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I’ve neglected this blog for far too long. I might as well resign myself to write a short, imperfect piece rather than let a fantastical thoughtful post stay put in my imagination. Isn’t that how most things go? The things we really want to do just never happen to get done?

Nevertheless, I finally got around to reading “Things Fall Apart”, by Nigerian author Chinhua Achebe. While I wouldn’t classify it as a literary masterpiece, I also don’t think it should be relegated to that bland category of “multicultural” books which are usually full of exotic spice but devoid of literary quality (i.e.- Kite Runner). Things Fall Apart reminds me more of the classic historical book, “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck, a novel that chronicles the rise  of a prominent, noble Chinese family over three generations, giving us a neat insight into the historical change taking place in China at that time. However, I’m not sure if Achebe would appreciate the comparison to Ms. Buck, since she was a white missionary kid in China – Achebe depicts white missionaries in his book as cultural colonizers that ruin the indigenous customs, religion, and ultimately, their way of life.

Similar to “The Good Earth”, “Things Fall Apart” also follows the life of a Nigerian family caught in the middle of a historically tumultuous time in Nigeria. It mainly details the life of Okonkwo, who must learn to fight against his childhood poverty, earn the respect of his tribe, appease capricious tribal gods, and manage a complex family life complicated by having three wives with three different sets of children. He manages it all by wielding the hard-earned tools that he has used since he was a boy: a superhuman work-ethic and absolute adherence to tradition. These two principles have guided him from abject poverty to a spot in the inner circle of the elder council, and so thus rules his family with his militaristic approach that has served him so well in life. And while his piety does not rely so much upon his faith in spirits and gods, his belief in rigid tradition rests upon its ability to create a semblance of order in a chaotic world. His absolute principles form the foundation upon which he has built his life, and to deviate from them or to even consider other ways of doing things would have been perceived as an existential threat.

Indeed, the encroachment of white (and powerful) missionaries into his community forces him to confront the foreign threat with the same militaristic violence that has served him well throughout his life. However, his community, intimidated by the flashing guns and confused by their gods’ lack of vengeful action on the irreverent white men, ultimately disappoint Okonkwo by not confronting the new threat with force. This disappointment ultimately crushes his spirit and belief in his community’s ability to uphold the traditions, the culture, and the way of life of the tribesmen.

Reading this story of Okonkwo also made me question my own identity as a “Chinese” and how lost and distant the culture is to me. In some ways, I am the product of that weak community so unwilling to fight for its way of life, selling itself wholesale to capitalism, individualism, and Western culture. In a way, the adoption of these Western values is a recognition of the failure of the indigenous values to produce wealth and happiness. Even the grafting of Christianity – a Judeo-Greek (WESTERN) religion – onto our personal lives feels like an attempt to merely “catch up” with the modern world. I have heard laments from my own parents, and other Chinese parents about how sad it is for Chinese people to have to immigrate to the US to get a “real education” or to eke out a “prosperous life”. I guess one could say that it doesn’t have to be an either/or type of acceptance, but an amalgamation, a salad bowl that picks from two different cultural harvest (excuse the imagery, it’s lame) , but I don’t know, that sounds like a 2nd place “everybody wins” type of argument. Orhan Pamuk said something about having to be on the ‘periphery’ of history these past few hundred years, and how hard it is to deal with that knowledge. Anyways, enough of that.

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One Comment

  1. I’ve been neglecting myself from THIS particular blog way too long. Excellent review and appreciate the humility towards the end.


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