Roya Hakakian, Author Of ‘A Beginner’s Guide To America’ : NPR

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 gleaming bright corridors and stand in line with most of your possessions in your hands and see the American flagpens on the lapel of the TSA Officers – all with names like Sanchez, McWilliams and Cho and “by God, all Americans”.

She says that the wealth of names was the most striking thing she had ever seen in her life. “I had come from a country where in my immediate life I had never seen anything other than the people in the neighborhood who were mostly of the same race and ethnicity,” she recalls. “This human salad was and continues to be amazing for me.”

Highlights of the interview

What she hopes American-born people can learn through the eyes of an immigrant

I thought of writing this book in 2016 when rhetoric against immigrants reached new heights. At the same time there was also this surge in anti-democratic sentiments. And I thought what if I could somehow show America that most Native Americans can’t see the little signs of democracy that might be invisible to those who have never lived anywhere else.

After three weeks, we’re giving back something we bought in the store – you know, a sweater – and we believe any place in the world you can just show up with your receipt and return something you’ve bought. No you can’t. We as individuals have rights. Another example is, you know that there are traffic laws in most parts of the world, but nobody respects them because you just don’t believe the laws in an undemocratic country. And these are all the little gifts of this gigantic democracy that manifests in the way we live our daily lives.

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On “the ABC of American specialties”, such as prices that end in 99 cents

It was one of the very first things I asked when I first came to the States. Do you know why isn’t it three dollars? Why does it have to be $ 2.99? And then I got a talk on the fact that marketers think if they make $ 2.99 they think it’s two dollars. And so my first reaction was, well, that’s really silly. But then 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 them all? Do you really need that many brands of grain? And that is certainly a point of view. But at the end of the day, I think it’s important to see choice as the cornerstone of what makes this country or democracy what it is.

About the legacy of slavery and what immigrants owe

When you look at why America was a much better immigrant destination when compared to other western countries, I can’t help but believe that this is in large part the contribution of the African American struggles for equality, which we as outsiders benefited from what they have done to create a more just and equal society.

About the recent hate crimes against immigrants, particularly against Asian Americans

It is probably one of the most important aspects of the American immigration experience that we all, regardless of our background, have discriminated against at some point in history in this country. And we can best hope to do better. And we also know from our track record that in a generation or two we can make this land a home for newcomers.

About their views on assimilation

It’s nuanced in that I think assimilation ultimately creates a sense of national solidarity, right? We all know that taking on that American identity and feeling that there is something bigger than what we individually brought with us is a beautiful thing. There is something bigger than these little pieces that we bring together. But one reason this possibility exists in America is because America allows us to be Jewish, Iranian, Middle Eastern, Chinese and so many other possibilities in my case as well. So it is in this nuanced situation that we want to be one. We should want to celebrate a unique American woman. But that’s possible because America doesn’t fight our individuality. America is not fighting our heritage. America doesn’t ask that we give up who we are.

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

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