Kek, a refugee from Sudan, arrives in the US in the dead of winter, to none other than Minnesota. There he struggles to adjust, not just from the shock of bitter cold, but everything in this Western world: English -“the tangled sounds” they tried to teach him at the refugee camp, modern conveniences like washing machines, toilets, even electricity, a new school and making friends. Navigating his way around this strange new world seems often overwhelming to a 12 year old.
His life, back in Sudan, was the simple, nomadic life of the herdsmen, living in huts, with his extended family. Civil war brought all of his childhood to a screeching halt. His father and brother are dead and his mother is missing. Kek joins his aunt and his teenage cousin in America, with only his memories of home and family, and hope that his mother is still out there somewhere, to sustain him.
This story brought to the surface many emotions that I too felt as a child, arriving back in the US: a mix of awe, fear, loneliness, and longing to belong. I especially related to Kek’s need for something to connect him to his home, his “real” home. As the sponsor drives him to his aunt’s apartment from the airport, he spots an old cow in a field, looking cold and lonely. He asks if he could stop to see the cow.
As Kek explains, in his country,
“cattle mean life. They are the reason to rise with the sun, to move with the rains, to rest with the stars. They are the way we know our place in the world.”
The sponsor stops the car, and Kek goes over to the cow. As he strokes her, he is pulled back to the home and the family he’s lost, to all that is familiar and he is comforted. He also carried in his pocket a small scrap of cloth, torn off from his mother’s dress during their escape. He would often reach in his pocket to touch it and memories of her soothe his hurt and fear.
Although I was not an orphan from a war-torn third world country, I remember as a child, how I used to carry little mementos of home in my pencil case as I started at a new school, in a new country: a small plastic smurf, a miniature photo of a friend and a favorite french pen with four colors in one: blue, black, green and red. Somehow holding the pen in my hand, clicking on each of the colors was soothing to me in a world where I didn’t belong or know the rules, rules such as only red is used by the teacher, for correcting mistakes.
Another aspect of this story, the author emphasizes, is how crucial relationships were to Kek, as he adjusted to life in a foreign place. Kek had friends and family who came along side him on his journey: his sponsor, his teacher, the girl in the apartment above him, his cousin, the elderly woman who owned the farm, even his aunt, lost in her own grief. But it is not just having people help him that mattered, but also being able to reciprocate. Kek learns that he has much to offer to each of these people and giving back to others brings him out of his own despair. To be needed, even in a strange land, is a healing ointment for the soul.
Similarly, arriving back in the US as an eighth grader, stepping into an affluent American suburban middle school, was rather difficult, to say the least. The school counselor decided that to help me ease in socially, she would pair me up with another girl, who would be in all the same classes and help me adjust. This girl was very friendly and hepful, but it soon became apparent to me, that she too was a not one of the “in-crowd”. She had certain physical disabilities, as well as being intellectually and socially precocious that made her stand out. Unfortunately, being different made her the brunt of jokes and having me in tow, shy, clueless and socially awkward definetely didn’t help her either. My first reaction was to pull away from her. Then it dawned on me that she needed my friendship, as much as I needed hers. If we didn’t sit together at lunch, she might very well have sat alone. If I didn’t go to her house after school, she would walk home alone. I wish now, looking back, that I had been secure enough myself, to stick up for her, to give to her all the love and affirmation she gave to me. I do know though that having someone who needed me in the jungle of middle school was a special gift from God that year and I am thankful for her.
So, wherever you call home or where your children calls home, this book is sure to elicit empathy in your third culture kid. It may even help him or her put into words the emotions often buried inside similar to those the main character, Kek, experiences as he journeys in this unknown land and works through his losses, not just of family, but of home and connectedness.
I definitely recommend this book (age range 10-14+ and adult TCKs) It’s a moving story of resilience, optimism and hope in the midst of change.
Other highly recommended immigrants stories
Angel Child, Dragon Child by Michele Maria Surat – a little girl, arriving in the US from Vietnam, hates her new school and especially the red-headed boy.
The name Jar by Yangsook Choi – A name jar is placed in the classroom to help a young Korean girl choose an American name for herself.
My name is Maria Isabel by Alma Flor Ada – A young girl from Puerto Rico is upset when her American teacher insists on calling Mary instead of her real name Maria.
My name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits – A Korean girl thinks her name just does not look special in English when she writes her letters out.
I hate English by Ellen Levine – Mei Mei from Hong Kong refuses to speak English, until her teacher comes up with a surprising solution.
Molly’s Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen (easy, short chapter book) – a story of a little girl from Russia whose mom makes her a very special pilgrim for the classroom Thanksgiving display.
In the year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord – The story of a young girl and her family as they leave China to settle in the US following World War II. (a fun an humorous read-aloud, ages 8-12)
Blue Willow by Doris Gates – Although not an immigrant story, , this novel, set during the Great Depression, tells of a girl longing for home as she travels around from place to place with her father. (ages 10+)
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata – A Newbery award winner, this is a moving tale a Japanese American girl living in Georgia. For older children (ages 12+)
Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan- Esperanza must flee her home in Mexico with her mother, and start a new life as a farm worker in California (for ages 10+)
Yang the Youngest and his terrible ear by Lensey Namioka – Newly arrived from China, a young boy lacks the musical talent that the rest of his family has, and struggles not only to adjust to a new country, but to find his place in his musically gifted family.
There are so many more other great books on the topic of adjusting to a new culture. The books, listed above, are all available to you (first come, first served basis, although I try to replace favorite books and get multiple copies as much as possible) Do you have any favorites? I would love to hear your recommendations.