“Digging to America” by Anne Tyler is one of my favorite books. It tells the story of 2 little girls from Korea, both adopted by people in the United States. They arrived in Baltimore, Maryland on the same plane, an evening flight from San Francisco. I can picture the scene in my mind having been at many airports as they are slowly shutting down, only one or two vendors still open along with sleepy janitors slowly moving their mops across floors that carry the world back and forth during the day. The “Caution Wet Floor” signs are evidence of their effort. During those times, airports, usually the best places for people-watching become a tad lonely and people often sit with only their baggage, their thoughts, and an evening summary of the news in subtitles on overhead screens.
The baby girls are adopted by two very different families, and as they grow they give proof that culture is not genetic. The first family is a comfortable, friendly, homey, liberal couple whose hearts were as big as their appetites. They arrived at the airport to greet their new daughter with a number of loud and excited relatives, described like a “gigantic baby shower”. The second family is an Iranian American family, striking with their beautiful olive skin and aquiline features, an air of aristocracy surrounding them like perfume. They were quieter, just three of them, a beautiful young couple and an elegant grandmother, Maryam-jon. The two babies looked like they were custom-made for the couples, one being chubbier and actively awake, the other petite and quiet.
In the book, Ann Tyler gets at the heart of cultural difference as she explores the growing, and sometimes hesitant, connection between the families. Throughout the book, the author weaves two perspectives – one of a family who is completely at home in the U.S having never known life anywhere else, the other of a family that feels “other” and is confronted with their sense of difference and being “outsiders”, even as they are continually welcomed by the born and bred “American” family. Ann Tyler’s skill is clear as she takes us inside the head of the Iranian grandmother, and gives us an intimate look at the struggle to belong, yet hold onto the things we cherish the most.
The book will strike a chord with anyone who has felt other, whether through life experience, or living cross-culturally. Maryam has her moment of truth, where she realizes she loves this other family. For all their differences, their loudness, their “in your face” concern, she belongs.
I think a moment of truth comes for many third culture kids, where we suddenly realize that it’s ok for our lives to be upset and overtaken by what we considered foreign and alien, suddenly realizing that we belong. It’s ok to evolve, and learn to love a country and place, understanding that we are not betraying our past, but rather, living up to how we were raised. And that is as adaptable and flexible, ever willing to try something different.
Jin-Ho was quiet a moment, rhythmically kicking the passenger seat in a way that would have been irritating if anyone had been sitting there. Then she said ‘Remember when me and Susan were digging a hole to China?….So the kids in China, are they digging to America?