Monday, September 22, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Abraham Hsuan-Hsin Lin

Below is the first of ten winning essays from CBU's Fresh Reads essay contest. All ten essays were inspired by events and themes from Dinaw Mengestu's novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, which is also the city-wide Memphis Reads 2014 book selection.  A new essay will post every Monday and Wednesday until the November 4th finale.  

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Abraham Hsuan-Hsin Lin

“Home is where the heart is” is a famous saying by Gaius Plinius Secundus, a Roman philosopher. This idiom expresses the idea that a person’s real home is where their love, memories, and culture reside. However, not everyone’s heart truly belongs to their physical location. For example, in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu, Sepha Stephanos, an immigrant, experiences the dilemma of being stuck between his home country Ethiopia and America, the country he escaped to. Like Stephanos, many immigrants, such as myself, have experienced the hardships of moving away from home to a new location and life. Due to Stephanos’ inability to find a true home in America, he ultimately struggles to find his identity.
Although Stephanos has been living in the U.S. for seventeen years, he still cannot forget his family that lives in Ethiopia, an unstable country wracked by a terrible civil war. Kenneth, one of his friends, asks Stephanos, “Don’t you worry you will forget [your father] someday?” to which Stephanos replies, “No. I don’t. I still see him everywhere I go” (10). Although he has left his father to come to America, he is still emotionally stuck in Ethiopia with his family, his true home. Throughout his stay in America, different people close to Stephanos show concern for his homesickness and wonder about his identity.
For example, Stephanos and Naomi, the biracial daughter of Stephanos’ neighbor Judith, are conversing about Ethiopia with the old map. Naomi then asks about his family in Ethiopia. “Don’t you miss them?” Stephanos answers, “Yes, I do, [but] I try not to” (27). Whenever he misses his family, he realizes that it is pointless to miss them because he cannot just give up everything in America to go back to Ethiopia. Ultimately, he is trapped between his “home” in Ethiopia and his home in America.
Because he feels guilty for not being able to visit his family, he sends “them money once every few months when [he] can afford to, even though” they do not need his money at all. To him, it is a “consolation prize for not being home” (41). Besides sending money home, he also hopes his “mother and brother would forgive [him] for [his] years of neglect and distance” when they receive his Christmas cards and presents (154). He does everything he can to tell himself that he cannot go back to Ethiopia. He recollects and rephrases a phrase his father used to say: a “man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone.” Stephanos is identified as the man in the saying. While he struggles to belong in America, he cannot return to Ethiopia either. Despite his attempt at finding a home in America, he fails to free himself from his fragile but enduring relationship with his family.
Like Stephanos, I also personally experience the dilemma of being stuck between two places, Taiwan and the United States. Many immigrants experience culture shock when they arrive to a new country due to the differences between two places. One of the big differences between Taiwan and the U.S. is language. English acted as a huge barrier to me at first. I came to the U.S. with my parents and younger sister three years ago. Before I arrived in America, I prepared myself to face the language. I knew I was not good at the language. The school placed me in English classes meant for foreign nationals. At the time, my Taiwanese “patriotism” made me feel ashamed and reluctant to abandon Chinese. Therefore, it was hard for me to learn and use English in everyday life. I preferred to speak in my primary language, Mandarin Chinese.
Some people use extreme ways to learn English. They ignore Chinese-speaking students and force themselves to make friends with non-Chinese people. When I realized the drastic measures they were using to learn English and abandon their native language, I felt heartbroken. However, my parents reiterated that English is important for my future. Unfortunately, my high school was comprised of primarily Chinese people. Surrounded by Chinese immigrants, I did not learn English quickly. Even though I made friends with Chinese students, we were able to face English together. We never gave up. We encouraged and reminded one another to use English every day. Although it was hard for us in the beginning, we still improved eventually. After three years, I can now listen to, speak, read, and write English with the same proficiency as Chinese. Meanwhile, I did not forget Chinese. I realized that valuing the American language and identity was just as important as my Taiwanese roots.
Both Sepha Stephanos and I face the same feelings and situations. Stephanos misses his family in Ethiopia and I miss the time when I used Chinese every day. While Stephanos has African friends in America, I have Chinese and Taiwanese friends in America. Stephanos cannot go back to Ethiopia and reunite with his family; I cannot go back to Taiwan and reconnect with my friends. Despite these similarities, there is one difference between Stephanos and me. While he struggles to find his identity, I do not. I belong to neither the U.S.A. nor Taiwan. I belong to God.

--Abraham Hsuan-Hsin Lin

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