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'A Beginner's Guide To America' Shows Us The States Through New Eyes


Poet Roya Hakakian was a teenager when she came to the United States from Iran. In A Beginner's Guide to America, she describes what it's like to step off a long airplane flight, move through glaringly bright passageways, and stand in line with most of your possessions in your hands, seeing the American flag pins on the lapels of the TSA officers — all with names like Sanchez, McWilliams and Cho, and "by God, all of them Americans."

She says that wealth of names was the most striking thing she'd ever seen in her life. "I had come from a country where I had never seen in my immediate life and surrounding anybody other than the people in the neighborhood, who were primarily of the same race and ethnicity," she remembers. "This human salad was quite mind blowing to me, and continues to be."

Interview Highlights

On what she hopes people born in America might learn through the eyes of an immigrant

I thought of writing this book in 2016 when the anti-immigrant rhetoric reached a new high. And at the same time there was also this rise of anti-democratic sentiments. And I thought, what if I could somehow show the America that most native-born Americans can't see, the small signs of democracy that may be invisible to those who have never lived elsewhere.

We return something we have bought at the store — you know, a sweater — after three weeks, and we think every place in the world you can just show up with your receipt and return something you've bought. Well, no, you can't. We as individuals have rights. Another example is, you know, in most parts of the world, there are traffic laws, but no one respects them, because you simply don't believe in the laws in an undemocratic country. And these are all the small gifts of this gigantic democracy, which manifests itself in the way we live our day-to-day lives.

On "the ABCs of American peculiarities," like prices that end in 99 cents

It was one of the very first things I asked when I first came to the States. You know, why isn't it three dollars? Why does it need to be $2.99? And then I got a lecture about the fact that marketers think that if they make it $2.99, you think it's two dollars. And so my first reaction was, well, that's really silly. But then, you know, I also talk about the endless row of cereals in the supermarket aisle. And I think every immigrant's first reaction is, do you really need all of them? Do you really need so many brands of cereal? And that's certainly one way of looking at it. But at the end of the day, I think the important takeaway is to think of choice as being the cornerstone of what makes this country, or this democracy, what it is.

On the legacy of slavery and what immigrants owe

When you look at why it is that America has been, compared to other Western nations, a much better destination for immigrants, I can't help but think that it is in great part the contribution of the African-American struggles for equal rights that we as outsiders have benefited from what they have done in order to create a more just and equal society.

On recent hate crimes against immigrants, particularly Asian Americans

It is probably one of the most important aspects of the American immigration experience that we have all, no matter what background we came from, at one point or another throughout history, have been subjected to discrimination in this country. And what we can best hope for is to do better. And we also know from our track record that within a generation or two we make this country home for newcomers.

On her views about assimilation

It's nuanced in that I think ultimately assimilation creates a sense of national solidarity, right? We all realize that it's a beautiful thing to assume this American identity and feel that there is something bigger than what we came with individually. There is something greater than these small parts that we bring with each other. But part of the reason why that possibility happens in America is because America allows us to also be, in my case, Jewish, Iranian, Middle Eastern, Chinese and so many other possibilities. So it is this nuanced situation where we want to be one. We ought to want to celebrate a singular American-ness. But that's possible because America doesn't fight our individualities. America doesn't fight our heritage. America doesn't require that we abandon who we are.

This story was produced for radio by Danny Hensel, edited by D. Parvaz and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.