Thursday, June 12, 2008

Culture, Identity and Assimilation

Digging to America by Anne Tyler

Digging to America is about two married couples, unable to conceive, who adopt children from Korea. They meet at the airport for their daughters' arrival, and from this common ground, a friendship develops. One couple is Iranian-American, young, while the other couple is close to middle-aged, and kind of a stereotypical middle class white couple. They take two very different approaches to child rearing. Ziba and Sami Yazdan choose an American name for their daughter, basically want her to fit in, and Ziba works part time. Brad and Bitsy keep their daughter's original Korean name, dress her in ethnic outfits and make comments like "I don't notice skin color or race." I think Bitsy may have been the most stereotypical ("the white liberal"): she doesn't work because she doesn't want to miss out on bonding time, has strong opinions on topics, and tries to make people see things her way; also, she's a bit of a hippy - she has taught yoga, used to weave her clothes, uses cloth diapers etc. Sometimes she can be downright insulting but she doesn't see what she is doing wrong.

The narrative switches back and forth between different characters' perspectives, though Maryam is probably the main character. As far as the daughters are concerned, Jin-Ho is more strongly developed, or at least has more of a voice, and naturally she wants the opposite of what she has - her parents want to make sure she retains some knowledge of her original customs and traditions and she just wants to be fully Americanized and dislikes the ethnic clothing as well as her mother's insistence to celebrate the anniversary of her arrival.

Tyler explores the ideas of assimilation and belonging through her different characters and their relationships to cultural backgrounds. I liked her writing and it worked very well, but it wasn't necessarily insightful - in a way, she was kind of working with certain stereotypical ideas about culture and finding one's place but she's definitely a good enough writer where even though the characters had predictable traits and Tyler wasn't showing the reader anything new, she tied it together well so that the charactes, especially Maryam, still seemed interesting and somewhat unique. Of course, it's predictable that Jin-Ho is going to want to ignore her own ethnic background - after all, that's what happened in novels like The Joy Luck Club, where everyone just wants to fit in until they get older and start having more of an interest in China; still, the way Tyler took all these different ideas and presented and discussed them in one place worked very well. And I think the book can help lead to good discussion about these various topics.

This is my first Anne Tyler novel and I enjoyed it. As I just said, I'm not sure if Tyler took a complicated topic and looked at it in depth or if it's a more superficial treatment of the subject. I guess this novel might almost be kind of like the book version of the film Crash. While you're watching it, you feel like you're watching an interesting commentary on racism in the United States, but when you're done, you realize it had nothing new or enlightening to bring to the topic. (Also, I am not trying to say they are about the same topic, but rather the way they deal with their topics.) Despite that, I enjoyed the book, and I think some of the characters managed to break out of the stereotypical role more than others.

I also found the following passage rather amusing (while I usually find comedic authors and books amusing, I don't usually end up laughing; this phrase actually made me laugh). When Maryam meets Kiyan, who is visiting Tehran and his family from the United States, she makes this assessment:

He had the faintest difference in speech. It was not a real accent, and it was certainly not an affectation. (Unlike the speech of her cousin Amin, who had returned from America pretending such an unfamiliarity with Farsi that he had once referred to a rooster as "the husband of the hen.") (157)

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