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Multiculturalism in America: Tropic of Orange by Karen Tei Yamashita

One of the most prominent contemporary Japanese American novelists, short-story writer, playwright, and professor, Karen Tei Yamashita, was born in Oakland, California. However, Yamashita spent most of her childhood in Gardena, Los Angeles County, California. Yamashita received the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship and traveled to Sao Paulo in 1975 to research Japanese immigrant communities in Brazil. She is the professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she teaches creative writing and Asian American literature. Her works contain elements of magic realism. Yamashita's novels emphasize the necessity of multicultural communities in an increasingly globalized age, even as they destabilize orthodox notions of borders and national/ethnic identity.

Karen Tei Yamashita

"Tropic of Orange," written by Karen Tei Yamashita describes seven characters from different perspectives, which portray the exclusive background of each personality. As Sherryl Vint says in Orange County: Global Networks in Tropic of Orange, “The novel recounts an eventful week in Los Angeles through the interconnected stories of seven characters whose various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds produce for each a distinct experience of the city: Mexican immigrant Rafaela Cortes, a janitor going to business school, temporarily estranged from her husband; Bobby Ngu, her husband, an immigrant from Singapore by way of Vietnam whose intense work ethic has led to ownership of a janitorial business; Emi, a Japanese-American television producer; Buzzworm, an African-American Vietnam War veteran who lives in an impoverished neighborhood and advocates for its residents; Manzanar Murakami, a Japanese-American retired surgeon who lives on the streets but is also taken care of by his family; Gabriel Balboa, a Chicano journalist committed to representing the disenfranchised of LA, who is Emi’s boyfriend, for whom Buzzworm serves as a source, and at whose office Rafaela and Bobby work; and finally Arcangel, a South-American performance artist who embodies the spirit of the indigenous since colonization.”

As a multicultural city, Los Angeles is presented by Yamashita as a "falling down" city myth that neglects minorities and an unseen group of people that are emphasized throughout the novel. She depicts separate and unrelated people's lives into one pot. Their common crossing path is the presence of Los Angeles where everything switches and merchandising fastly. As Sherryl Vint mentions in Orange County: Global Networks in Tropic of Orange: “Yamashita’s novel, too, is concerned with the blurring of fantasy and reality that is the experience of LA, and with the complex entanglement of fantasies about the past and the future with opportunities perceived in the present”. Los Angeles is an example of a global intersection. Localization of the products is disrupted by global mechanization. Global balance is annihilated by huge brands. Just like north and south, globalism and localism are not dispersed equally. One can say that L. A is nothing more than deluded speculation of untold history. Huge brands and monuments or internalized elements like Hollywood give a sense of rareness into Los Angeles. As an observer of the city, characters like Buzzworm or Gabriel try to tell hidden parts of the city. Both chase a story waiting for their attention to emerge. Yamashita describes this situation with the power of crossing borders. The imaginary line which divided the city into categories can become a distinct line that gets attention from everyone, even the persons who are not relevant for the topic. And Yamashite’s aim is related to the reveal of this part of the line. She ponders upon not in a tone of horrific corruption scene of Los Angeles, but she generally spoke about the general problems of the city. She decides to reflect her ideas with the power of multiculturalism element that the city has from the beginning. Contrary to the assuming belief, Los Angeles is not the city that embraces every individual along with their heritage. Therefore, Yamashita discerns this fact by collecting different cultures, languages, sources and making it visible by imposing different stories into each character in the novel. As Sherryl Vint emphasizes, ‘’city’s suffering is as real as its promise and beauty.’’ Underneath the surface, there is a lot of indignant people floundering in the street of L.A. And day by day, their anger towards the regime is growing. They do not have any place to live, and they burst into the reality of the city which is designed by a superior - a white man. They do not forget to exclude white-Asians or black, Latins, etc.

Photography by Serge Ramelli, Los Angeles

Coming from different backgrounds, Emi and Gabriel have two different values. Yet, as a couple, they have embodied symbols of multiculturalism and race. Together they represent Los Angeles in a distinctive way. Gabriel is reflected as a person who has been tracing his own identity and heritage, on the other hand, Emy has been detached from her Japanese identity and she keeps on denying this identification until she sees her grandfather, Manzanar. On one hand, Emy rejects the existence of multiculturalism, which is created to fill their pocket with money, also she objects to a group of people who willingly embrace multiculturalism. On the other hand, Gabriel does not divert himself from the existence of his Mexican heritage. He considers the mutability of his identity between America and Mexico. We can conclude from his endeavor to build a ''hacienda'' into his field in Mexico. The reason for choosing the profession of a reporter is relevant to his desire to uncover untold stories which are concerned with minority people. Sherryl Vint states: "contrast between Gabriel, who loves noir and avant-garde cinema, and street-savvy Emi, who eschews this aestheticized vision for an unromanticized embrace of the hard realities of inequality and exclusion that underlie consumerist fantasies about multiculturalism." For Emi, there is an annoying presence of something that always makes her rebellious against certain taboos. Like a bomb, she is constantly attacking the issues that disturb her. She has constant surveillance and is surrounded by stereotypes. As mentioned in Tropic of Orange, "and considering someone like herself—so distant from the Asian female stereotype—it was questionable if she even had an identity.'' Based on that quotation, one can assert that Emi is an accumulation of complicated identity structure positioned amid her Japanese saga. Although she strives to erase it, she cannot slip away easily. Rachel Adams mentions in The Ends of America, the Ends of Postmodernism “Emi loves speed, surfaces, and the newest technologies.” The reason for her obsession with speed and the newest technologies can be related to her desire to forget race existence while diverting herself with the fascination of developing technologies. As Rachel Adams states: “A woman whose reality is confirmed only when she sees it on the evening news, who rejects tradition and declares that "cultural diversity is bullshit" Emi seems to represent the future that many critics have associated, for better or worse, with Southern California.” She is sharp and cruel because of her existence which is embedded in her.

East Los Angeles Interchange

Emi knows that the American hemisphere captures her Japanese culture and makes it invisible to her people. They seize their foods, products as part of the culture. Emy cannot tolerate adopting multicultural diversity as a kind of pampering idea of America. She rebels against the idea of cultural diversity by teasing, saying: "I hate being multicultural." From the angle of Emi, she rejects old-traditional culture which resists existing in the new world. She turns her back to the diversity. For her, the actual meaning of culture is nothing more than fabrication. Even though she is amused with that idea, it sometimes reflects her entertainment to Gabriel. As Yamashita writes, "she liked trying to be anti-multicultural around him. Right in the middle of some public place, she might burst out, “Oh you’re so Chicano!" She deliberately annoys Gabriel, because she knows he does not have any problem with his race. That makes her more consistent to resist this idea. Wherever she goes, she encounters this multicultural reality in Los Angeles. Even the technology she consumes offers her different notifications about it. However, she prefers to look at technology as a more stable tool that makes her world more mechanical and insensible. As she says, “See what I mean, Hiro? You’re invisible. I’m invisible. We’re all invisible. It’s just tea, ginger, raw fish, and a credit card.” She accepts her invisibility, so she has wrath towards any attitude that makes her irritated. Even while she is dying, she still holds onto "the mechanical part" of the world and ignores the structure of culture.

Emi’s death proves that resistance to multiculturalism sooner or later will fade away among the clashes. As Rachel Adams mentions, “Her last words are a conic recognition of her failure to interface completely with the computerized technologies that have defined her life: "Abort. Retry. Ignore. Fail ...The shallow theatricality of Emi's death could not be more postmodern. But her unsentimental elimination also suggests that she is no longer useful, that the future belongs instead to characters like Gabriel or the community organizer Buzzworm, who are both more respectful of the past and willing to harbour utopian visions of the future. Indeed, Yamashita's decision to kill off her character seems to repudiate the postmodern "waning of affect" famously described by Fredric Jameson by leaving the world to those with deeper commitments and belief in the possibility of social change.” She is excluded from the old world, which is worn off by multiculturalism. Just like her personality, she is alienated from the world by saying "mechanical" words in the end. Unlike the other characters in the novel, Emi is a symbol of anti-multicultural synthesis. With Emi's death in the book, Yamashita points out the appreciation of old tradition.

Hollywood, Los Angeles

For Gabriel, the issue initiates the aspire to discover the untrodden roots of his ancestors. As Sherryl Vint emphasizes, "Gabriel bought this second home to indulge his abstract sense of connection to Mexico, a land he is linked to by racial heritage but of which he has no experience" (403). He plants a different kind of tree every time he came to Mexico. He tries to find a hidden history that is linked to his Chicano identity and for him, the tree has a mark to understand his lost identity. With the help of trees, he digs in the real meaning of what it feels like to discover the hidden story of his ancestry. Even if he wants to build an authentic Mexican home, he brings American commodities to his house. He cannot escape Americanization. Even though Gabriel declares himself with the pure Mexican identity, he expresses himself with an American mindset. When Rafaela warns him of irregular climate, which is not suitable for the trees, he answers: "They gotta take care of themselves. Survival of the fittest” (10). Even if he knows the trees cannot live in the climate in which they are not supposed to, he keeps on planting and supports his statement that the trees can manage to care for themselves. This way of thinking comes from the notion known as self-reliance. He grew with the perceptions of American identity, and his belief towards the trees is clarifying with this idea.

Rafaela is wondering why Gabriel insisted on planting trees that couldn’t survive in this climate. The reason for this could be Gabriel's lack of knowledge of the territory. He cannot succeed to compose a sense of belonging to his land. We will see that failure through the ending of the novel when Gabriel confesses to himself that his house looks unfamiliar to him. Even though he thinks that he connects himself with his race, he fails in it. Based on this act, one can say that he is not aware of his identity and what it feels like to be an immigrant. He has an American mindset, and the trees embody his Mexican identity; they are not belonging. As Sherryl Vint marks, "He offered Rafaela the house as a place of refuge, but he soon realizes that his relationship to the place and his ideas about Rafaela’s life as an immigrant are disconnected from reality. His house needs continual care because he tries to renovate it with inappropriate materials imported from the North." While he tries to connect himself with the trees, he attempts to lighten his missing other-self. The more he planted, the more he created a sense of belonging to each tree, because although time passes, the tree will always be there to show how they are durable and a symbol of living history, since their existence is a kind of evidence for his Mexican identity. However, he could not receive a traditional demeanor from Mexico to show everyone. Because even if his race is related to this country, his multicultural heritage is rooted in America.

Inside Rainn Wilson’s Idyllic Spanish-Style Hacienda

As Sherryl Vint mentions: “His ideas for the house come not from a connection to living community but rather from architectural magazines.” He longs to see the missing part of his race by establishing a house in the lands of Mexico. It can be said that a land connects people with their ancestors, and the aim of Gabriel is to find this connection. However, he cannot go any further from artificial merchandise. Even his own family does not care about the existence of Gabriel's hacienda. And he keeps on constructing. Yet, there is a moment that grabs his hidden dilemma and comes in sight of his eyes. As he says in the novel: “I had for so long yearned for my place in México, for the tropical privacy of my hideout. If I held a historic connection to this place, it suddenly felt vague. I hadn’t recognized my own place; maybe it was those strange brass-knobbed chairs she’d placed next to the fireplace. Where did she get those ugly things? But it wasn’t just decorative. No one in my entire family had ever bothered to come here. They called it Gabe’s Folly. “Hey, ése, what about investing in the homeland—East L.A.?” they snickered.’’ He cannot recognize his own house just like his own race, even though he tries to connect them both. Towards the ending, Gabriel reaches a conclusion, which has the focus on the impossibility of grasping every story completely: “I no longer looked for a resolution to the loose threads hanging off my storylines. If I had begun to understand anything, I now knew they were simply the warp and woof of a fraying net of conspiracies in an expanding universe where the holes only seemed to get larger and larger.” Now Gabriel knows that no matter how hard he tried to fill the holes, there is no certainty about hidden meaning. As Rachel Adams says, “Although these holes are no closer to being filled by the novel's end, Gabriel has come to accept the uncertainty of his chaotic, transitional environment by recognizing its likeness to the ubiquitous technology of the internet.” Gabriel's idea about multiculturalism deviates to the other side. He knows that just like the speed of the internet, cultural mindset can be changed as well. He stops following the holes and is aware that there is no need to dive into the holes because they are infinite.

To sum up, Emi and Gabriel's path crossed with the presence of multicultural Los Angeles. With this intersection, just like long-standing invisible borders line, they demolish the nostalgic elements of separateness into the city. Even if they come from different backgrounds, races, and personalities, Yamashita manages to create a sensation of belonging in the characters. The reader can conclude that maintaining a sense of belonging is crucial to keep the past. Escape from the past is a betrayal of the roots and the race. However, characters like Gabriel can be lost while seeking the importance of the race. And the sensation questions where these efforts go to in the end. Yamashita tells us that the characters who reject their past will sooner or later perish in the dusty pages of history. And the death of Emi proves that declaration.

Works Cited

Yamashita, Karen Tei, Tropic of Orange, Minneapolis: Coffee House,1997.

Vint, Sherryl, Orange County: Global Networks in Tropic of Orange, Science Fiction Studies, Vol.39 No.3 (November 2012), pp.401-414.

Adams, Rachel, The Ends of America, the Ends of Postmodernism, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 53, No. 3, After Postmodernism: Form and History in Contemporary American Fiction (Fall, 2007), pp. 248 272.


Inside Rainn Wilson’s Idyllic Spanish-Style Hacienda [Photography]


Author Photo

Aylin Usta

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