ACOM Book Club for January 2022

Book Club Jan 2022(This month's notes by Peter)
The ACOM Book Club met on January 20, 2022. We met over Zoom. Outside it was -3 (-11 with the wind).
In attendance was Margaret & Jim, Leroy & Cynthia, Azad, Francis, Peter and Tom.
This month we read A Beginner's Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious by Roya Hakkakian.

Some reactions:
Francis really enjoyed it. It’s a great book! He got a little bored in the second half. He thought the last chapter was really well done and had a wonderful final paragraph. He said her descriptions of Iran rang true. He said it reflected his experiences of coming to America (although he didn’t have to take his shoes off at the airport). He said it was a much simpler time then. He came in by boat. A ticket from New York to Hannibal, MO was $50.
He thought it was interesting the small details she picked out. The way you get a taxi to yourself. The three American gods: Constitution, Mother Nature, War. The way your clothes aren’t ready for the bone-chilling cold of America. The way the internet is uncensored. Her overview of immigration history in the United States. The way they spell it “enough” when “enuff” makes more sense. The way everyone talks about the weather.
Margaret found this book in a Recent Publication list. The name leapt out. She was impressed by Roya’s background, having Hebrew and Persian as her first languages and English came after that. She loved her easy writing style, and was impressed with her teaching accolades.
Margaret thought she may have written this book in three parts: as a student, as a worker, and then reflecting on life in America.
Jim enjoyed it, even though it was his great-grandfathers who immigrated to this country. They came from Germany and Switzerland and ended up working as laborers and on farms. They came for economic progress. It was a choice for them.
Jim has watched waves of immigrants come to the country, starting with the Hungarians in the ‘50s. And it hasn’t slowed down. Each group stands out for unique reasons, one of them for Jim is how the Cambodians and other Southeast Asians from a semi-tropical climate can settle in Minnesota—and stay. While they struggle, they’re happy to be here. It reminded him of all the immigrants he’s met and worked with.
Azad enjoyed a lot of it. It reminded him of his own experience as an immigrant, things like how he didn’t know the different between a dime, nickel and a quarter, and how long it took him to figure out which was which. Luckily, he said, his cousin gave him a large overcoat when he got to the country.
He didn’t enjoy the more general commentary that strayed from her experience. He thought that belonged in another book. He didn’t think it was a guide book for newcomers.
Leroy really liked one key item: the thing Roya thought was most important and best example of America was the fact that you could go to a store, buy something, and return it. That was a major thing. In America, you can buy things, and they trust you when you bring it back. The other thing, and this was also something he saw when some of Cynthia’s family came over from Armenia, was that the grocery stores are big and stocked and never run out.
He thought she gave a very even-handed view about America for someone who has just come to the country. The good and the bad. He thinks it should be required reading for anyone who wants to come to America, so they have an idea about what it’s actually like here.
Another thing was that people adopt roads here so they can make sure it looks good.
Peter really enjoyed the book, he hadn’t read anything like it before. He enjoyed it for the easy to read writing style and for the perspective it gives: how an outsider sees everyday life in America. There are a few parts where Roya gets pretty critical of American culture, but it’s not a critical perspective we hear much. It was a fast read, and he’d recommend it to friends.
More of Azad’s comments :
Well written book that covers just about all aspects of American Life if a person is migrating from totalitarian states especially from Middle Eastern countries. It may not be true when migrating from Western European countries. In my case the most difficult and painful period was not being able to see my parents and siblings for six years and after that only seeing them once a year for few days. Phone calls and travel were very expansive in the seventies. I didn’t care about the philosophical opinions of the author about justice and inequality in America.
Here are some of my observation and my experience when I first came in Dec of 1964:
1. Driving on highways where a swath of asphalt is cared better than some of the living things than I witnessed in our refugee camp in Aleppo,Syria..
2. Highway signs and directions are even better than in Western Europe.
3. Material things are paramount in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. My childhood life and goal were to live with my family and friends. No matter how poor we were I never realized it.
4. Most parents encourage their kids after high school to move out and take care of their own life even if they can’t afford. Success is measured at early age. Where I come from togetherness is the norm.
5. Returning items is proof that the consumer is always right. To stand head high at the counter, receipt in hand and an unwanted item in a bag is an actual step towards claiming one’s rights. So true.
6. When an immigrant comes with his family, childhood comes to a sudden halt. As children become their parent’s interpreter at school conferences or shops. Older parents refuse to speak in English and children don’t like speaking the mother tongue. What is the joy of speaking it when your home country is on the news and America is at war with your motherland? A young immigrant wants to be accepted yet your name is hard to pronounce and your English accent gives away that you will never be one of them. This was very true with my sister’s family in Chicago where they came after the 1967 war with Israel with their young two sons
7. There is one way to stay in America and thousand ways to return home in the imagination, in anger, in regret, in longing. In my experience as a refugee in Syria, I had no nostalgic thoughts to return. Only regrets that I never was able to visit my family more often as they moved to Canada.
8. As you get over the hurdles of arrival the hardest task begins to loom. What is the shape of a day that is not fitted between the hours of curfew or electricity outage? What is a night without fear. How real in my case. Where our Christian neighborhood was separated with barb wire from the Muslim neighborhood. The early morning air was filled with gun fire noise. I couldn’t sleep the quiet nights in the winter of 1965, in the small remote town of New Ulm. It took me a long time to adjust. No one to talk to about it. Alone studying and working to continue education. Immigrants don’t come with a lot of dough. There were no government handouts or scholarships to foreign students. No student loans or banks willing to loan. No credit cards or food stamps. This was missing in the book.
For February, we will be reading the first half of Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr.

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