In high school, I read a book called “Catfish and Mandala,” by Andrew X. Pham. Its two stories told simultaneously, one about leaving Vietnam as a child and another about coming back as an adult. That was my intro to the world of immigrant narratives, a genre I have loved ever since. I’m not sure if its because or despite the fact that I’m a white girl from the suburbs, but I have always been fascinated by memoirs of people caught between cultures. Some of my favorite include:
The author of “Catfish and Mandala” left Vietnam in a boat, and its the best account I’ve read of post-war Vietnam. I’ve read it twice and, now that I’m writing about it, I want to read it again.
You’ve probably heard of it, given that its a big deal movie. In fact, I was prepared to be disappointed by the film, but instead I cried. A lot. If you’re too lazy to read the book, 1. shame on you and 2. at least see the movie. I have a lot of respect for Kal Penn, too, the lead in the movie (now with a recurring guest spot on How I Met Your Mother…)
And now to the Middle East:
Azadeh Moaveni has written two books about her experiences in Iran, one as a twenty-something and one as a recently-married thirty-something. I found the first, “Lipstick Jihad,” to be an incredibly eye-opening read on the state of Iran and the ways in which it is misunderstood by the rest of the world. It was also a moving portrait of a woman struggling to define her identity – after a lifetime in America, thinking of herself as Iranian, she goes to Iran and discovers how American she actually is (this is a common theme, by the way).
Her next book, “Honeymoon in Tehran,” was not nearly as good.
At the moment I’m reading “Indian Takeaway,” a sweet but clumsy travel narrative by Hardeep Kohli, a Scottish-born Sikh whose focus on food is the point of entree for his insights into Indian and Scottish culture, as well as the culture of his family. I would recommend it, but only if the three books mentioned above aren’t available.
There is also a top-notch This American Life episode (I know, I have a problem) called Americans in Paris. It features David Sedaris and deals with the nature of foreign-ness. I really enjoyed it.