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Be Yourself: A Lesson Taught by Lam and Hughes

Updated on July 26, 2012

Literary nonfiction, "Salvation" by Langston Hughes and “Who Will Light Incense When Mother’s Gone” by Andrew Lam are both stories reflecting the authors’ feelings and events that had occurred within their lifetime. Langston Hughes (n.d) writes about his first experience with religion when he was 12 years old; the story reflects on when Langston got “saved” in the Christian faith, “but not really saved” (para. 1). Andrew Lam also writes about religion and reflects on his mother’s religious practices in contrast to his own. While Lam maintains a new American culture by reason of modernization, Hughes gains disbelief in Christ due to the pressure from his community. Although the conclusions to both stories are dissimilar, Langston Hughes and Andrew Lam both experience the pressure and guilt of denying one’s true self.

In “Who Will Light Incense When Mother’s Gone,” Andrew Lam feels guilt and shame upon hearing his mother's remark: “Who will light incense to the dead when I’m gone” (para. 1). Lam’s mother is worried that when she dies, their Vietnamese culture will be forgotten due to the modern American culture Lam has adapted to. His aunt replies to her worries and utters that when they die the rituals will end because the youth and future of the family do not understand the Vietnamese traditions. Lam’s mother feels that America has stolen her children away from her and their Vietnamese traditions.

Andrew Lam (2012) calls this “the price for living in America” (para. 2). Lam (2012) recalls that, “I [Lam] myself can't remember the last time I lit incense sticks and talked to my dead ancestors. Having fled so far from Vietnam, I can no longer imagine what to say, or how I should address my prayers, or for that matter what promises I could possibly make to the long departed” (para. 2). Andrew Lam is noticing that he is now an Americanized citizen of the United States. Americanized means that Lam relates more to American cultures and American traditions more than his true Vietnam values. Instead of America being foreign to him, his native culture deems to be a complete stranger.

I have witnessed close family members becoming more Americanized as time passes. My father remarried a beautiful Muslim woman from Africa. Traditionally, Muslim women cover themselves sometimes with just the eyes being visual. No person is allowed to see them except their husbands when they get married. When my stepmother came to the United States of America as a student, she wore more Americanized fashions in contrast to her previous Muslim attire. I also remember walking in on her worshiping Allah and reciting the Koran in Arabic. It would be pitch black in her prayer room with only a few candles lit. I remember seeing her on her knees, bent completely over in a Muslim prayer position with her arms stretched out in front of her as she bowed and prayed to her god. But after a few years, I hardly ever see her pray like that. After a while, she stopped her traditional prayers just like she stopped wearing her old-style apparel. Her daughter, my half-sister, is an English speaking Christian and believes in an entire different religion than her mother does. The United States of America is considered a Christian country. My step-mother has adopted Christmas and Easter in their family traditions as a part of her adaption to the modernized America culture.

For my family and Andrew Lam, it’s hard not to blend in to the culture around you. Lam (2012) writes that his mother feels as if, “America seduced him with its optimism, twisted his thinking, bent his tongue and dulled his tropic memories. America gave him freeways and fast food and silly cartoons and sitcoms, imbuing him with sappy, happy ending incitements” (para. 5). Even when Lam tries to suppress his guilt by participating in Vietnamese traditions with his mother, he naturally feels no connection and wonders, “what will, indeed, survive my mother” (para. 8). Lam sadly realizes that he can’t fulfill his mother’s traditions. But he also understands that old traditions may die, but new ones have already begun. His morning rituals and traditions of writing remind him a lot of his mother’s morning rituals. “Who Will Light Incense When Mother’s Gone” concludes when Lam finds peace realizing that his morning rituals and traditions of writing remind himself of his mother’s morning rituals. He learns to be content with himself.

Unfortunately, Langston Hughes does not seem to find the same serenity in his literary nonfiction story, “Salvation.” The title of the short story, “Salvation,” is sarcastically ironic because Hughes was not truly saved in the Christian faith. John 1:9 in the Holy Bible states that “If we confess with our mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in our heart that God raised him from the dead, we shall be saved." Instead, young Langston was pressured into going up to the altar and pretending to be saved with the intention of pleasing the church. Naïve Langston sat and waiting on his perception of Jesus Christ to literally come to him and save him. His aunt described salvation as “a light, and something happened to you inside! And Jesus came into your life! And God was with you from then on! She said you could see and hear and feel Jesus in your soul” (para. 2). As a child, Hughes took her words literally and believed her word for word. He kept waiting to see Jesus. The church was waiting on him to repent and come to the altar to be saved. Langston said he felt bad holding the church up. One child went to the altar and pretending to be saved because he wanted to go home. So Hughes felt like it was okay to lie as well. Therefore, Langston went to the altar.

As a Christian woman born and raise in the Christian faith, I related to this story most of all. I see this in the church all the time. So often, a person is put on the spot and pressured into something he or she knows little about. On a personal note, if I knew Langston Hughes I would explain to him that there is a time a place for everything. Everyone is not expected to know and understand Christianity. Moses was a grown, mid-aged, married man when he spoke to God through the burning bush. I would also explain to him the metaphoric Christian language and the light his aunt was referring to was a light from within. The light refers to a person opening their eyes and realizing that Jesus is the son of God and that he died for our sins. I would tell Hughes that the only way to truly be saved is to except Christ into his heart and honestly believe that he is the son of God and he died for your sins. But most importantly, as a Christian you have to have a made up mind. It’s all about the person and what he or she desired in life. In the bible, Jesus talks about freedom of choice and how He would never pressure anyone to love Him. Langton Hughes had to learn how to find Jesus and love Him on his own time. Instead, Hughes was fooled into believing that salvation is about walking down the aisle while filled with confusion and disbelief of the heart. The church became Hughes’ god. The church does not make you a Christian any more than Burger King makes you a cheeseburger! Being a Christian is heartfelt.

So often society and the world around us pressure us into doing something we don’t understand, believe in, or are comfortable doing. “Salvation” and “Who Will Light Incense When Mother’s Gone” are nonfiction stories about the memories of two writers. Much like my insight of the personal stories I shared in this paper, “Salvation” and “Who Will Light Incense When Mother’s Gone” are also from the authors’ remembrances of their pasts as they perceived it. Lam and Hughes both feel pressure within their environment. Lam feels pressure from his mother to carry on traditions he does not understand or relate to, and Hughes is pressured by his church to come to the altar to be saved when he too has no understanding of the religion. Both writers feel oddly disconnected in their stories. Lam tries to please his mother by participating in her rituals much like Hughes gets “saved” in order to please the church. Lam feels guilt from not carrying on his mother’s traditions and faking his sincerity of the rituals. Hughes feels guilty because he lied to the church about being saved. They both lied about how they truly feel and who they are as a person. But unlike Langston Hughes, Andrew Lam realizes that he needs to be himself. It did not take much imagination to realize that “Salvation” and “Who Will Light Incense When Mother’s Gone” both relate to one theme: Do not feed into pressure and always be yourself.

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