation has by no means anything to do with a monolithic concept such as assimilation.

The comments of Laura Hall help us comprehend that post-colonial fiction writers, including Mo, write in and about a cultural realm, the conditions of which are best described by "adaptation" rather than "assimilation." Evaluating the novels of Mo from the view point of post-colonial theory, Hall argues that hiss writing "is a mediation of multiple layers of cross-cultural and 'hybridised' identities assembled out of the remains of the British Empire and in the shadows of the Chinese Empire" (90). The bicultural, or sometimes multicultural, aspect of post-colonial writing is an essential part of its nature, in which neither total assimilation into the host culture nor orthodox preservation of native culture has no place. This rejection of extreme ends in the novels of Mo and Ishiguro is emphasised by Hall, who argues that

the binary of primordial notions of ethnicity and 'cultural authenticity' on the one hand and the modern and thus assimilated and alienated native on the other are rendered banal by the innovativeness of writers such as Ishiguro and Mo....these two writers are not only re-imagining what it means to be Chinese or Japanese but, more significantly, what it means to be 'British.' (92)

Coll and Magnuson similarly appreciate bicultural identity and its advantages:

Bicultural individuals are comfortable and capable of belonging to both the ethnic culture and the host culture. Biculturalism does not necessarily mean that a person switches from one culture to another depending on the context, nor does it mean that a person blends the two cultures. Instead, across domains, the impact of biculturalism differs. For instance, in the domain of language, Chinese youth may engage in code switching (i.e., switching from one language to the other as the situation dictates), whereas in the domain of values, a blending may occur. Biculturalism includes both affective and behavioral components and functions on a continuum that can change over time and across situations. There are enormous benefits of biculturalism in an increasingly multi-cultural society... The ability to be bicultural increases a person's knowledge base. Bicultural individuals are capable of learning from different cultures because they are part of and apart from many cultural realities. (qtd. in Tang and Dion 22-23)

Perhaps the best evidence supporting the necessity of this biculturalism comes from the works themselves, since "wherever Mo and Ishiguro's characters invoke tradition [which is one of the extreme ends], whether for the purposes of survival or as a trope of power, the results are either comic or pitiable" (Hall 91).

Mo's Sour Sweet dramatizes the process of cultural transplantation or the cross-cultural adaptation process as it is experienced by the Hong Kong Chinese immigrants in Britain in the post-war period in an appropriately realistic style. Sour Sweet presents the encounters of post-war Hong Kong immigrants in Britain with their new cultural environment through the experiences of the members of Chen family and other characters from the same ethnic origin, who achieve different levels of success in culturally transplanting and adapting themselves into the host society. The operation of this process of cultural transplantation may have in four different results: successful adaptation, failure in adaptation that leads to the alienation and isolation of the individual from the rest of the society, failure in adaptation followed by the return of the individual to the country of origin, and assimilation as an extreme end of adaptation. In Sour Sweet there are both successful and failed characters, yet the failures presented in the novel exemplify the second type that causes isolation and alienation. Although there are not many characters in the novel, each provides a different perspective on cultural transplantation. These perspectives include that of unsuccessful and successful, and male and female immigrants. The novel's narrative voice, which reflects all these perspectives, is especially successful in depicting the female perspective, and this study adopts a gendered approach to analysing the major and minor male and female characters. Accordingly, the male and female characters will be analysed as separate groups so that gender differences in the experience of cross-cultural adaptation will appear. Hence, the analyses of male characters, namely Chen, Grandpa Chen and Mr. Lo, will be followed by the analyses of Lily, Mui and Mrs. Law.

Other parts of this essay

United Kingdom Overview Mo's Sour Sweet

Last modified 15 May 2003