5: Text excerpt, Sianne Ngai’s "Ugly Feelings," 2005.
In Ugly Feelings, scholar Sianne Ngai argues that Sara Smolinsky’s overly emotional expressiveness is part of a long line of characters in American literature and film whose behavior depicts immigrants or foreign “others” as agitated, excitable, and hysterical.
Suggested Activity: Ask students to summarize Ngai’s excerpt to make sure they understand her argument. Then ask them to find, in Bread Givers, examples of the “hand-wringing” and “hyperexpressive” behavior Ngai describes. Ask students: Do you agree with Ngai that Sara perceives her own “overemotionality” as something she must struggle against in order to achieve assimilation in America? Have them find examples of this in the text. Ask students: why is it problematic to characterize certain racial or ethnic groups as excessively emotional? Encourage them to think about how doing so can devalue an entire group and lead to false assumptions (e.g., someone who expresses themselves loudly is necessarily “out of control” or “wild”).
Ask students to free-write on the following questions: can you think of examples of people altering their behaviors in order to fit in with cultural norms? Describe some examples. Have you ever altered your own behaviors to fit in with cultural norms? What are the benefits and consequences of making such alterations?
Source: Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2005), 93-94.