Wednesday, October 15, 2014

[Memphis Reads2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Nick Vongprachanh

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Nick Vongprachanh

Where I Belong

While the primal desire to reach a state of stability is apparent in all living organisms, the psychological strain produced from changing environments is a characteristic almost exclusively reserved for humans. In the novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengestu, the protagonist Sepha Stephanos appears to be leading an average lifestyle; he has a home, friends, and a store which provides his income. Although most would be content with his way of life, Sepha still feels as if he is “a bird stuck between two branches” due to his inability to fully accept American culture and realize that he will never return home. In this novel, the author utilizes this geographical barrier and Sepha’s inability to let go of the past to display how difficult the path of self-discovery was for Stephanos and how he was able to carry on with his life afterwards.

Although Sepha left his home country of Ethiopia at the age of sixteen, it wasn’t until he moved out of his uncle’s apartment that he truly felt like he was leaving home. Upon Sepha’s return to his uncle’s apartment almost fifteen years after moving out, he stated that “living here is as close to living back home as one can get, which is precisely why I moved out.” While still living with his uncle, Sepha still had plans of returning home and never fully accepted that he would never return. After moving out, however, Stephanos, with the help of his friend Kenneth, embraced his newfound hope in America and opened up his own shop. By doing so, Sepha further cemented his ties to America and came one step closer to accepting his newfound life.
Although changing locations displayed Sepha’s willingness to become independent of not only his uncle, but also the comfort of his own people, it was still difficult to fully grasp how Sepha’s mentality towards American culture had changed. Luckily, Stephanos had two friends who illustrate his split sense of belonging perfectly. His friend Joseph, commonly referred to as “Congo Joe,” never missed an opportunity to bolster about his African heritage. Joseph’s desire to retain his African roots was so severe that he even refuses to seek dental work and instead claims “you can never forget where you came from if you have teeth as ugly as these.” On the other hand, Sepha’s friend Kenneth, otherwise known as “Ken the Kenyan,” fully embraced American culture and all it has to offer. Since coming to America, Kenneth has crawled his way up the social ladder to become an engineer, who continues to “fight the good fight.” Together, these two characters display the split sense of identity Stephanos retains throughout the novel; they also continue to reiterate the fact that “home” is where you make it and the importance of retaining some sense of personal identity.
While Sepha’s best friends played a vital role in fully illustrating the two sides of his personality, it wasn’t until the arrival of Judith and Naomi that Sepha fully realized that he was searching for all this time in America. While Judith may play an important role in revealing Sepha’s own insecurities regarding what he has accomplished in life so far, it is Naomi who plays the truly vital role in Sepha’s own self-discovery. While it may seem rather odd that a middle-aged man and a little girl could become great friends in such short period of time, it is primarily due to the fact that they rely on one another for emotional support. Although Naomi’s father is still alive, she has never fully accepted him as her parent. By having Sepha read to her, she is filling the void left in her heart. This was also the first time that Sepha finally felt at home since coming to America and as he put elegantly “tomorrow did not come fast enough.”  It was also during these reading sessions that Sepha was able to reminisce about the time he spent with his father and help him cope with his loss. While reading to Naomi, Sepha states that “this is exactly what my father would have done” and that “he would have made the story an event, as grand as real life.” This statement reiterates Sepha’s desire to be like his father and to live a life that would make his family proud. It might have been easier for Sepha to forget about his past if his brother back in Ethiopia, Dawit, was not a constant reminder of his father and his own failures. Unlike Sepha, Dawit was a college graduate and as Sepha put frankly “he already looked more like him then I ever would.”
Ultimately, the coming and going of Judith and Naomi along with the eviction of Sepha from his convenience store led to Sepha’s realization that while it is important to remember his father, it is pointless to try to emulate him. He is a grown man, and now it is time for him to lead his own life and become his own person. America is his home now, and it is imperative that he find happiness in his own life instead of constantly dwelling about his own shortcomings and worrying about what his family would think if they saw what his life had become.  As a whole, this novel illustrates the fact that home is where you make it and the importance of understanding one’s self, because living for someone else’s sake is no way to live.
While reading this novel, I found myself constantly thinking of my own father. Like Sepha, my dad was also a refugee, escaping from Laos with his parents and two sisters at the young age of eleven. Although I’ll never fully be able to understand the difficulties my dad faced when coming to America, I still experience the friction between the two cultures in my everyday life. Unlike my father, my mother is an American, born and raised. While this may seem like no big deal, I find myself constantly trying to appease both sides. I also find myself not fully wanting to fully embrace or reject the other culture. While my tastes in food, appearance, and knowledge of Lao customs might make me a little too foreign to be seen as a typical American, my inability to speak the language and dislike for some of the weirder Lao foods permanently subjugates me to be branded as no different from any other Caucasian. For me, being stuck between two cultures was never a big deal. While at times it may be somewhat irritating trying to appease both sides, I never really felt like being wedged between both cultures was that overbearing. Therefore, to claim I have resolved my dilemma would not be necessarily true; instead, I would consider myself at home between the rock and a hard place. While it may not be the ideal situation, I find comfort in knowing that both are there to stay.
--Nick Vongprachanh

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