The immigrant experience.
is one that I cannot say is of my own.
As I read through the pages of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, this was my visceral thought.
As a second-generation Asian-Canadian, I have not had to undergo the struggles that come with immigration firsthand, but instead have seen how my parents have been changed by the process and how it has shaped the dynamics of our family ever since.
The Namesake sticks out for me not because of any plot point or character that is particularly captivating, but actually the entire mundanity of it all (I’m not doing a fantastic job at selling this book to you, but I promise it’s great!).
The plot revolves around the Ganguli family where a mother, Ashima, recounts of her time back in Calcutta, India where she was arranged to be wed to her current husband Ashoke who lives in Boston. From there, she must leave her family behind and goes on to start a new life with her new husband in the foreign land that is America. Together, they build a family and the story chronicles the daily occurrences of life that happen within their family, especially when cultures clash and intersect.
Something that largely differentiates this novel from say, The Kite Runner, is that there is no overwhelming worldly disaster, war, or tragedy that the parents must overcome to give their children a better life. Rather than an extraordinarily cinematic turn-of-events occurring, the key protagonists face subtle hardships that gradually amount to something largely significant along the way. And it is this framework of their lives and these little things that impacted me deeply as a reader and which I find very accurately represents the lives I’ve observed my own parents experience as they moved to a foreign country to start a new life.
This can be reflected in Lahiri’s writing, where many people actually expressed their dislike at how the writing was rambly without any distinct dilemma, climax, or resolution and that the novel didn’t have a defined ending. However, I actually enjoyed this aspect of Lahiri’s writing as I felt it mirrored real life shockingly well.
Some of these such described “mundane” things that occurred in the Ganguli day-to-day struck a chord in me:
1. Ashoke, the father, making a large pot of simple butter chicken that would be stretched out as multiple dinners throughout the week.
I remember so many times in my childhood where my mom would be too tired from work during the week, so my dad would make a huge pot of “Chinese soup” for dinner that would last for the next few days. It consisted of pork, carrots, potato and radish. I completely resented it. It was too simple, oftentimes bland, saturated with ingredients that our family ate too frequently, and always left me wishing that we’d eat something different. I rarely ever thought about my dad, probably exhausted from his own work and picking us up from school, then proceeding to buy groceries and making food that he knew how to cook for the family, and oftentimes cleaning up after us and washing the dishes.
Thinking about it now, I realize that my dad cooking food he was familiar with, at a time where Canada and its ways were so foreign and terrifying to him, was a way for him to stay rooted to his family back home in Asia and the simple food that he ate growing up. This soup that I had resented so much was a source of much-needed comfort and reassurance as my dad paved his own way in a new land. And while I mentally complained to myself about the food we would always eat, it was never a problem to my parents. The food we ate was good and in much more abundance than my dad was used to back in his hometown and what his own parents could provide him, so he was content with what we had.
2. Ashima uses a lot of mental and emotional energy to spend her day taking care of her son Gogol and running simple errands.
As a second-generation person born and raised in Canada, this aspect of life written from Ashima’s own perspective was something that I could not relate with yet impacted me to the core. When Ashima had great difficulty doing something as simple as navigating public transit to buy groceries to cook for dinner, it was beyond my understanding. The truth is that I have never had to encounter the deep struggle of finding your bearings in a land of a completely new language and norms, but I’ve come to learn that this experience was probably something that was all too real to my parents and thousands of immigrants each and every day.
Singularly focusing on Ashima’s perspective helped to humanize the role of parents in the eyes of children. So often, we can form very idealized “role-model” perceptions of our beloved parents, placing them on a pedestal where their capacity to juggle multiple responsibilities and hardships is infinite. But this isn’t reality. Our parents are real people who had lives before they immigrated to the land we were born in. They have their own salient struggles they endure, real burnouts in strength and perseverance, and their own lessons they learn throughout life.
3. As a family, Gogol and his family would return to Calcutta yearly, visiting his family and relatives.
Gogol (the son of Ashima and Ashoke) described these family trips back to India as resembling anything but a vacation. Each day consisted of going from house-to-house of their relatives, leaving no room for any “sightseeing” or venturing outside of Calcutta. In contrast to his parents who are returning to their homeland during these trips, India is the land that feels foreign to Gogol, as he’s confused by the culture there and is homesick for American food and traditions.
I can trace out these family trips my family took back to Taiwan like the palm of my hand. I remember being at first excited to board a plane and walk around a foreign place, but quickly, the novelty wore off as we would go visit the same small town every time and never ventured anywhere new. I became bored and ignorant, unaware that these trips were precious to my parents, that they were rare moments of the year where my parents could see and reconnect with my grandparents and aunts and uncles in person.
This seems to highlight the impact of assimilation and how this process impacts parents and their children very differently. As many second-generation children can affirm, there is often a duality in living somewhere between the lines of their parents’ culture and that of the land they were born in.
There were a few more additional questions that arose in my mind while reading through the book that I thought I’d leave here:
- How do the lives of our parents change when they immigrate to a new country, navigating through the dichotomy of your cultural heritage and your current every day surroundings? What kind of sacrifices do immigrants and our parents make in the process as their definition of “home” alters?
- What do we bring to a new land when we come from other places? What do we give away in order to fit in?
- How do our views on “living our best lives” (being free, independent, following our individual passions) often contrast with our parents (family obligation, financial security and stability)? Why do you think this divergence is as it is?
- How many times have we been embarrassed about something from our cultural heritage? And then come to realize it takes on a completely different meaning for our parents? (e.g. In the book, Gogol detests his name but to his father, that name represents the extra years in his father’s life that was unexpectedly given to him in an incident a long time ago)