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Saturday, May 31, 2008


Popular among books these days are memoirs, and popular in this genre is the immigrant story. Paper Daughter by M. Elaine Mar is the story of an immigrant Chinese family escaping a bare subsistence life in Hong Kong for an unknown but hopeful future in the United States. Mar’s story is really the story of her early life tracing the cross-culture clash that she faces in her new country.

As in Namesake which I reviewed in Third Age Traveler some months ago, children find themselves in the middle of a situation they have no part in creating. In the Denver area in which Elaine grows, she is very different from her classmates and suffers the taunts and cruelties dished out by other children. She is called mean names, physically and mentally bullied by her classmates, and misunderstood by her teachers. She struggles with her new language because she wants to communicate and tries to make her way through the difficult maze of cultural rules and expectations. It's not easy though she quickly picks up the idea that education will be the path to her success. She has to do all of this alone. Her parents work long, difficult hours earning only enough wages for the entire family to live in the small basement room of a relative. There is the additional factor that makes her struggle a solo journey. None of the adults speak English nor seek to learn or understand English.

This book received positive reviews, and the back jacket credits it with debunking myths about America as a land of equal opportunity. I came away with a very different reaction.

M. Elaine Mar arrives in the U.S. as a three year old immigrant. She lives with her family who disparages everything about the United States despite the fact that they are here for a far better existence than they had in Hong Kong. They are bigots against anyone or anything not like themselves and use derogatory names for those not Chinese. They make their daughter believe, as part of their Chinese culture, that she is useless because she is female. They never try to learn English or experience life in the United States, and her mother only becomes a citizen in order to use that privilege to bring more family members here. Despite all of this, M. Elaine Mar navigates the stormy cultural seas, wins a scholarship and graduates from Harvard, proving that the American dream is still alive and kicking.

The book makes me contemptuous for those who come here and expect “rights” which they did not have in their native countries and insist on America adjusting to them without making any attempt to adjust to America.

Paper Daughter does not debunk anything. It reaffirms the reasons our country is a desirable place to live and why people struggle to come to the United States. It makes me thankful to be here.

Cultural clashes are tough. Children are cruel to each other. People are often insensitive, and differences can make life harder. As I read about immigrants to other countries, I don’t read of their successes as I do of M. Elaine Mars. If Paper Daughter accompanies you on your trip, you will finish it thankful that you are lucky enough to live in America.

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