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Infinite Country by Patricia Engel | Thoughts

   Published : 2021   ||    Format : print   ||    Location : Colombia ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆   What was it about the country that kept everyone hostage to its fantasy? The previous month, on its own soil, an American man went to his job at a plant and gunned down fourteen coworkers, and last spring alone there were four different school shootings. A nation at war with itself, yet people still spoke of it as some kind of paradise.. Thoughts : Infinite Country follows two characters - young Talia, who at the beginning of this book, escapes a girl’s reform school in North Colombia so that she can make her previously booked flight to the US. Before she can do that, she needs to travel many miles to reach her father and get her ticket to the rest of her family. As we follow Talia’s treacherous journey south, we learn about how she ended up in the reform school in the first place and why half her family resides in the US. Infinite Country tells the story of her family through the other protagonist, El

Almost American Girl by Robin Ha | Thoughts

 Published in: 2020   ||   Format: ebook   ||   Location: South Korea, US

One line review: When Ha Chuna's mother decides to relocate them to the US from Seoul, little does Chuna know just how challenging a year is ahead of her while she tries to fit in despite not understanding the language.

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Ha Chuna is very happy with her life in Seoul - she has friends she loved to hang out with, favorite haunts that she visited after school with her friends, and a mother she loved. Every summer, Chuna and her mother went overseas on vacation so this year, right before she was to start eighth grade, when her mother said that Alabama was their destination this time, she did not think much of it, even though she had not heard of the place before. 

Once in Alabama, she learns that they will stay with her mother's friend, Kim Minsik, and his entire family. So far, this is turning out to be an unusual vacation for Chuna. Still, she is shocked when she learns that her mother is planning to marry Kim and the four of them (including Kim's daughter from a previous marriage) will move to a house nearby, very close to Kim’s family. Chuna did not take that news well. She could barely speak or understand English and she missed all her friends, whom she didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to. Unfortunately for Chuna, things are only about to get worse. She was encouraged to take an American name so that she could fit in better when she started school in the US but the fact that she didn't speak or understand English, had no friends, and the only person who could help her at school was busy avoiding her all made school an extremely difficult and traumatic experience for her. 

Reading this book reminded me of my Junior year in India, after leaving Dubai which is where I grew up. My experiences were not traumatic at all, on the contrary, I’d argue it was pleasant and everyone was friendly. But I spoke the local tongue (my native language) only barely - I was constantly translating words and sentences mentally and so I was always behind in conversations - a challenge I carried for years. By the end of that year, I met an amazing person who helped me adapt, something I’m very grateful for all these years later. 

Chuna, on the other hand, was constantly teased, bullied, and made fun of at school. Not understanding the language made it all the more traumatic - when a boy comes to talk to her, she thinks he is being friendly and later realizes he was having fun at her expense. She is unable to follow along in her classes but with the help of her English teacher, she learns to express herself. Despite that, with each day, her confidence takes a crushing blow, so much that it is hard to see if she can ever recover.

If it's not clear yet, I cried a lot reading this book. Robin does a great job illustrating her feelings in different situations and how it is very easy for parents to relocate and resettle without always considering how the children may take it. Middle and High school can be hard enough even for established kids, imagine trying to navigate this landscape when you don't know anyone, now try doing the same when you don't understand anyone. 

While much of the book focuses on how Chuna/Robin handled her eighth grade in the US, it also gives some context to the type of relationship Robin and her mother shared, through some experiences during her childhood. It was initially easy to blame Robin's mother for what Chuna is going through, but even by her admission, Chuna didn't know just how much her mother has been through as a single working mother in a society that shunned them. It is easy to say that in hindsight, this was the right decision, but sometimes, you wonder, is the trauma worth it? What Chuna goes through can easily haunt her for life and impact her ability to make friends. 

This is an excellent book that shows just how hard a decision it is to immigrate and how much harder it is to assimilate. Where do people find the courage to uproot themselves and fly halfway across the world to start a new life in bearings that could be alien to them? When in Rome, do as the Romans do is what is often told to any immigrant. Chuna/Robin and her mother do their best to fit in but sometimes if the audience is not willing to see that they are trying their best, is there still any value to trying harder?

What book comes to mind when you think of immigration and fitting in?