Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Digging to America

Under an avalanche of deadlines, travel, and other sundries I have been finding refuge in lightweight fiction. Last weekend at the library I borrowed Digging to America by Anne Tyler, which has at times had me rolling on the floor laughing. Other times it is less lightweight than I would have liked, but halfway through the book I'll still recommend it*.

Several passages in this novel have reminded me of anecdotes told by online friends Pika and GMP. There is one character, Maryam, has lived in the US for a very long time but due to her Iranian accent people still always ask her where she's from. For example, Maryam is at a party:
First he talked to Sami, on his other side... then it was Maryam's turn: How long had she been in this country? and did she like it?
Maryam hated being asked such questions, partly because she had answered them so many times before but also because she preferred to imagine (unreasonable though it was) that maybe she didn't always, instantly, come across as a foreigner. "Where are you from?" someone might just ask when she was priding herself on having navigated some particularly intricate and illogical piece of English. She longed to say, "From Baltimore. Why?" but lacked the nerve. Now she spoke so courteously that Lou could have no inkling how she felt. "I've been here thirty-nine years," she said, and "Yes, of course I love it." 
My favorite thing about this book is that the writer is extremely subtle and clever in how she brings up American cultural unawareness. There is one character, Bitsy, who tries so hard to get others to be "culturally sensitive" to her adopted daughter Jin-Ho that she is inadvertently over-the-top culturally insensitive to her Iranian friends. I find this character almost too embarrassing to read at times, but then I realize that's the entire point.

I find the "mommy wars" in this book exceptionally comical and well-penned, because all I can think is how I know people exactly like those characterized. Bitsy is often judgmental (and/or jealous) of her friend Ziba's parenting; her daughter Susan is a peer to Jin-Ho and was adopted on the same day.
A while ago, Sami and Ziba had gone away for the weekend and left Susan with Maryam. Bitsy was amazed when she heard about it. During her own brief absences - never longer than a couple hours, and only for unavoidable reasons such as doctor appointments - she used a person from Sitters Central, a woman certified in infant CPR. Anyhow, her mother was too frail to babysit and her in-laws had made it plain taht they had their own busy lives. But under no circumstances would she have considered leaving Jin-Ho overnight. She would have been frantic with worry! Children were so fragile. She realized that now. When you thought of all that could happen, the electrical sockets and the Venetian-blind cords and the salmonella chicken and the toxic furniture polish and the windpipe-sized morsels of food and the uncapped medicine bottles and the lethal two inches of bathtub water, it seemed miraculous that any child at all made it through to adulthood.
Finally, for you academic types, I'll leave you a quote in the style of FSP:
Her family visited constantly. They showed up every weekend with platters of eggplant and jars of homemade yogurt. They hugged Sami to their chest and inquired after his studies. In Mr. Hakimi's opinion, European history was not the best choice of fields. "You propose to do what with this? To teach," he said. "You will become a professor, teaching students who'll become professors in turn and teach other students who will become professors also. It reminds me of those insects who only live a few days, only for the purpose of reproducing their species. 

(*) Though if this book turns into an awful ball of mush, I will rescind this remark. 

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