By Audrey Sullivan
What is the immigrant experience in America really like? Have you ever been curious about the emotional process of being an immigrant in the United States? In this episode of EconTalk, host Russ Roberts speaks with author and poet Roya Hakakian about her book A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious.
Hakakian’s book retells her own experience of coming to the United States at the age of 19 due to political and economic turmoil in her home country of Iran. The book reflects both the love of America that Hakakian has found as well as some of the improvements she believes are necessary. Hakakian identifies some of the keys factors and experiences of immigration in an attempt to challenge the way Americans think- those born state-side and those who have emigrated in. Tell us what you think about Hakakian’s ideas by answering the prompts below, or use them to start a conversation offline.
1-Hakakian discusses the misconceptions that Americans have about how immigrants think about the US prior tp their arrival. She is honest about the fact that she was not happy to be in the US when she first arrived, while many native Americans assumed she was “thrilled” to be there. But Hakakian also illustrates the opposite side of this perspective. What does she have to say about the preconceived notions that her home country instilled in her prior to coming to the US? What everyday experience surprised her most when she first arrived? Why?
2- One aspect of the unhappiness of Hakakian’s coming to America brought up by Roberts was quite a surprise to Hakakian. What was this particular aspect? Roberts and Hakakian discuss the profound power of “shared-ness.” What do they mean by this? How does this relate and shape Hakakian’s experiences?
3- How does Hakakian express the importance of criticism as a way to show love of something? She goes on to discuss the reasoning behind what Roberts calls the “American hazing ritual” which is the idea that America has been” indiscriminate about discriminating against immigrants.” What are some of the historical examples that Hakakian gives? Do you think this is something the US should or even can change? How does Hakakian view the situation optimistically? To what extent did you find her optimism convincing?
4- Roberts brings up the notion of a national narrative of the United States in light of today’s increased polarization. He says, “…our history isn’t the same for everybody. It’s different for people whose ancestors were enslaved, versus who came here escaping tyranny… we need a rich narrative that’s not simple.” What does Hakakian have to say about the struggle of these narratives, especially for African-Americans in the US? To what extent do you think it possible to create a national narrative today?
5- Roberts reads this quote from Hakakian’s book:
“What ought to be the quality that makes an American?
The Answer is simple: devotion to America’s founding principles. If you believe that all people have the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that ideas and speech must be aired and protected, that people of diverse backgrounds can come together over the love of those values, that serving the country- through the army, unions, Rotary Club, volunteer groups- is the way to unite the people, that every person deserves a vote and equal regard before the law, then you are an American.”
Do you agree with Hakakian’s viewpoint? To what extent are the shared values she mentions central to what it means to be an American? Are there other values she didn’t list? How does this quote relate to Hakakian’s experience of naturalization?