Anne Tyler’s new book, Digging To America, opens with two couples—one of Iranian descent, the other American—waiting at BWI for the arrival of the Korean babies they’ve adopted. The Yazdans and Donaldsons meet, become friendly, and get together for annual “arrival parties” celebrating the day Sooki and Jin-Ho landed in America. It’s an immigrant story that’s becoming more familiar, as international adoption has exploded over the past decade.
Over the course of the novel, Tyler examines what it means to be an American from a variety of viewpoints. She nods to a diverse social landscape and tackles thorny issues relating to identity and assimilation, without flinching from the reality of what it means to be an outsider in an adopted homeland.
In this exclusive excerpt from Tyler’s book, Sami Yazdan rants against aspects of American culture that conflict—in sometimes subtle and, seemingly, inconsequential ways—with his family background. By all appearances, Sami is a fully assimilated Iranian-American who “longed for a Brady Bunch family” as a child. But it’s obvious that, as an adult, he still grapples with the duality of acceptance and otherness.
What does it mean to be an American? Or for that matter, what does it mean to be a Baltimorean? The answer lies in an increasingly complex equation that provides for many, many different answers.
Sami had a sort of performance piece that he liked to put on for the relatives. He was known for it. They would be sitting around the living room with their afternoon tea—a few of Ziba’s brothers and sisters-in-law visiting from L.A., or maybe a couple of aunts or the cousins who’d settled in Texas—and one of them would say, almost slyly, “These Americans: can you figure them out?” Then this person would offer some anecdote to start things rolling. For instance: “Our hostess asked where we were from and I told her Iran. ‘Oh!’ she said. ‘Persia!’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘Iran. Persia is only a British invention. From the start, it was always Iran.’ ‘Well, I prefer Persia,’ she told me. ‘Persia sounds much more beautiful.’”
People would cluck and nod, having been through such exchanges many times themselves, and then they would gaze expectantly at Sami. Sami would roll his eyes. “Ah, yes,” he would say, “the Persia Passion. I know it well.” Sometimes that alone was enough to start them grinning; they were so ready for what came next.
“What you should have told her is, ‘Oh, then! In that case! Please don’t let a mere twenty-five hundred years of history stand in your way, madam.’” (The “madam” came out of nowhere.
He tended to slip into a fusty, over-starched style of speech on these occasions.) “You can be certain she’ll argue. ‘No, no,’ she’ll insist, ‘Iran is a new-fangled name. They announced the change in the Thirties.’ ‘They announced what their real name was in the Thirties,’ you tell her, and she’ll say, ‘Well, anyhow. I myself plan to keep calling it Persia.’”
Or he would get going on the American craze for logic. “Logic’s why they’re always suing each other. They believe that for every event there has to be a cause. Surely somebody is to blame! they say. Stumble in the street when you’re not looking and break your leg? Sue the city! Sue the store where you bought your glasses and the doctor who prescribed them! Fall down the stairs, bang your head on a cabinet, slip on the bathroom tiles? Sue your landlord! And don’t just sue for medical bills; sue for pain, emotional trauma, public humiliation, lowered self-esteem!”
“Ooh, low self-esteem,” a relative might murmur, and everyone would laugh.
“They feel personally outraged by bad luck,” Sami would go on. “They have been lucky all their lives and they can’t imagine that any misfortune should have the right to befall them. There must be some mistake! they say. They’ve always been so careful! They’ve paid the closest attention to every safety instruction—the DANGER tag on the hair dryer saying Unplug after every use, and the print on the plastic bag saying This is not a toy, and the recycling pamphlet saying Warning: Before stepping on milk jugs to flatten them, please take firm hold of a reliable source of support.”
Or he would embark upon a little riff about the Americans’ fond belief that they were of breathtaking interest to everyone else in the world. “Imagine this: a friend of my father’s, a famous poet, was invited here on some sort of grant. They escorted him to every state in the Union and demonstrated how they fed their livestock. ‘Now, here, sir, we use the most modern methods of crop rotation to ensure an adequate supply of . . .’ A lyric poet! A city man, born and raised in Tehran!”
Or he would examine their so-called openness. “So instantaneously chummy they are, so ‘Hello, I love you,’ so ‘How do you do, let me tell you my marital problems,’ and yet, have any of them ever really, truly let you into their lives? Think about it! Think!”
Or their claim to be so tolerant. “They say they’re a culture without restrictions. An unconfined culture, a laissez-faire culture, a do-your-own-thing kind of culture. But all that means is, they keep their restrictions a secret. They wait until you violate one and then they get all faraway and chilly and unreadable, and you have no idea why. My cousin Davood? My mother’s nephew? He lived here for six months and then he moved to Japan. He said that in Japan, at least they tell you the rules. At least they admit they have rules. He feels much more comfortable there, he said.”
Then others would chime in with stories of their own—the friendships unaccountably ended, the stunned silence after innocent questions. “You can’t ask how much someone’s dress cost. You can’t ask the price of their houses. You don’t know what to ask!”
These conversations were conducted in English, because Sami would not speak Farsi. He had flat-out refused to ever since the day back in preschool when he had discovered that none of his classmates spoke it. And there lay the irony, according to his mother. “You with your Baltimore accent,” she said, “American born, American raised, never been anywhere else: how can you say these things? You’re American yourself! You’re poking fun at your own people!”
“Aw, Mom, it’s all in good humor,” he said.
“It doesn’t sound so good-humored to me. And where would you be without this country? I ask you! You take it for granted, is the problem. You have no idea what it feels like to have to watch every word, and keep every opinion to yourself, and look over your shoulder all the time wondering who might be listening. Oh, I never thought you would talk this way! When you were growing up, you were more American than the Americans.”
“Well, there you have it,” he told her. “Hear what you just said? ‘More American than the Americans.’ Didn’t you think to wonder why?”
“In high school you never dated anyone but blondes. I’d resigned myself to being Sissy Parker’s mother-in-law.”
“I didn’t even come close to marrying Sissy!”
“Well, I certainly never expected that you would pick an Iranian girl.”
“I don’t know why not,” he said.
This wasn’t entirely truthful, because in his heart he too had always thought his wife would be American. As a child he had longed for a Brady Bunch family—a father who was relaxed and plaid-shirted and buddy-buddy, a mother who was sporty rather than exotic. He had assumed that his schoolmates enjoyed an endless round of weenie roasts and backyard football games and apple-bobbing parties, and his fantasy was that his wife would draw him into the same kind of life. But then his senior year in college, he met Ziba.
Unlike the daughters of his parents’ old friends, Ziba had a nonchalant, sauntering style about her. She was confident and plain-spoken. She came right up to him after their first class together (the Industrial Revolution, spring semester) and said, “Iranian, right?” “Right,” he said. He braced himself for the usual chitchat about what-part, what-year, whom-do-you-know, all voiced in that combination of flirtatiousness and cloying deference that Iranian women put on with the opposite sex. Instead, she said, “Me too. Ziba Hakimi,” and she breezily trilled her fingers at him and moved off to join her friends-American friends, male and female mixed. She wore jeans and a Tears for Fears T-shirt, and her hair in those days was short enough so that she could gel and spike it into something resembling punk.
As he came to know her, though (as their exchanges grew slightly longer each day, and they fell into the habit of walking out of the classroom together), he noticed how much they understood about each other without discussion. A cloak of shared background surrounded them invisibly. She asked him in mid-March if he planned to go home the next weekend, and she didn’t need to explain that she meant for New Year’s. He passed her on the library steps where she was eating a snack with a friend, and her snack was not chips or cookies or Ring-Dings but a pear, which she was slicing into wedges with a tiny silver knife like the ones his mother set out with the fruit tray after every meal.
That summer after graduation he drove over to Washington often to take her to dinner or a movie, and he met a whole string of her relatives. To him the Hakimis seemed both familiar and alien. He recognized the language they spoke, the foods they served, the music they were listening to, but he was uncomfortable with their lavish parties and their collector’s zeal for the most expensive, most ostentatious brand names—Rolex and Prada and Ferragamo. He would have been even more uncomfortable with their politics, no doubt, if he had not had the good sense to avoid discussing the subject. (Ziba’s parents all but genuflected whenever the Shah was mentioned.)
What would his mother think of these people? He knew what she would think. He brought Ziba home to meet her but he left Ziba’s relatives out of it. And his mother, although she welcomed Ziba graciously, never proposed that the two families get together. But she might not have in any case. She could be very unforthcoming.
In the fall Sami and Ziba went back to the University— Sami to work on his graduate degree in European history and Ziba to start her senior year. They were deeply in love by then. Sami had a shabby apartment off campus and Ziba spent every night with him, although she continued to keep all her clothes in her dorm room so that her family wouldn’t suspect. Her family visited constantly. They showed up every weekend with foil-wrapped platters of eggplant and jars of homemade yogurt. They hugged Sami to their chests and kissed him on both cheeks and inquired after his studies. In Mr. Hakimi’s opinion, European history was not the best choice of fields. “You propose to do what with this? To teach,” he said. “You will become a professor, teaching students who’ll become professors in turn and teach other students who will become professors also. It reminds me of those insects who live only a few days, only for the purpose of reproducing their species. Is this a practical plan? I don’t think so!”
Sami didn’t bother arguing. He would chuckle and say, “Oh, well, to each his own.” Somehow, though—how did this happen?—by the time he and Ziba were married, late the following June, he had agreed to work in her uncle’s development company. Peacock Homes built and sold houses in the more upscale areas—northern Virginia and Montgomery County—and they were expanding to Baltimore County. At first Sami’s job was temporary. Just try it, everyone said, and go back to school in the fall if he didn’t like it. He did like it, though. He grew to enjoy the wish-fulfilling aspects of it—the couples confiding their cherished, touchingly specific dreams. (“Got to have an eye-level oven. Got to have a desk nook next to the fridge where the wife can make out the week’s menus.”) He studied for his real-estate exam and passed it. He and Ziba moved into the company’s newest project, and Ziba found work with her cousin Siroos at Siroos Design (“Serious Design,” customers tended to call it), decorating the houses that Peacock Homes sold.
If Maryam was disappointed that Sami had given up his studies, she never said so. Well, of course she was disappointed. But she told him it was his decision. She was cordial to the Hakimis and affectionate with Ziba; he knew she liked Ziba, and he didn’t think that was only because Ziba was Iranian. For their engagement she had offered them a ring he’d never seen before, an antique ring with a diamond that satisfied even the Hakimis. Or maybe it didn’t. It wasn’t huge. But at least they had professed to be satisfied. Oh, everybody on both sides had been exceedingly well behaved.
Sami didn’t exempt the donaldsons from his tirades about Americans. If anything, he was harder on them. They were such easy targets, after all—especially Bitsy, with her burlap dresses and her more-organic-than-thou airs and her with-it way of phrasing things. “She called her mother’s funeral a ‘celebration,’” he told the relatives. “She said, ‘I hope you two will come to the celebration for my mother.’”
“Did she misspeak, perhaps, out of grief?” Ziba’s father asked.
“No, because she repeated it. She said, ‘And please will you tell Maryam about the celebration, too.’”
In this case it was Ziba who objected. “What’s the matter with that?” she asked Sami. “People say all the time they’re gathering to ‘celebrate a life.’ It’s a very common expression.”
“My point exactly,” he told her. “It’s a knee-jerk, trendy, chic expression.”
“Well, for shame, Sami. The Donaldsons are our best friends! They’ve been wonderful to us!”
It was true that they had been wonderful. They were so good-natured, so warm, so hospitable. Best friends, though? There Sami had his reservations. It wasn’t that he could come up with any better friends, but Bitsy really got on his nerves sometimes. And he couldn’t resist poking fun at her. She just invited it! “Listen to this,” he told Ziba’s sisters-inlaw.
“A few weeks back, Bitsy decides it’s time to toilet-train her daughter. She’s going to bring it about by ‘positive reinforcement.’
Bitsy’s very big on positive reinforcement. So what does she do? She throws a Potty Party. She puts Jin-Ho in Wonder Woman underpants and sends off invitations to four other kids the same age, including Susan. I believe the suggested dress code was underpants for the guests as well, but she didn’t insist, which was lucky for us since Susan hasn’t a clue yet. We brought Susan in her diaper. But Jin-Ho was wearing underpants—she kept lifting her dress to show us—and so were two of the other kids. And someone—I’m not naming names, here—must have had a little misadventure, because gradually all the parents started getting funny looks on their faces and sniffing at the air and sliding their eyes toward each other, and finally one of them said, ‘Um, does it seem to you . . . ?’ By then it was too late, though. Way too late, because evidently this misadventure had happened in the backyard where all the kids were playing, and they must have run through it a dozen times before they came inside for refreshments and tramped across the rugs, climbed up on the dining-room chairs . . .” He was laughing so hard that he had to pause for breath, and the relatives were shaking their heads and trying not to laugh too. “I mean!” he said. “Talk about your theme party!”
Ziba said, “Oh, Sami, show a little mercy.”
“And while we’re on the subject of parties,” he said, “doesn’t it strike you all as quintessentially American that the Donaldsons think the day their daughter came to this country was more important than the day she was born? For her birthday they give her a couple of presents, but for the day she came to America it’s a full-fledged Arrival Party, a major extravaganza with both extended families and a ceremony of song and a video presentation.
Behold! You’ve reached the Promised Land! The pinnacle of all glories!”
“Ignore him,” Ziba told her relatives.
Her relatives, after all, were thrilled to have arrived in America themselves; but even so they couldn’t help smiling. Sami told them, “You understand. And guess what: this second time around, we’re the ones who have to throw the party.”
“We don’t have to throw it; I offered,” Ziba said. “It’s our turn,” she told the relatives.
“They threw the party last year. Only they served just cake and beverages, and I always think it’s nicer to give people a whole meal.”
“Yes! An Iranian meal,” one of her sisters-in-law said.
“With kebabs,” another said, “and morgh polo and sabzi polo and perhaps a nice shirin polo—”
Sami said, “Whoa,” but he was drowned out by Ziba’s Aunt Azra. “I’ve just been given a secret recipe for making real rose-water ice cream,” she said, and then she leaned forward and cupped her mouth with one hand, as if she worried about spies, and whispered, “You take a quart of Kool Whip—”
“You’ve missed my whole point!” Sami told them. But he could see he had lost his audience.
Copyright © 2006 by Anne Tyler. Published by agreement with Russell and Volkening as agents for the author.