Becoming American

NPR is running a series of interviews with immigrant authors.  Yesterday was Junot Diaz. Today, it was Jhumpa Lahiri. 

Lahiri was simply ridiculous.  She claimed that she did not feel fully American.  Asked to explain why she (who's been in the USA since she was two years old) felt not quite American, she quickly changed the subject to her parents:

For me, there is sort of a half-way feeling ... [My parents have] lived here now for more than half of their lives, and they raised a family here and now have grandchildren here. ... It has become their home. But at the same time, for my parents, I don't think either of them will ever consciously think, 'I am an American.'

The interviewer made the mistake that anyone would make under the circumstances.  He asked whether her parents had not become American citizens.  Lahiri then backtracked, and said that they had become American citizens but that they still didn't feel American.  Steve Inskeep did the classic interviewer's trick of remaining quiet.  Lahiri then rushed into the void, explaining that her parents were always betrayed by their accent. If the family went to a store, apparently, the sales person would talk to her and never to them.

Really! That's it? Doltish salespeople who decide to focus on one person in a group? That's what makes Ms. Lahiri feel less American? The lengths to which some people will go to claim victimhood is amazing.

Junot Diaz had a more nuanced and ultimately more optimistic view of his immigrant-American experience:

"I don't think that I ever would have thought so fondly of Santo Domingo had I stayed there my whole life," he says.

One way he adjusted to his new surroundings was through reading. "The solitude of being an immigrant, the solitude of having to learn a language in a culture from scratch, the need for some sort of explanation, the need for answers, the need for something that would somehow shelter me lead me to books," Diaz says.

Books about car engines, oil paintings and historical figures "became the map with which I navigated this new world," he says.

And as he grew up, Diaz says he came to see the United States as a composite of "multiple Americas": ones that were racist and xenophobic, coupled with Americas where anything is possible — where a kid can "come from a nonbookish culture and be transformed."

No comments:

Post a Comment