Sucked into a Whirlpool
One Family's Attempt to Maintain their Individuality Through Stories
My family prides itself on its sense of humor. My mom, dad, sister, and myself have always been able to laugh at our mistakes, and we sometimes repeat our stories to our friends. Our stories often center around times when we did something differently to how it was supposed to be done, either on purpose or by mistake. We are not originally from the United States, which factors into some of the hidden meanings behind our stories. We moved to Virginia from South Africa in 1990 and, at the time of the writing of this paper, are in the process of attaining citizenship status. I would argue that our family stories highlight the fact that we are not American, that we do not fit into the norm, and that we like to be little different.
Our stories emphasize the distinction that my family makes between us and them. While this distinction is not made in ill-will, and my family and I are quite content living in the U.S., our stories highlight our attempts to distinguish ourselves from the masses. Some of them are just funny things that happened to us, either on vacation or any other normal situation, and many of them deal with cultural differences that we have noticed and found amusing. For example: less than a week after we moved here we stopped at a Giant supermarket to pick up a few items. My dad went up to the cashier while we unloaded the shopping basket. The cashier asked my dad, "Paper or Plastic?" and he replied, "Cash." She gave him a blank look and repeated her question, this time a little louder, and my dad, thinking that she had not heard him the first time, responded, "CASH." The cashier was confused, my dad was confused, and my mom had to step forward and explain to him that they didn1t want to know how we were going to pay, they wanted to know what kind of bags we needed. Everybody had a big laugh over it and we held onto the story as an example of a funny cultural misunderstanding. There were many more to come as we adapted to the American way of life.
Over the years my accent has almost disappeared, partly in an adolescent attempt to fit in, partly the effects of time. Now, without that overt distinguisher, I find myself looking for a way to reidentify myself as South African. I believe that I unconsciously use family stories as a way to connect with my family who, in turn, uses them to separate themselves from the norm. The story that I am going to analyze is interesting when considering how my family likes to go against the grain and do things in a way that makes us stand out. Although the story does not deal with cultural or societal differences, as many of our stories do, it still symbolizes our attempts to maintain our individual family identity. While what happened to us was an accident, it has somehow become a symbol of my family1s individual spirit.
The story is one that we tell when the conversation turns to camping, vacations, or when people come to our house and see a particular photograph in our living room; we do not tell it very often, only when the time is right. In order to have a written transcript, I found it necessary to tape record myself telling the story to two of my co-workers at the gift store where I work part-time. Both women, Ginger and Claire, knew that I would be doing some work for a school project, but they did not know when. I broached the topic when Claire, who had been having a rather bad day, mentioned that she needed a pick-me-up. I offered to tell her funny story and proceeded to get my tape recorder and the photograph, which I had brought with me. I kept the picture hidden until the end of my story. Telling Claire and Ginger my family1s story was a lot of fun. They were receptive to my request to tape my story and were an attentive audience.
This story demonstrates
several values that my family holds in high regard. First, we are not
against trying something new. We had never gone white-water rafting before,
only canoeing in New Hampshire, but we were up for the challenge. By telling
this story we are able to show our audience that we are the adventurous
types, even though this may not always be the case. Second, it demonstrates
our ability to laugh at ourselves. Our feigned embarrassment at having
our picture laughed at was merely a way of getting my dad to buy it. Had
we actually been embarrassed I would argue that the picture would have
been thrown away or hidden. Third, and I think, most important, our white-water
story shows how we like to do normal things a little differently. I think
that there is a little part of my family that believes that we went down
backwards on purpose because the other way was just too boring.
is a way for families to invent themselves. Repeating family stories reinforces
the underlying values that those stories represent and contributes to
the creation of a familys ideal. In her book, Black Sheep and
Kissing Cousins, Elizabeth Stone examines the ways in which families
use their stories to mold themselves to a specific type. She writes: "Family
stories . . . define the family, saying not only what members should do,
but who they are or should be" (31). My familys rafting story
fits this description. We want to be somewhat adventurous and daring,
and, although my mother has sworn never to go rafting again, we have the
picture to show that we once were as we imagine ourselves to
within this story is the issue of assimilation. My family has been living
in Virginia for nine years, and over that time we have definitely subscribed
to a number of American values and traditions. But while we may be as
American as the next family on a day to day basis, we are loathe to get
too close to the typical picture of an American family. In an effort to
stay the gradual onset of an American way of life we use our stories as
a method of maintaining an air of separateness. Our stories subconsciously
emphasize certain familial traits, which, according to Stone, "will
almost always demonstrate that the family is indeed special
and in some ways superior to all other families" (35). While the
issue of individuality is definitely the most important aspect of our
rafting story, it can also be analyzed from several other angles.
In his essay,
"Family Folklore," Charles R. Frederick writes: "The dual
nature of folklore, simultaneously illustrating singularity and evoking
commonality can be observed to good effect through the study of family
materials" (171). This story is an excellent example of the way in
which my family was simultaneously a part of a group and an individual.
We were a part of a larger exoteric group with the thirty or more people
on the excursion that day: we had the same boats, the same life-jackets,
and the same oars. We did everything else that the rest of the group did,
and in that respect, identified with the group. Within our individual
raft, however, we acted as an esoteric group. We separated ourselves further
from the larger group by going down the rapids with our backs to the camera,
and, in that regard, we were unique. Out of the eight or ten pictures
that were posted on the board outside the main office ours was the only
one that did not look like all the rest.
I believe that
the photograph plays a very important role in my familys story (see
Figure 1). It is not very often that we tell it without the picture present.
It acts like a physical punchline to a joke, and people respond best to
our story when they see it for themselves. The photograph was taken by
a skilled photographer with professional equipment. The picture is perfectly
balanced and in focus. The size of the picture, eight inches by ten, is
not insignificant. Even though we had no choice with regards to the size
of the copy it is much more effective as a large picture than it would
have been, had it been three inches by five, or smaller. The picture announces
itself. It stays on top of a cabinet in our living room, among ten or
fifteen other photographs which include wedding pictures, school pictures,
and family outings or vacations. Along with the two wedding photos, it
is the largest picture on the shelf. In his book, A World of Their
Own Making, John R. Gillis examines the ways in which family values
have been shaped through myth and ritual over the past century. He addressed
the popularity of family photos, emphasizing that they were, and are,
"less a statement of what the family actually was than what it imagined
itself to be" (78). This idea reinforces Elizabeth Stones argument,
and reaffirms my familys concept that we are the adventurous and
daring family that we imagine ourselves to be. The emotional value we
place in the photo is also an important part of the story. For my family
I think the picture acts as physical proof of our little adventure. Anyone
can say that they went rafting and that a funny thing happened on the
way down the river, but we have the picture to prove it.
As has been examined
by countless folklorists, family folklore is a rich and telling area of
information. The stories that families repeat offer an insight into the
dynamics on which that family functions, and by which they define themselves.
My familys stories show us to be a close-knit group which takes
any opportunity that comes along to reaffirm our individuality. After
considering information that has a bearing on the family as a whole, such
as cultural heritage, a more complete understanding can be reached regarding
the meaning of one particular story. Our unusual trip down the river,
for example, is not just a funny vacation anecdote; it is a symbol of
my familys attempt to stay afloat in a widening cultural sea.
Stone, Elizabeth. Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us. New York: Times Books, 1988.