Tag Archives: immigration

Intersectionality – a personal essay

“Intersectionality” is getting lots of buzz. (See Chronicle of Higher Education, for example. Google it, for more than you ever want to know.)

I stepped into an intersection yesterday. Not in a street, but at my usual place-of-yoga, the local Hindu Temple. I have a long, comfortable relationship with the Temple. They offer yoga in return for a $5 donation. I speak well of them in the community.

Yesterday the regular yoga space looked different. The amount of artwork on the walls had been doubled, and two beautiful “altars” had been arranged, decked with candles and floral arrangements. What?! I had never seen this degree of formality at the Temple. We learned that a Vietnamese group was holding a meeting or celebration. Preparations had been made. Are there Hindus in Vietnam? I don’t think so. My guess is that the group is Buddhist.

Wikipedia tells me that Buddhism is the dominant religion in Vietnam, carrying with it strong veins of Taoism and Confucianism originating in China. I’m not sure what script I was seeing on the new posters in the Temple. Possibly a version of Sanskrit, but it didn’t match the flowing script seen around the Temple.

The Vietnamese event was not set up in the sacred part of the Temple, with the God images. I couldn’t tell if the human figures on the Vietnamese posters correspond in any way to the Hindu deities, or whether they are intended to be divine. I have so many questions!

So many stories waiting to be told. The world comes to my neighborhood!

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“Waiting for Snow in Havana – Confessions of a Cuban Boy” by Carlos Eire

This book falls into two of my favorite reading categories – memoirs, and history I “lived through” but may not understand well. The history in question is the Cuban Revolution, which Wikipedia dates to January 1, 1959. Of course, what I remember best is the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. I expected nuclear war.

Carlos Eire is about one year younger than me. His childhood ended at age 11, when he was put on a plane from Havana to Miami, accompanied only by his 15 year old brother.

Waiting for Snow in Havana is an amalgam of memories, highlighting Eire’s parents, brothers, friends, teachers and neighbors. His father was a judge, hence a member of the “establishment”, but not so close to the old regime as to have been immediately targeted for execution by the Revolutionaries. Eire lived a life of privilege and received a good education. Catholicism dominated the culture in many ways.

The decision to send Carlos and his brother to the US on their own was made by his mother, who eventually followed them. His father never left Cuba.

Eire’s childhood memories are dominated by danger and death. Danger, because many of the pastimes and activities would put at contemporary parent into shock – rock throwing as a socially sanctioned game, surfing in rough seas… Death, because so many actions were thought to be deadly – going from a warm room to a cold room, etc.

The book is also permeated by anger, especially at the Revolution, at Castro and Guevara and the changes they imposed on Cuba. Eire is still angry. A quick Goggle search makes it easy to find out the details. Eire knows that his own adult voice permeates the book, although it is intended to express his childhood in its own terms.

If you like memoirs about childhood, read this book. It also sheds (some) light on the immigration and foreign policy issues we now face.

“American Ghost – A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest” by Hannah Nordhaus

This book didn’t work for me. It should have – I like memoirs and family histories, and I like the American Southwest, having spent the summer of 1987 in Santa Fe. While I was there, I made a special effort to read “southwestern” authors, like Tony Hillerman and Oliver LaFarge.

Two things interfered with Nordhaus’s effectiveness. One is that the story she had to tell just wasn’t all that compelling. The deep, dark secret at which she persistently hinted didn’t exist, or couldn’t be uncovered. The other problem was her decision to consult a variety of supernaturalists (mediums, spiritualists, “readers” etc.) and included these efforts in the book. Too silly for words!

The good aspect of this book is that it documents the experiences of German Jews in the American Southwest. Santa Fe is an old, old city and it’s good to have this part of its past clarified. I would say this book is of interest to historians and sociologists, not the general reader like me.

“The Boston Girl: A Novel” by Anita Diamant

This novel tells the story of a woman’s life, in the form of reminiscences shared with an adult grandchild. Addie Baum is born in Boston into a Jewish immigrant family that is having terrible difficulty settling in American. The year of her birth is given as 1900. My own grandmother, Anna S, was born in Boston, in 1891.

Addie Baum has two sisters. One jumps into American life wholeheartedly, angering her parents and almost losing contact with Addie. The other sister is frail and anxious – in modern terms, seriously traumatized and depressed. She eventually takes her own life. Addie, much the youngest, has the advantage of being sent to school and finding a “settlement house” where she is befriended and learns to cope with America and understand Boston. Nonetheless, her family forces her to drop out of school.

The best part of this book is its vivid description of Addie’s life from her early teens until she meets her husband. Immigrant life is terribly hard. Addie’s mother miscarries on the boat to America. Her parents fight all the time, her mother being convinced that everything was better in the “old country”. Poverty renders their lives miserable. Addie’s father takes refuge in religion, spending as much time as possible studying and praying in his synagogue.

Reading this book made me realize how little I know about my grandmother’s life. I was told she spoke only German until she started school at age 5. I don’t think she finished high school. I know she worked in a sweatshop – the evidence was always before our eyes. Two joints of her right forefinger were missing, severed by a stamping machine in a sweatshop. Family myth asserts that she started saving money as soon as humanly possible so her children could be more educated than she had been and avoid the fate of factory work. All three of them avoided the factory assembly lines, but only one, my mother, was educated beyond high school.

The author’s main “message” in this book is that the past was not BETTER. Often it was worse than the present.

This book is somehow lacking in narrative drive. Maybe this is what happens when an author has a message and a plot in mind and then writes a book around them. The alternative is the Stephen King approach – create your characters and turn them loose! Let them surprise you! (See blog post December 21, 2013.)

More quibbles… Once again I ask, “If a person or historical period is so interesting, why fictionalize it?” (See blog post December 6, 2013 about the novel Orphan Train.) I suspect that writing fiction is easier, and the author can slant the work according to his or her (contemporary) biases.

I wonder if Diament consulted too many experts while writing this book, leaving me feeling the lack of a distinct “voice”. I read her highly popular, earlier novel The Red Tent and had the same reaction to it – good, but somehow not as “great” as many people seemed to find it.

One (tangential) reason why I read this book was because the title reminded me of Nat Hentoff’s lively memoir (published in 1986), Boston Boy, subtitled growing up with jazz and other rebellious passions. No resemblance. Hentoff wrote voluminously on music and American politics. At age 89, he is still writing! Check him out!

Keep The Boston Girl in mind for a rainy afternoon or boring wait during travel. It will keep you occupied, but not make you miss your plane!

“The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien” by Oscar Hijuelos

This book is the saga of a family, starting in the late 1800s in Ireland but taking place mostly in the United States. Nelson O’Brien left Ireland in 1896 and traveled to Cuba as a photographer in 1898 during the Spanish American War. In Cuba, he fell in love with and married Mariela Montez. They settled in Pennsylvania and raised a family of fourteen daughters and one son. O’Brien was a successful entrepreneur, keeping his family “comfortable” or at least approximately in the middle class.

The love between Nelson and Mariela never wavers. Their household is described as busy, noisy, happy and overwhelmingly female.

The main theme of this book is gender, or perhaps the female gender. O’Brien and his son live in a sea of femininity. Each seems alternately happy and baffled. The Montez O’Brien sisters follow many different paths – happy marriage, unhappy marriage, no marriage, teaching, performing, etc. The lone son worked as an actor and later became a photographer like his father. The son “discards” his Cuban heritage by acting under an anglicized stage name.

On the issue of gender, the Montez O’Brien family is tilted sharply towards the female, but other polarities are more even.

In appearance, some of the sisters are Irish, while others strongly resemble their Cuban mother. America is those years was prejudiced against both groups, but dark skin and curly hair were more unfavorably regarded.

The family was also “split” by language. Mariela never became comfortable speaking English, and mostly retreated to dignified silence outside the family. The older sisters were fluently bilingual, but the younger ones, raised more by their big sisters than their mother, never really learned Spanish, and hence were handicapped in understanding their mother and her family. Their efforts to learn Spanish later in life never seemed successful. One sister went to live in Cuba, but none lived in Ireland and few visited there.

This book is full of vivid, sensual images and emotions. The Pennsylvania house, in particular, is described so clearly I felt like I was living there.

Read this book if you like romantic fiction or family histories, or are interested in immigration and the sociology of America from 1900 to about 1960.

“The National Museum of American Jewish History” in Philadelphia

Philadelphia is lucky to have this Museum! My son invited me to celebrate Spring and the start of baseball season by visiting the National Museum of American Jewish History to see its special exhibition “Chasing Dreams – Baseball and Becoming American”.

The exhibit takes you from the familiar (like Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg) to the obscure. Baseball is treated, not just as a game, but as a cultural phenomenon that meant (and still means) a great deal to immigrants and minorities. Many types of artifacts are displayed – uniforms, balls, press clippings, baseball cards and old photographs. A friendly docent shared additional information about baseball and World War II.

We took our time enjoying “Chasing Dreams” and didn’t see the rest of the Museum. The core permanent exhibition begins with the first settlement of Jews in America, more than 100 years before the founding of the USA. I think I’ll need a few more visits to appreciate this Museum and the stories it tells.

“The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down – A Hmong Child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures” by Anne Fadiman

This is another book that I read because of the Freshman Year Common Reading program at the college where I work. It was either a candidate book or the selected book a few years ago. Later, I will evaluate it according to the system I created and introduced in my post of December 6. (I originally read this book in January of 2013, because someone was giving away leftover copies.)

This book has “curb appeal” because the cover shows a photo of an adorable little girl in formal southeast Asian dress. She looks loved, even pampered. Her name is Lia. Her family came to the US after Laos fell in 1975. Lia was born in the US in 1981. I won’t try to summarize the complicated history of Southeast Asia as America struggled to extricate itself from Vietnam. Lia’s family and thousands of other ethnic Hmong were brought to the US to avoid retribution for having assisted the US military with its activities in Laos.

Lia suffered from epilepsy, and the book is a detailed account of how her family and her doctors tried to heal her. The differences between Hmong traditional medicine (inescapably intertwined with animistic religion) and modern Western medicine were so extreme that communication was almost impossible. Despite everyone’s good intentions, her condition deteriorated over months and years of crisis and intervention.

This book is an example of very high quality documentary writing, and worth careful examination in college courses. Academically, it would be classified, I think, as medical anthropology. It is clear and well organized.

Over time, Lia’s condition spiraled downwards. Eventually, she suffered a prolonged seizure and bout of sepsis (blood poisoning?) which left her severely brain damaged and terribly weak. The doctors discharged her to her parents care, expecting her to die shortly. Against the odds, she survived and in some senses improved, but this was not a “happy ending”. She never fully regained consciousness.

So there are two stories here. The book documents several years of intense struggle to control Lia’s seizures and give her a normal life. After that, Lia survived for TWENTY SIX YEARS under the loving care of her family. Few people in that so-called “vegetative state” live for more than a few years.

So using my rating system:

  • Globalization – 5 points. This book discusses languages, culture and history in great detail.
  • Engagement – 4 points. This book is about the American medical system, and the problems that people of good will and the best possible intentions have when faced with a totally unfamiliar world view.
  • Sustainability – 1 point, maybe? There is little here about “environmental” sustainability, which (I think) is what the college has in mind when they list sustainability as an organizing principle. From a broad socio-political point of view, the American intervention in Southeast Asia created an unsustainable situation from which only relocation offered hope of survival.
  • Learning – 3. This book highlights the need to KEEP learning, and the incredible difficulty of figuring out what you don’t know. How would an American doctor realize his/her need to understand a Laotian shaman?

So, that’s 12 or 13 out of a possible 20 points… But I think this book was a good choice for the common reading. It is challenging, well written and serious.