Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class
and cut it up
so everyone could taste
a Chinese apple. Knowing
it wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eat
but watched the other faces. (Lines 40-45).
Li-Young Lee’s poem “Persimmons” sheds light on the amount of stress immigrants face because they are expected to assimilate to American culture and, at times, American notions about their own cultures. In the first stanza, the reader reveals that he was punished for not knowing the difference between the words “persimmon” and “precision” (Lines 1-5). The word choice here is important because the speaker’s understanding of English words and American customs needs to be precise. If not, he is punished. In school, this means he is slapped. In life, however, the speaker’s ignorance may have larger consequences.
Mrs. Walker seems to care about precision, but the stanza above shows that the law of precision does not apply to her. This is shown when she cuts the persimmon. The persimmon is symbolic of China and Chinese culture, which as the speaker’s father describes, is special enough that it “never leave[s] a person” (Line 85). The persimmon is referenced throughout the poem, but most explicitly in this stanza. When Mrs. Walker calls the persimmon a “Chinese apple,” she turns it into something that it is not (Line 42). In an attempt to make the American children understand a persimmon, she compares it to something much more accessible for them. The persimmon is no longer a persimmon at all, but a strange Chinese fruit — an Other Apple. Mrs. Walker’s definition of a persimmon is not very precise enough to fit her own standards. Therefore, by her own thinking, shouldn’t that definition be wrong? Shouldn’t it warrant punishment or embarrassment? Apparently not.
Mrs. Walker further orientalizes China and Chinese culture when she “cut it up / so everyone could taste [it]” (lines 41-42). When Mrs. Walker cuts the persimmon, the speaker notes that it is not “ripe or sweet” (line 43). This suggests that Mrs. Walker does not understand Chinese Culture as well as she wants the speaker to understand American culture. She does not see it the way it is really is. The overripe persimmon reflects Mrs. Walker’s ignorance of Chinese culture. She hasn’t waited long enough for the perfect fruit or learned enough about the culture to teach about it respectfully and correctly.
In other stanzas, we can tell that the speaker is clearly anxious about his assimilation into American culture. When he describes an intimate encounter with an American girl, he “remember[s] to tell her / she is as beautiful as the moon” (Line 28). The word “remember” suggests obligation and underscores the fact that the speaker would not necessarily have done this if his American partner did not expect to do it. When we compare this moment to the moment that Mrs. Walker cuts the Chinese apple, it is clear that Mrs. Walker does not care as much about correctness of precision as the speaker has to.
At the end of the stanza, we learn that the speaker did not eat from the persimmon but, “watched the other faces” (Line 45). This emphasizes the fact that he is expected to watch the others and learn as much about them as he can despite the fact that they do not offer him or his culture the same respect or reverence.
Lee, Li-Young. “Persimmons.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Comp. Kelly J. Mays. Ed. Spencer Richardson-Jones. 12th ed. New York: Norton, 2016. 771-773. Print.
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