A Theme Of Identity Crisis In The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao

My mouth fell open, but I wasn’t really too surprised. I often get comments about my inability to dance. Even the worst grade on my report card this year was in Dance, because the teacher agreed that I had no rhythm! My black friends shake their heads in disbelief at my lack of skill. This apparently stems from the simple belief that since I am part black, I should automatically be able to gyrate like Beyonce or Janet Jackson. On the other hand, some of my white friends wonder if my long, wavy hair is natural, or if I use relaxers to make it appear less “froey.” Most of the time I just laugh off their ignorance, but sometimes it is a struggle to fit into both groups. Where do I belong, really? For many, adolescence can be a challenging time; along with physical changes and anxiety about future schools and careers, teenagers place vast importance on acceptance in one's peer group. Often, this acceptance is based on conforming to ideals and values of the group. This becomes complicated when one belongs to separate and distinct cultural and/or racial groups, because what one group views as preferable, the other group views as strange or different. I have experienced this tension in my own life because I come from a mixed racial and cultural background. With a black mother whose family emigrated to this country from East Africa, and a white father whose ancestors have resided in the United States for generations, I have experienced inadvertent prejudice and misunderstanding. Many of my white friends are unenlightened about what it means to be black, while other black friends show the same degree of confusion as to why I act “so white.” Like Oscar, Lola, and Yunior in Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I have also suffered with the uneasiness associated with failing to fit clearly into any given peer group based on cultural stereotypes. During Lola’s youth, she experiments with trying to find her own individual identity, a search which leads to judgment from her community. Her mother sets up standards she is expected to meet to be a perfect Dominican daughter, and her peers expect her to appear a certain way. Lola rebels against these expectations by cutting her hair and changing her style, and notes the confused reaction of her peers. She describes herself as “punk chick. That's what I became. A Siouxsie and the Banshees-loving punk chick.

The Puerto Rican kids on the block couldn't stop laughing when they saw my hair, they called me Blacula, and the morenos, they didn't know what to say: they just called me devil-bitch. Yo, devil-bitch, yo, yo!”. Society believes that being a “punk chick” and listening to the British Punk band Siouxsie and the Banshees is only for Caucasians, and so when Lola adopts this style, she is mocked by her peers. Like Lola, I have been called names by people unenlightened about my racial background. One of the more common is “Oreo, because I do not fit into the stereotype of how a black person “should act.” For example, my favorite hangout is Starbucks, which many of my friends find amusing. In contrast, when Lola goes to Santo Domingo, a family member, Rosío, tries to completely change her look, making her appear more Dominican again, she remarks that “so much has changed these last months, in my head, my heart. Rosío has me dressing up like a ‘real Dominican girl.’ She's the one who fixed my hair and who helps me with my makeup, and sometimes when I see myself in mirrors I don't even know who I am anymore”. Lola’s family tries to make her into a stereotypical Dominican girl because they want to redeem Lola’s and their own family’s reputations because they fear rejection from Dominican society. Rosío tries to make Lola into something she is not, causing her to become confused about her true identity as a Dominican American. I, too, have often experienced similar attempts from the black side of my family, many of whom have encouraged me to wear “black” hairstyles, such as micro- or block braids. Unfortunately, society often seems to want to categorize people based on their cultural background, and there frequently is a negative reaction if one stands out. Oscar and Yunior deal with the Dominican prejudice in opposite ways. Yunior succumbs to these expectations while Oscar defies them, which results in him being socially ostracized. In the novel, people label Oscar as a nerd; as Yunior points out, “Oscar could write in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic. . . Perhaps if like me he'd been able to hide his otakuness maybe shit would have been easier for him, but he couldn't”. Yunior discusses how Oscar’s geeky interests, which are considered “white” attributes, lead him to be shunned and bullied by his Dominican peers.

Yunior specifically mentions how he himself had some of these same predilections, but was able to hide them, allowing him to have an easier time in his youth. This clearly displays the contrast between the two characters; Yunior tries to become the epitome of Dominican masculinity, while Oscar does what he enjoys, ignoring these standards. Throughout the book, Yunior praises himself excessively on his accomplishments regarding women, desiring to be perceived as a macho, confident character. Yunior fears rejection and judgment by the Dominican community, and as a result tries to mask insecurities and qualities which would be considered “flaws” for a Dominican man. Oscar, on the other hand, is aware that Dominicans consider him an outlier, but accepts this reality. As an adolescent, I understand the challenge of walking the line between trying to maintain my self-identity while wanting to be accepted by my peer group because, like Lola, Oscar and Yunior, my heritage straddles two distinctly different worlds. The culturally-based presumptions that society places on people create difficulty for one to be to be his or her honest self. People often feel they must sacrifice a part of themselves to be accepted by their peer group. Yunior specifically disowns his “nerdy” interests to feel accepted. I, too, have sometimes felt the need to camouflage my “white” side to talk to black people, and vice-versa when trying to make white friends. People ultimately care what their peers think, but the truth is that people need to surround themselves with an environment where they can be accepted for who they really are. When Oscar falls in love with Ybon, she accepts all parts of him, including his “dorky” interests, and loves him – all of him. For true love to flourish, both of the self and from others, people need to surround themselves with those who lift, support, and welcome all the various, distinct and unique parts of who they are. Trying to define me by just one label is not only wrong, it is impossible. I am only me with all of my parts, and it is my challenge to be true to myself by balancing my allegiance to both groups with my own independent identity. If I am successful, I will, like Oscar, ultimately be happy because I have accepted myself for who I am. If people from mixed backgrounds, like those of myself and the characters of the novel, would realize that they are not “part this” and “part that”, but rather a mixture of all of their backgrounds, the world would be a happier and more peaceful place.

01 February 2021
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