Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Picture Bride” is about immigration, generational differences, women, and individuality. By imaginatively recovering her grandmother’s experiences, Song reconstructs the experiences of an entire subgroup of Asian American immigrants: the Korean Americans and the Japanese Americans. Picture brides were uncommon among Chinese Americans because American immigration laws were enforced between 1882 and 1945 to exclude Chinese women from American shores; however, female subjects of the militarily powerful Japanese empire, which included Korea, were grudgingly allowed to migrate to the United States. (A knowledgeable account of the Asian American experience of immigration is to be found in Ronald Takaki’s 1989 book Strangers from a Different Shore.) Although Song’s poem focuses on the psychological and emotional impact of immigration on a single individual, it also hints at the economic hard times facing these Asian immigrants as well as the cultural reservoirs of endurance that enabled them to survive such an alienating experience.

The poem juxtaposes an American woman of the twentieth century and an Asian woman of two generations earlier. Their assumptions about what it means to be a woman and their assumptions about self-fulfillment are worlds apart—so far apart as to provoke a wondering near-incomprehension from the younger woman. The woman of the past generation was schooled to negate her individual prerogatives, to allow others to determine her destiny, and to accede without argument to male authority. The modern woman is hard put to understand this attitude, and by implication she would assert her individuality, control her destiny, and abhor submission to arbitrary male authority.

The contrastive structure of the poem tempts the modern reader to an evaluation of the grandmother’s experience of immigration and notions of individuality. One may well wonder how much of one was positive, how much of the other negative. Perhaps an answer lies in the key image of the photograph of the bride. After all, a photograph is a developed picture that is the bright positive print of a dark negative film. Print and film, dark and light, positive and negative—their contrasting existences are inextricable in the same way that the final sum of human experience is.