Dragon Ball Z is a Tale of Immigration and Cultural Shock
Ah, Dragon Ball Z. When it came out during the nineties and early 2000's, it was a story of epic battles, loud screams, and a lot of testorone. Dragon Ball Z was ridiculous, but in a good way. It wasn't a show that made you think, it was a show that gave your beard a beard. So you wouldn't expect to find anything deep or meaningful in the story, right?
Dragon Ball Z (or the last half of Dragon Ball, if you want to include the manga) is a story of immigration and assimilation, a story of Vegeta and how he handled his "immigration" and culture shock.
First, let me explain what is culture shock and cultural assimilation. Culture assimilation is the process of an individual or groups , usually immigrants, to be "absored" in the host society. There are two types of assimilation. One type is called structural or socioeconomic assimilation, where the immigrant is fully assimilated to the host culture. Imagine a man from India moving to the United States. The Indian slowly starts to "absorb" the culture there; he'll start eating McDonalds, dressing in American clothing, and listening to indie music while talking about bands you haven't heard about.
The second type is Behavioral assimilation/acculturation, which means that the immigrant man absorbed the host culture while still retaining his traditional culture; imagining the Indian man, dressed in traditional clothing, watching an American television show while eating Biryani with a Coke on the side.
Culture shock, on the other hand, is the individual or groups having trouble with the host culture. Again, imagine the Indian man. He arrives at the U.S. and he can't handle it well. The change in culture is too much for him; everything the Indian man learned in social cues, signs, symbols, and language are taken away because they don't apply in this strange land. Culture shock manifests as homesickness, boredom, irritability, hostility towards the host nation, withdrawal, and even excessive sleeping. Culture shock doesn't always last and some people do eventually assimilate, or simply goes through acculturation.
With this in mind, let's take a look at Goku and Vegeta.
Goku, though born on planet Vegeta, went through structural assimilation; he's a full-fledged Earthling. He only knows Earthly customs, wears Earthly clothing, and eats Earthly food. It helps that he lost his "programming" when he bumped his head, thus any Saiyan knowledge is lost, but it still applies.
Vegeta, however, is going through culture shock.
Vegeta's life can be compared to the life of an immigrant (or, to be a bit more accurate, a refugee) and how this drives Vegeta's motivations in the story. You see, Vegeta is the last TRUE Saiyan left in the universe. Sure, there's Goku, but he's a Saiyan only by blood. Mentally, emotionally, and culturally, he's an Earthling. Full stop. Vegeta is the last living person who knows and remembers Saiyan culture and he's slowly assimilating to Earth culture, which scares and frustrates him, kind of like how an immigrant has issues assimilating into a new culture.
Let's look at Vegeta's history. When he was a child, his planet and people were forced to work for an alien dictator named Frieza. Frieza, fearing the Saiyans were growing too powerful, committed genocide against the Saiyans, leaving only Vegeta, Goku, Nappa, and Raditz alive, though it eventually dwindled to just Goku and Vegeta. After Frieza's defeat at the hands of Goku several years later, Vegeta stayed on Earth for two reasons: 1) He wanted to get stronger and beat Goku's ass and 2) Where was he going to go, really?
Now, you must understand Vegeta's personality and mentality. Vegeta was born in a royal family of a warrior race. Vegeta considers himself a warrior, a fighter of the highest pedigree. In his world, might makes right and Vegeta wants to be the mightiest motherfucker around. Earth, on the other hand, as long ago abandoned this mentality. In the DBZ universe, Earth's technology is advanced to the point where one could fit an entire car into a tiny capsule by a press of a button. Martial arts may be a way of life for some, but not for all. This mindset, of sitting down and watching television and not fighting to the death and training to get stronger is alien to Vegeta. He despises Earth because he views it as a planet full of squishy weaklings.
Now look at Vegeta's attitude and compare it to some of the symptoms of culture/transition shock:
Getting "stuck" on one thing (beating Goku)
Stereotyping host nationals
Hostility towards host nationals
It fits like a glove. These symptoms apply to Vegeta a lot.
Now, don't forget what I said earlier: Vegeta and Goku are the last Saiyans alive. Yes, there is Gohan, Goten, and Trunks, but they're half-blooded Saiyans and extremely rooted in Earthling culture. Vegeta is, in every shape and form, the last Saiyan left in the entire universe. Goku doesn't know anything about Saiyan culture, thus his sons Gohan and Goten don't know either. Sure, Vegeta has a son named Trunks, but Trunks doesn't seem interested in learning about a culture that's dead in the same way that you didn't care about history when you were eight.
And this fuels Vegeta's actions almost as much as him wanting to be the best of the best fuels him. Don't get me wrong, I'm in no way say that this is Vegeta's only motivation. It's just another factor in the character's motivation.
Take a look at his never-ending desire to defeat Goku; not only does he want to defeat Goku because Vegeta was humiliated by him (he's the prince of all Saiyans who was defeated by a low-level warrior), but because Goku embodies what Vegeta is afraid of: forgetting his heritage and becoming an Earthling. Goku has been “Earthenized” since day one. Goku has been structurally assimilated.
Check out this video at the 1:37 mark where Vegeta flips his shit (note: Vegeta is always flipping his shit). He screams at Goku (Saiyans have no indoor voice) that staying at Earth changed him; he was the perfect Saiyan until Earth's alien (to him) culture made him "docile". In other words, Vegeta started to assimilate and it scared him.
Still not convinced? When Supreme Kai called his beef with Goku meaningless, Vegeta flips his shit in the middle of another shit-flippage. He tells Supreme Kai off and rants on: "Spend most of your life ruled by another! Watch your race dwindle to a handful! And then, tell me what has more meaning than your own strength!" Except Vegeta doesn't mean his strength has meaning. He wants to show, believe, that his culture still has meaning, that it still matters. Even though there's only two full-blooded Saiyans left, the Saiyan legacy still continues. Vegeta wants to beat Goku's face in, not just to prove he's the better warrior, but because he wants to symbolically deny conformity to Earthling culture.
It wasn't until after Buu was defeated that Vegeta eventually assimilated, in the acculturation type of assimilation. This is Vegeta during the Cell Saga:
His clothing changes during the Buu saga, resembling a mix between human clothing and bits of the old battle armor:
And this is him at the end of the series wearing mostly Earthling clothing:
At the end of series (What's that? Dragon Ball GT? Never heard of it) Vegeta cools down a lot. He respects and befriends Goku, the fully assimilated Saiyan, and no longer wishes to murder people. When they participate in the tournament, Vegeta doesn't exhibit the intense desire to hurt people. He has reached acculturation. He reconciles Saiyan culture and human culture, since he still trains to reach top physical condition and wishes to fight Goku in the tournament (but only for fun) and makes his son participate in the sporting event whether he likes it or not. He wears Earthling clothing, and has two fully assimilated children (a daughter named Bra and a son named Trunks). He has a bi-cultural identity and has reached the mastery phase of the culture shock: he is comfortable in the host society.
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