Culture Clash and Language Barriers in Circle K Cycles and Nowhere Man

With the advent of the Internet, the ease of international travel and trade, and the continuing globalization of society, it comes as little surprise that many writers explore difficulties and intricacies of displacement and assimilation of their characters. As our world becomes more globalized and communication between cultures expands and improves, we are likely to lose our own identities and we will no longer feel displaced in the world. Until the time when we are one global community, we will continue this displaced feeling when we are out of our cultural origins. In the meantime, many contemporary novels deal with themes of displacement, but some take the theme further and focus on the cultural clash and language barriers that characters experience. In Aleksandar Hemon’s Nowhere Man and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Circle K Cycles the experiences of the characters immersed in new cultures and languages are explored.

While Nowhere Man and Circle K Cycles both contain characters who are immersed in new societal circumstances each provides a different reason for their characters’ immersion in these new cultures. The nameless narrator and Jozef Pronek in Nowhere Man are new to American society for a similar reason as Hemon: they are escaping the violence of the war in Sarajevo. There are also the Americans who are studying in Kiev at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union. The characters in Circle K Cycles are either Japanese Brazilians emigrating to Japan or Japanese immigrants to Brazil for, primarily, economic reasons (although the latter category of characters is not written about nearly as much).

Yamashita portrays the culture clash of, primarily, the dekasegi in Circle K Cycles. In between her fiction and nonfiction chapters, she incorporates small details such as recipes to convey the differences between Japanese and Brazilian cultures. Not only does she write about the cultural differences, she gives readers images and other hybrid forms to see the differences for themselves. She juxtaposes advertisements in Japanese, Portuguese, or both to show the differences and similarities in what is geared toward the dekasegi. This is expressed in the text in reference to the photos of Miss Hamamatsu in a magazine, at which point Jorginho says, “They are doing big business not only with the dekasegi crowd here in Japan but in Brazil as well. After all, beautiful women are beautiful anywhere.” (p. 27). There are also two chapters, one in Portuguese and another in Japanese, to show the readers the linguistic differences as well. A Japanese man explains “he felt confused at times because of cultural misunderstandings and nuances of language” with his Brazilian friends (p. 120).

The culture and language barriers are most influential on the children who move to Japan with their parents. JosÃ?© is confused and unhappy in his new neighborhood, he says, “I hate it here. I want to go home.” (p. 87). It doesn’t help his situation that the Japanese school system will send him to the next grade level even though he is behind his classmates. Iara attempts to help him by making sure he doesn’t run off in the wrong direction and get lost-she’s not entirely sure why he’s upset but she thinks it might be that other children tease him. Iara is representative of the integration of Brazilian children in Japan since she learns to speak Portuguese as her second language. This enables her to assist other Brazilian children like JosÃ?© in adapting to Japanese culture and language. But even she has a problem because her name translated into Japanese means “ugly.”

There are instances of confusion of culture-Yamashita explains the confusion in the epilogue. She asks, “what exactly makes a Nikkei?” (p. 145). This is after explaining her genealogy and determining that she is a mattaku Nikkei. Even with her genealogy as proof, she explains that because of her hair and eyelids many people doubt that she really is Nikkei. This confusion plays an important role in the lives of the dekasegi because it determines if they can legally work in Japan and what jobs they can acquire.

One of the cultural differences that Yamashita examines early in the novel is of trash. She explains that Brazilians rarely have to buy anything upon their arrival in Japan because they receive items handed down by other dekasegi or from the trash. However, “The JapaneseâÂ?¦would never do this. [They] don’t want other people’s old things. They are superstitious: used things bring bad luck.” (p. 30). At this point, there is also a reference to the American philosophy of excess items being stored in a garage or extra room-something that the Japanese cannot do because of lack of space.

Yamashita takes notice of governmental differences that the dekasegi must grow accustomed to. There are the Empreiteiras that sell dekasegi labor illegally because businesses don’t want the trouble of hiring them directly. However, the Empreiteiras must be a Japanese citizen-the dekasegi Maria Madalena attempted a dekasegi employment agency and was arrested by the Japanese government for illegally selling labor, creating a double standard in law. “What was she doing that the big fish weren’t? Why weren’t they sitting in jail with her? Was it because she was a foreigner? Were the Japanese the only ones who could break the law and get away with it?” (p. 38).

Even when dekasegi are innocent, they are assumed guilty. ZÃ?© Maria pleads his innocence but claims, “I’m just being accused because I’m a foreigner. If I were Japanese, no one would bother with me.” (p. 41). Even with his claims of innocence, the Brazilian Embassy does not offer enough assistance in his case-at least that’s how he views it. Yamashita portrays this situation as that of a dekasegi not trying to assimilate. “Every once in a while, there’s a dekasegi who tries to step off the whell, who tries to run the program rather than run with it.” (p. 43).

The Brazilians in Japan have difficulty adapting to the police as well as the law. “Brazilians don’t understand the nature of a police investigation in Japan.” (p. 122). They are accustomed to reporters investigating crimes, but the Japanese reporters work with the police and only publish what is released to them. The Brazilian reporters speculate on the crimes, and in Japan they can determine whether a Brazilian committed the crimes based on the mindset that they understand.

Nowhere Man’s approach to the issues of culture and language is not as overtly expressed as in Circle K Cycles. Throughout the novel, there are characters who represent different cultures and views of those cultures. The nameless narrator in the first chapter seems to embrace American culture and the English language-he has a habit of reading the dictionary to understand as much as possible. Even with this habit, he occasionally has difficulties in understanding the language. His immigration experience is summed up in the obsolete definition of “eviction” that the looks up in the dictionary: “The action of conquering a country or of obtaining something by conquest” (p. 5). If this definition is combined with the primary definition, it seems to represent the act of leaving one’s home for a new one and assimilating into society. Fully assimilating into a society requires the conquest, in a sense, of the native language and cultural background (or possibly conquering the old language and culture in order to adapt to the new).

As for Jozef Pronek, he is constantly struggling with English. His struggles are most prevalent during his conversations with Rachel and her compulsive need to correct his grammatical errors. Even with his mistakes he is understood by those around him, and it is only Rachel who takes notice and corrects him. There are even times when other characters criticize her for correcting his grammar. This is contrasted by Pronek’s talk with the director of the American Cultural Center who “spoke woeful Serbo-Croatian” (p. 69). Pronek has difficulty understanding the director and is tempted to correct him at times. Even with his occasional struggles with English, Pronek understands the language better than Brdjanin who has lived in America longer but didn’t have the early education that Pronek had.

Pronek also has difficulty with his own culture and language. While still living in Sarajevo, his band plays a variety of music-he is heavily influenced by The Beatles and tends to sing in English. His drummer complains about his original lyrics: “Why did it have to be in English-it was not their language.” (p. 45). Having the songs in English helps Pronek and Mirza at Prva gimnazija where the girls all spoke English. Although the band does play a lot of British and American music, they also play traditional Bosnian songs like sevdalinka.

To add to the confusion of culture, while canvassing for Greenpeace, Pronek pretends to be what he isn’t. He does this because he can-the people he speaks with don’t know the difference. He also does this because people tend to ask him about Bosnia and the war, a subject Pronek never seems comfortable in discussing.

Not all of the language barriers in Nowhere Man are caused by foreign languages. In the case of Victor Plavchuk in Kiev, the language barrier is poor communication through a telephone. While calling home he hears an echo of his own voice and his mother hears his voice in a delay so that their conversation is fractured-it’s a confusing conversation that Victor “understood in spite of the echoes.” (p. 112). Aside from this short episode there are few moments in Kiev in which language or culture is an issue for the characters-most of these moments involve questions about English words that Pronek doesn’t understand or characters asking questions about each other.

Surprisingly, Hemon neglects to include the communism from his cultural identity of the characters. There are brief mentions of it, however, in Kiev with the surveillance camera in the dorm room. But there are no comparisons to Pronek growing up in a former communist country and then struggling with employment in a capitalist democracy. It would seem that this could cause some problem for Pronek as well as the unnamed narrator in their experiences in America. He also never compares sevdalinka to blues in Chicago, except when Pronek brings up his stage name with Aaron and Maxwell. It seems that this would be useful in differentiating cultures considering the prominence of blues in the city and sevdalinka in Pronek’s youth.

Although there are barriers between the characters in Nowhere Man, Hemon builds some bridges between them as well. All the characters are loosely connected to Jozef Pronek by something in their lives. Victor is connected through his Ukrainian heritage, Taylor Owen through his need for someone to speak to another Serbian, Rachel through her need to help people, Rebecca through her travels in Sarajevo, and everyone else through their constant wandering (literal or figurative).

While Hemon uses similarities in order to connect his characters, Yamashita’s similarities among characters create greater barriers. Everyone in Circle K Cycles is Japanese-the only difference is how many generations removed from Japan they are. The removal from Japan creates a barrier between the Nikkei and dekasegi-everyone is judged by how purely Japanese the heritage is. It even seems that the dekasegi self-segregate themselves from the rest of the Japanese population. The only bridge Yamashita does use to break barriers is that of the Circle K-a piece of Japanese culture to which some American readers can relate and yet take notice of differences as well.

There are reasons behind both authors’ use of culture and language barriers in their novels. Hemon and Yamashita are themselves examples of culture clashes and language barriers. As explained in the prologue and epilogue, Yamashita is a Japanese American married to a Brazilian and, for much of the novel, living Japan. Hemon is a Bosnian immigrant in the United States-himself struggling with English as a second language as his characters do. It is the authors’ backgrounds that cultivate these ideas of cultural and linguistic differences and the difficulties that accompany them.

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