Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious by Roya Hakakian. (Knopf)
I didn’t know what to expect when I first picked up Roya Hakakian’s new book, A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious. In my head, I thought this was going to be a technical book that dove into the different cultures and ideologies that made up America. It was going to be a “how-to,” guiding new immigrants through the labyrinth that is America. That it was going to be heavier on the sociological elements and less on the lived experiences.
Boy, was I wrong.
This book is a richly textured experience into what newly arrived—and even years-seasoned—immigrants can expect to go through when immigrating to the United States of America, but it’s written from a personal and human viewpoint. Here’s the kicker: this book is not only for immigrants. This book is perfect for everyone who should be welcoming people into our country.
It’s odd because, as an American who doesn’t know anything different, I’d have thought I’d be an expert on living here, but this book showed me how wrong I was. It’s one of those situations where I was far too close to the subject matter and all I needed was to take a step back to see the whole picture. This book is a lesson in empathy-building for the immigrant experience in a smart and straightforward way.
This book is a lesson in empathy-building for the immigrant experience in a smart and straightforward way.
Hakakian sets A Beginner’s Guide to America up as if we’re the immigrant coming to live a new life in a new country. The book is told in the second person, and while it feels fictionalized and built on the standard experience, we can tell a lot of this is coming straight from Hakakian’s own experience. The language she uses is inviting, funny, and insightful as she looks at both the good and the bad aspects of America. She explores how Americans feel compelled to help people simply because they need help, but also examines the xenophobic tendencies she ran into.
The way we generally hear about America (or the way I generally hear about America) we’re either the worst place on the planet in a constant state of disrepair, or we’re God’s gift to humanity. Both of these are unfortunate lines of thinking because they’re both so bold in their portrayal of America that they ring hollow and false, and, well, that’s because they are. Life—and, by extension, America—is so much more nuanced than that. There are layers and degrees, and it feels disingenuous to speak in absolutes about anything so large.
That’s why Hakakian’s book is so refreshing and important for everyone—she’s giving us the look from the outside in. She’s telling us who we are because she can see it clearly, even if it is an enigma to her: “The more you stay in America, the less you know what or who an American is.” A Beginner’s Guide to America is a compelling book and I think everyone should read it because we get an honest look at the real condition of American culture.
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