Tuesday, April 13, 2021

A lifetime of reading how Min Jin Li wrote about his immigrant world

At work, my mom and dad split a deli egg sandwich for lunch to save money. Dad wore two sweaters at the undershirt shop. My sisters and I wore off-brand sneakers from Phewa Shoes. But when I read about Lensky’s Florida “crackers”, I felt they deserved all my sympathy. In Lensky’s story, the girls wore clothes made of flour sacks. It was a fate that could be avoided with education, I argued.

Before middle school, I had to say Betty Smith’s “Growing a Tree in Brooklyn”, the quintessential New York immigrant novel that underscored the power of education. When the young mother, Katie Nolan, who herself had just finished sixth grade, gives birth to her daughter, Katie’s immigrant mother, Mary, tells her that although she was a “greenhorn”, who was there to help her children Not known enough Katie could raise her children differently. Mariam instructs her daughter that she can bathe in an empty milk in the dark corner of a closet to save the coins and read to her children daily with good books so that they can read and write.

On Payday, Katie, a watchman, throws coins into a tin, and each night he reads a page of Shakespeare and the Bible to his daughter, Frankie, and later, her son, Nellie. Despite her difficulties, Katie’s children make less money, surpassing the wage rates of less educated adults.

Our first year in the US, Uncle John took us to an IBM Christmas party at the company’s entertainment facility. There is no doubt that the party was for immediate family members, but somehow Uncle John along with his daughters included my sisters and me. In the large party room, buffet tables were laden with pans of main rib and noodle casserole. The number of cakes, cookies and colorful candies made my breath take off. Uncle John told us to eat as much as we liked. Near the end of the party, Santa appeared and presented all the children. Weirdly, I don’t remember what I got, but I remember wrapping colored foil and ribbon.

My mother and father worked six days a week. They were on their feet all day and were exhausted by the time they returned home. We had presentations, but my mother did not have time for decorations, feasts or cards. At the IBM party, the feeling I had was in abundance. There, a man in multicolored lights, tinsel, uprooted trees and red velvet dress, wearing a white beard, was presenting me just because I was a kid. There could be layoffs in life.

In the presence of the reward, I still feel a sense of astonishment. My favorite book characters also feel it. When young Frankie Nolan goes to the bread factory in Los for a “semi-supply of stale bread” for the family, she arrives at an outlet store with a good smell, waiting for her turn. It does not matter that he is buying stale bread and has a pie with broken crust that costs a nickel. At least he is a customer. Certainly, it could be worse: There may be a day when there is no nickel in the family budget for pie – just a day of dry loaves or, perhaps, no bread at all.

In high school, I read heavy fare, in which the characters wanted things but could not find them or lost everything. This seems to be the case – as if the reader needs to know that life will be difficult. I read books in which life could fulfill your dreams. I will never forget the broken Hurstwood in Theodore Dresser’s “Sister Carry”, who refused to accept that his love would not return. I was learning about sad traitors like Balzac’s Père Goriot, who was probably admired with Shakespeare’s King Lear. If you were not considering and adopting the store, and even if you were, life can take away everything.

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