Study Guide

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Foreignness and the Other

By Junot Díaz

Foreignness and the Other

Chapter 1

There was the initial euphoria of finding himself alone at college, free of everything, completely on his f***ing own, and with it an optimism that here among these thousands of young people he would find someone like him. That, alas, didn't happen. The white kids looked at his black skin and his afro and treated him with inhuman cheeriness. The kids of color, upon hearing him speak and seeing him move his body, shook their heads. You're not Dominican. (1.1.6.51)

Oscar doesn't fit in at Rutgers. Because of his skin color, the white kids treat Oscar like a breakable object. They're too careful, too cheerful around him. And because Oscar is such a nerd, the Dominican kids don't believe that Oscar is actually Dominican. Every which way Oscar turns, kids treat him like an "other." Being a nerdy Dominican is tough.

Chapter 2

And then Aldo decided to be cute. I knew he was getting unhappy with us but I didn't know exactly how bad it was until one night he had his friends over. His father had gone to Atlantic City and they were all drinking and smoking and telling dumb jokes and suddenly Aldo says: do you know what Pontiac stands for? Poor Old N***** Thinks It's A Cadillac. But who was he looking at when he told his punch line? He was looking straight at me. (1.2.1.56)

Aldo is sitting with a group of (presumably) white friends, and he tells a racist joke while looking right at Lola. It's odd. Even though Lola is Aldo's girlfriend, Aldo reminds Lola that she's different. That she doesn't quite fit into his life. This is a good example of how racial differences and prejudices lurk beneath the surface in this novel—they can appear at any time, between anyone.

Chapter 3

She is sixteen and her skin is the darkness before the black, the plum of the day's last light, her breasts like sunsets trapped beneath her skin, but for all her youth and beauty she has a sour distrusting expression that only dissolves under the weight of immense pleasure. Her dreams are spare, lack the propulsion of a mission, her ambition is without traction. Her fiercest hope? That she will find a man. What she doesn't yet know: the cold, the backbreaking drudgery of the factorías, the loneliness of Diaspora, that she will never again live in Santo Domingo, her own heart. (1.3.22.22)

This description appears right before Beli's plane lands in New York. Beli will never live in Santo Domingo again, which sounds bad enough on its own. But Díaz also compares Santo Domingo to Beli's heart. Meaning, Beli will be exiled from her own heart. When will things turn around for these characters?

Before there was an American story, before Paterson spread before Oscar and Lola like a dream, or the trumpets from the Island of our eviction had even sounded, there was their mother, Hypatía Belicia Cabral.

a girl so tall your leg bones ached just looking at her

so dark it was as if the Creatrix had, in her making, blinked

who, like her yet-to-be-born daughter, would come to exhibit a particularly Jersey malaise—the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres. (1.3.1.1-1.3.1.4)

This passage asks an important question: What drives someone to leave home for another country? Certainly, a dictator like Trujillo might get you running to that airport. In fact, Trujillo made a whole nation want to leave. But our narrator suggests here, too, that both Beli and Lola have a peculiar itch. They both have an "inextinguishable longing for elsewheres." Here, the personal and the political seem to converge.

[La Inca:] You don't understand, hija [daughter]. You have to leave the country. They'll kill you if you don't.

Beli laughed.

Oh, Beli; not so rashly, not so rashly: What did you know about states or diasporas? What did you know about Nueba Yol [New York] or unheated "old law" tenements or children whose self-hate short-circuited their minds? What did you know, madame, about immigration? Don't laugh, mi negrita [my little dark one], for your world is about to be changed. (1.3.21.23-1.3.21.25)

Beli laughs when La Inca tells her that she'll have to leave the Dominican Repbulic. It's just what she wanted. But our narrator basically tells Beli to slow her roll. Don't get too excited. When you emigrate, you risk not only feeling homesick, but also getting discriminated against in your new country.

The Gangster romanced the girl like only middle-aged n*****s know how: chipped at her reservation with cool aplomb and unself-conscious cursí-ness. Rained on her head enough flowers to garland Azua, bonfires of roses at the job and her house. [...]. He escorted her to the most exclusive restaurants of the capital, took her to the clubs that had never tolerated a nonmusician prieta [black girl] inside their door before [...]. (1.3.9.12)

Dominicans have treated darker-skinned Haitians really, really badly. Native Dominicans with dark skin don't get much love either. On Beli's home island, fellow Dominicans consider her an "other" because of her dark skin. Of course, things don't get much better when Beli moves to New Jersey.

Chapter 4

For f***'s sake, we were at Rutgers—Rutgers was just girls everywhere, and there was Oscar, keeping me up at night talking about the Green Lantern. Wondering aloud, If we were orcs, wouldn't we, at a racial level, imagine ourselves to look like elves? (1.4.1.64)

We love this insight of Oscar's. Let us break it down for you, Shmoopsters. First of all, it helps to know that orcs are those troll-like creatures in Lord of the Rings)—a super ugly and not-so-smart lot—and elves are, well, elves. So Oscar worries that he and Yunior are imaging "better" versions of themselves, versions that are closer to what other people would like to see in them. That is, that they think they can "pass" for native-born, white Americans a lot more often than they actually do.

Act 2, Preface

It was only when I got on the plane that I started crying. [...]. I felt sorriest for the viejo [old man] next to us. You could tell he'd been visiting his family. He had on a little fedora and his best-pressed chacabana [a type of button-down shirt]. It's OK, muchacha [girl], he said, patting my back. Santo Domingo will always be there. It was in the beginning and it will be there at the end. (2.preface.46-2.preface.48)

Lola is leaving Santo Domingo to go back to New Jersey. She's pretty distraught. An old man sitting next to her says that Santo Domingo will always be there. So she can return whenever she wants. It's a comforting thought. However, we don't think the novel really supports what this guy says. Flip ahead to Oscar's visit to the Dominican Republic at the end of Act 2. Santo Domingo has changed. Places and people change. You can't go back to Santo Domingo because it'll be a different Santo Domingo. Go head, get out your Kleenex.

Chapter 5

In 1937, for example, while the Friends of the Dominican Republic were perejiling Haitans and Haitian-Dominicans and Haitian-looking Dominicans to death, while genocide was, in fact, in the making, Abelard kept his head, eyes, and nose safely tucked into his books (let his wife take care of hiding his servants, didn't ask her nothing about it) and when survivors staggered into his surgery with unspeakable machete wounds, he fixed them up as best as he could without making any comments as to the ghastliness of their wounds. (2.5.1.7)

Trujillo was a maniacal, cruel man. Because Haitains had darker skin, spoke different Spanish, and were from or originated in another country, the Haitians were massacred. This is about as blatant an example of cruelty to another race and/or nationality as you'll find anywhere. It's what we'd call genocide, straightup.

Chapter 6

Every summer Santo Domingo slaps the Diaspora engine into reverse, yanks back as many of its expelled children as it can; airports choke with the overdressed; necks and luggage carousels groan under the accumulated weight of that year's cadenas and paquetes [chains and packages], and pilots fear for their planes—overburdened beyond belief—and for themselves; restaurants, bars, clubs, theaters, malecones [piers], beaches, resorts, hotels, moteles [motels], extra rooms, barrios, colonias [colonies], campos [fields], ingenios [mills] swarm with quisqueyanos [someone from Quisqueya] from the world over. Like someone had sounded a general reverse evacuation order: Back home, everyone! Back home! (2.6.2.4)

If Wao is about leaving your homeland, it's also about returning to it. Oscar, Lola, and Beli all return to the Dominican Republic to visit the country that, to various degrees, is their home. (Side note: It could be argued that Oscar returns home for good when he decides to pursue Ybón…)