Read Norma Logan’s column in the January 9, 2014 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.
New beginnings in life happen all the time, but the start of a New Year always signals a fresh start with New Year’s resolutions. Along the way to a new year, babies are born, marriages are celebrated, and people move and start new jobs. Some new beginnings are chosen, and others are not; some are happy, and some are sad.
The ultimate new beginning to me is experienced by the foreign born literacy students whom I meet and see every day in the Literacy Office at the Library. They are adults who are seeking our free tutoring service to help them learn to speak, read and write English better. They know that learning the English language is instrumental to having a better life in their new country.
Their stories of leaving their native countries and struggling with a new language are compelling and intriguing. Many have left fear and uncertainty behind to know freedom and opportunity. Some are here to be with their families, while others have left family behind. Often the family members left behind are living in war torn countries and must live in danger every day.
My interaction with these literacy students have encouraged me to seek out stories to read about similar individuals who have come to this country and struggled with cultural and language differences. There are many of these books to choose from in both the children’s and adult departments, in regular books and e-readers. Some stories are fiction based on fact, and some are nonfiction.
“The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures” by Anne Fadiman is the first book I read about the immigrant experience, and it is one of my favorite stories. It tells the tale of a Hmong family that immigrated to California with a young child who was later diagnosed with epilepsy. The family could not accept the western medical explanation for her strange fits. They were caught between the western medical system and their own cultural beliefs about life and health. Anne Fadiman was the social worker who found herself in the middle of the cultural conflict and tells the story from both sides.
One of our literacy tutors recommended Tracy Kidder’s book, “The Strength In What Remains” which tells the true tale of a young medical student, Deo, who escapes the genocide of Burundi and Rwanda. He arrives in New York City not knowing the English language or the culture. He must rely on strangers to teach him and befriend him. The author is clear about the horrors of civil war, but the character, Deo, represents hope and perseverance.
“Inside Out and Back Again” by Thannai Lai, is about a Vietnamese child of ten whose father was missing in action during the Vietnam war. She leaves her native Saigon with her mother and older brothers as the city falls, and she comes to America where she experiences alienation and the cruelty of child bullies. It can be found in the children’s department as a book, a cd sound recording and as an e-book online.
“A Step From Heaven”, by An Na, can be found in the YA dept. and as an e-book. It tells the story of Korean born Young Ju who leaves Korea with her family when she is four years old. As she grows into her teen years, she is conflicted by American and Korean values. Her parents struggle to be happy and prosperous in a foreign land.
“Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese is one of the best books I have ever read. Not only is it a well-crafted story, but the cultural conflict is well represented by the protagonist, Marion, a recent medical school graduate. Marion flees the brewing revolution in Ethiopia and arrives in New York City to begin his medical career as an intern at a poor and disorganized hospital in the Bronx.
The strength, courage and perseverance of the protagonists in these stories are replicated in the literacy students whom we meet in the Norwood Library literacy program on a regular basis. We, the staff who meet and provide literacy services for them, have come to realize that “differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.” – JC Rowling’s’ Harry Potter: The Goblet of Fire.
If you would like to help an adult learn to speak, read and write English better, or know someone who needs the help, please call the Literacy Volunteer office for further information at the Norwood Library (781-769-4599).