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

Mar 20, 2021

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, HOST:

Roya Hakakian was a teen when she came to the United States from Iran. In "A Beginner's Guide To America: For The Immigrant And The Curious," she tells 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.

ROYA HAKAKIAN: (Reading) Only when you stand in line, one hand clutching a bag, another on the handle of a suitcase, and your eyes begin to rove about will you see something you have only seen at a tourist destination before. Pinned on the flap of the chest pockets of the officers guiding everyone are name tags - Sanchez, McWilliams, Cho, al-Hamed (ph), and, by God, all of them Americans. If jetlag has not clouded your senses, you will instantly recognize this to be the surest sign of America. In the monochrome life you just left behind, such a motley human landscape would have been unthinkable.

SIMON: Roya Hakakian, the Persian language poet and author of the acclaimed books "Journey From The Land Of No" and "Assassins Of The Turquoise Palace" joins us from Connecticut. Thanks so much for being with us.

HAKAKIAN: Thank you for having me on.

SIMON: What impression did that wealth of names make on you?

HAKAKIAN: I thought it was the most striking thing I had seen in my 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. This human salad was quite mind-blowing to me and continues to be.

SIMON: What do you hope people born in America might learn through the eyes of an immigrant?

HAKAKIAN: I thought of writing this book in 2016 when 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?

SIMON: Well, make them visible for us. What are you talking about?

HAKAKIAN: Well, 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.

SIMON: One of my favorite sections of the book, certainly one of the funniest, is the ABCs of American peculiarities. You wonder, for example, why we mark prices with 99 cents.

HAKAKIAN: (Laughter) You know, it was one of the very first things I asked when I first came to the States. You know, why isn't it $3? 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 $2. And so my first reaction was, well, that's really silly. But then, you know, I also talk about the endless row of cereals on - 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.

SIMON: One of the most penetrating sections of your book, you say immigrants to America bare no personal responsibility for the sins of slavery, but immigrants do owe a sense of responsibility to enslaved people and their indispensable legacy.

HAKAKIAN: 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.

SIMON: You, of course, realize that we are speaking of your book at a time in a week following the terrible events in Atlanta, but not just the events in Atlanta, in which many Americans wonder really how welcoming this country is to immigrants.

HAKAKIAN: It is probably one of the most important aspect of the American immigration experience that we have all, no matter what background we came from at, one point or another throughout the 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.

SIMON: You have what I'll characterize as a distinct and nuanced view on that process we used to call assimilation.

HAKAKIAN: Yes. 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 and nuanced situation where we want to be one. We ought to want to celebrate a singular Americanness. 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.

SIMON: I know this weekend is new year for many people, so (non-English language spoken).

HAKAKIAN: Oh, thank you so much. We're just about done at home setting up our traditional display for the Persian New Year and the holiday that comes along, which is called Nowruz, or as the words are, a new day.

SIMON: Roya Hakakian and her book, "A Beginner's Guide To America For The Immigrant And The Curious." Thanks so much for being with us.

HAKAKIAN: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.