For immigrants who come to America from a dictatorship or a theocracy, writes Roya Hakakian, “the hardest task of all” is figuring out “how to go about the business of living.” A question that never occurs to native-born Americans — “How do free people live?” — is one that immigrants from all but the most privileged backgrounds must grapple with.
Having entered the United States as a refugee from Iran in 1985, Hakakian knows firsthand how disorienting freedom can be to those who grew up without it.
“What is the shape of a day,” she asks in “A Beginner’s Guide to America,” her compelling portrait of the immigrant experience, “that is not fitted between the hours of official curfew or electricity outage? What is a night without fear? What is one that does not end at sundown because bars, discos, music, dancing, and gambling are not banned?” In the old country, it took all of one’s emotional energy to resist the oppressive government. In America, she tells newcomers going through what she once went through, the challenges are very different — not the least of which is getting used to a society in which freedom is taken for granted and the pursuit of happiness is a national ambition.
There is no shortage of books about immigration policy, immigration’s history, or the economic and social effects of immigration. But “A Beginner’s Guide to America” is something different. Written in the form of a manual for new immigrants, it is intended as a window for US-born natives on what the process of Americanization feels like to those going through it.
Hakakian, who came to the United States speaking no English, is today an accomplished essayist, poet, and journalist. She doesn’t sugarcoat America’s failings, and her book notes candidly the strain of anti-immigrant hostility and xenophobia that has always existed here. Yet love and gratitude for her adopted country far outweigh the disappointments. “America remains the pioneer, however imperfectly, in accepting immigrants.”
From the moment a newcomer arrives in America, signs of that acceptance are everywhere. At the airport, for example, “pinned on the … chest pockets of the officers guiding everyone are name tags — ‘Sanchez,’ ‘McWilliams,’ ‘Cho,’ ‘Al-Hamed’ — and, by God, all of them are Americans!” This ethnic diversity is “the surest sign of America,” Hakakian exults. “In the monochrome life you just left behind, such a motley human landscape would have been unthinkable.”
Again and again, Hakakian calls attention to such seemingly unremarkable details, infusing them with insight into the American character.
Streets, she observes, are named for trees, birds, or natural features — not, as is common elsewhere, for “old wars and bygone enmities.” There may be the occasional Washington Boulevard or Franklin Street, but no avenue or public square proclaims the glory of glowering ayatollahs or all-powerful despots.
Meaningful, too, is something else that to Americans is perfectly humdrum: Purchases can be returned for a refund.
This evokes disbelief in many newcomers, Hakakian says, since it would have been unthinkable in their native land. Yet it should evoke their joy as well, for “the exercise of returning goods is the surest sign of America’s greatness to them.” The right to get a refund demonstrates that ordinary consumers are “formidable” here. More than that, she writes, it is evidence that in America, “anything is possible because a one-time decision need not be destiny.”
Like foreign-born observers since Alexis de Tocqueville, Hakakian marvels at America’s extraordinary culture of charity and volunteerism. “Americans do not help because you are one of them,” she writes. “They help because that is what they do.” They clean up beaches and register voters, coach Little League and support struggling artists, raise funds via walkathons and serve meals at homeless shelters. Hakakian describes America as a “land of strangers” who “bond through shared love.”
Above all, perhaps, America is the “great equalizer,” the land where “you can get to know the bogeyman of your past.” Here, the detested or feared “other” of one’s homeland — the Jew, the Pakistani, the Hutu, the Arab — is simply a fellow citizen. In America, someone an immigrant would once have shunned is the doctor who treats her illness or the mechanic who fixes her car. As foreigners become American, old bigotries fade away.
Lyrical and perceptive, “A Beginner’s Guide to America” is an immigrant’s love letter to the nation that took her in. And it is a timely reminder of what millions of human beings endure when they uproot their lives to become Americans by choice.