Editor’s Note: Babble is a part of the Walt Disney Company.
Immigrant — we’ve heard that word in the news a lot lately. There’s been plenty of discussion about who should be allowed to come into the United States and who should not; who might have to leave, and who should be able to stay. It’s an emotional and divisive topic, but I don’t think it needs to be.
It’s for those reasons and more that a soon-to-be released book by Disney Publishing couldn’t be more timely: Six Words Fresh Off the Boat is a compilation of vignette stories from recent immigrants of all ages, who were each asked to answer the same question — “What’s your coming to America story?” — in just six words.
The book is a collaboration between the author behind Six-Word Memoirs and the folks behind the ABC TV show, Fresh Off the Boat, and let me tell you, it’s a must-read. Not only because it’s an eye-opening look at what it really means to be an immigrant, but also because it’s a collection of stories that instantly draw you in and leave you feeling good about humanity in general.
Everyone’s immigration story is different, and what struck me so profoundly about this particular book were the small details that stuck in people’s minds about their own experience. Take Lydia Martin, now a writer for the Miami Herald, who shares her memories of fleeing Cuba with her mother when she was just 6 years old. Martin’s mother had been given permission to leave the country with her young daughter, but her husband had not. And so, Martin’s mother made the heart-wrenching choice to give her daughter a better life, and left her husband and her homeland behind to do so.
Martin’s strongest memory of her immigration experience was that she ordered her first Coke on the quick flight to Miami, and that the flight attendant took it away before she’d had a chance to finish it. What struck me the most about this story was that it featured both a mother’s incredible sacrifice and also a child’s simplistic way of looking at the situation. I think all moms can relate to that one, and that’s precisely where the beauty lies in this book: You’ll relate to stories that you won’t even expect to relate to. It will broaden your views and just might change your perspective.
As I read through its pages, I couldn’t help but think of the immigration story I’ve held close to my own heart for years, as well. Not one that belongs to me, but rather my children. I’m American, born and bred. I know my ancestors came from somewhere in Europe many years ago and I know there’s some distant cousin that keeps track of all that. Growing up, I didn’t think much about immigration or where I came from. Immigration just wasn’t a word that applied to my family.
But it does now.
When you see me with my children, “immigrant family” probably isn’t what comes to mind. You might think “family by adoption” or “mixed race family.” But the fact is, my kids are immigrants and they always will be, and that makes us an immigrant family, of sorts.
My kids were adopted from China, and were naturalized as part of our adoption process which involved about 300 pieces of paper and enough notary seals to make my head spin. My kids are first-generation Chinese Americans. They don’t have birth certificates that are recognized by our school district. They have Chinese birth records that no one here can decipher and they each have a Certificate of Citizenship. Even though they’re pretty typical American kids who have no memories of living in another country, under the current laws, neither one of them is eligible to run for President of the United States.
We try very hard to inject Chinese culture into their everyday lives and to teach them how to embrace the freedoms and privileges of being American citizens while respecting and learning from their birth country. We’ve had Chinese people tell us they’re not really Chinese and we’ve encountered Americans who’ve told us they’re not really American. This sense of being perceived as “not quite this, yet not quite that” is a common theme with immigrants, which you’ll see mentioned in several stories in Six Words Fresh Off the Boat.
The vignette stories are easy to read and the multitude of “6-word stories” that decorate the pages in between each vignette leave you wanting to learn more about the people behind those snippets. It makes you want to understand, and that’s a very good thing.
I don’t know how my kids will see themselves when they’re older. If you ask my 7-year-old where he’s from, sometimes he answers “China” and sometimes he answers “Texas.” Like a lot of things in life, immigration is more complicated under the surface than you probably think it is.
My family’s story probably isn’t what the casual observer may think it is, from the outside looking in. But I think it’s a story very much worth listening to and understanding. And doesn’t everyone have a story worth listening to and understanding at the end of the day? Wouldn’t we all be in a much better place if we practiced more of that?
I think the answer is yes.
Six Words Fresh Off the Boat is available now from Disney Books, and wherever books are sold.