Literary Travels: Digging to America

I had never heard of  Digging to America, but my work colleague had a few she had let someone else borrow so I snagged the pile when they were returned. This one didn’t seem nearly as interesting– in summary or cover illustration– as the other ones I grabbed, but, of course, ended up being the best one.

The story takes place in Maryland with tow families waiting at the airport for their adoptive children to arrive. Both families are adopting for the first time, and each have adopted a baby girl from China. The families are complete opposites– one is from the area and even extended family has shown up for the occasion, while the other is an Iranian-American couple with the paternal grandmother.

The families end up following up with one another under the premise that the girls might grow up being friends, but the families quickly become entwined and the story recounts the good, bad and ugly of their relationships as the girls grow up.

The secondary storyline follows the Iranian grandmother who is still trying to find her place in the States. You learn about her journey to America, the loss of her spouse and her current relationship with her son, daughter-in-law and newly adopted granddaughter.

Having lived in another country for just a brief while, I know it is a difficult feeling to ‘not belong.’ I know people can feel like that in many cases; entering a room full of people you don’t know, starting at a new school without any friends, living in the midst of a family that doesn’t understand you, etc. But it is different actually living in a foreign country where NOTHING about you belongs– from the way you look to the way you speak to the way you smell to your sense of humor to your customs and beliefs. It is also different because while in some situations people might not feel as though they belong, often times others around you are not experiencing that same feeling– perhaps they DO feel as though you belong. When you are the foreigner in another country, it is very clear to everyone that you don’t belong. This only compounds your own feelings of not belonging.

The question really becomes whether or not you want to belong, and that is a very personal question. It might require you giving up some of your customs to fit in. It might require you to learn another language in order to work and live. It might require nothing more than a simple effort to get to know people. In any case, something about you must change– the people around you are probably not going to change to accommodate you. The book looks at these issues and how some people think they can apply a certain timeframe, or expect a certain amount of effort out of someone else so that person will feel as though they belong. This disregards that person’s feelings entirely. Perhaps they don’t wish to change. Perhaps they don’t need to feel as though they belong.

I found the book very interesting, but was even more interested in an experience I had shortly after reading the book that really drove the theme home for me in an entirely different way.

I was meeting with different people where I work to learn more about their research and what they are working on so I can help publicize where appropriate, and in meeting with one individual, our discussion became more about his background and how he came into this line of work. I heard about his childhood growing up in another country, the decisions he had made which brought him to the U.S. and finally here, and we talked a lot about how he created his space within our culture.

What I found very interesting is that he has found a balance that works for him, but he doesn’t find it’s accepted by others. People here think he holds onto too many of his traditions and isn’t ‘American’ enough, and people of his country who live here feel he’s given up too much of their culture and isn’t ‘Indian’ enough. Because of that, he doesn’t feel he really fits in with his friends in either setting as has had to create a space where he can exist the way he wants.

I don’t know why we feel people need to conform to any setting. If we can accept ourselves and what makes us happy, and be proud to live in the manner we choose, why do we feel compelled to address how others perceive us? And why do we worry about how others exist or compel them to feel as though they do or do not belong?

I think if more people lived away from their own culture for even a brief time, they would better appreciate how it feels to be the ‘foreigner’ and make more of an effort to let other people exist. I know that was one of the more important things I’ve taken away from my time abroad.

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