Book review of From Every End of This Earth by Steven Roberts

By Nancy Trejos
Sunday, December 27, 2009


13 Families and the New Lives They Made in America

By Steven V. Roberts

Harper. 323 pp. $25.99

Steven V. Roberts begins his new book, "From Every End of This Earth," by describing Bao and Tuyen Pham's escape from Vietnam following the fall of Saigon. After several failed attempts over six years, they finally ended up on an overcrowded boat that was frequently raided by pirates. Thirteen days later, the Phams and their children landed in Thailand, hungry but unharmed. They lived in three refugee camps before finding a friend willing to sponsor them in Lancaster, Pa., where Bao Pham secured a job as a machinist.

The Phams were homesick for many years. But eventually, as Bao Pham worked his way up from machinist to manager, they got used to their new home, so much so that when they visited Vietnam, they couldn't stand the weather and the food tasted different from what they remembered. As much as they grew to love America, however, they never felt truly American. They became the "sacrifice generation," immigrants who bear hardship to create better lives for their children -- two sons and a daughter. "We don't belong to Vietnam, we belong to America, but inside there is something that is not really American," Tuyen Pham told Roberts.

The Phams are one of 13 families Roberts profiles in this homage to the sacrifice generation and the children for which they make that sacrifice. "From Every End of This Earth" is an appropriate title because Roberts manages to find families from almost every continent. Among the countries represented are Rwanda, China, India, Greece, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Burma, El Salvador and Syria. His goal, he says, is not to "capture the entirety" of the immigrant experience, but to write a book that explores the parts and "resembles the mosaics I used to see in the ruins of ancient Greece," where he was based for a time as a reporter for the New York Times. Roberts offers not only diversity of geography, but also diversity of experiences. There are the survivors like the Phams; entrepreneurs like Tom and Maggie Chan, who left Hong Kong for California and started a successful fireworks business; professionals like Pablo Romero, who emigrated from Mexico to California and toiled as a brick stacker and lettuce cutter before going to medical school and becoming a doctor who treats other immigrants. And then there are women like Marie Aziz, who fled an abusive marriage as well as the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan to raise her daughter alone in America.

Despite the uniqueness of each family's experience, there is a common thread. Throughout the book, Roberts returns to the idea of the sacrifice generation. "Every immigrant faces the pain of dislocation, of missing home, of living in two worlds and never feeling completely comfortable in either one," he writes. Often that pull to the Old World is financial. Many immigrants leave behind family who equate being American with being rich. Most of the immigrants chronicled in this book sacrifice themselves to send money to relatives back home.

But the true sacrifice is made for the children. I've learned this from my own experience as the U.S.-born child of a Colombian father and Ecuadorian mother. My parents arrived in New York City with no college degrees and unable to speak English. But they found jobs -- my father served food to patients at a Manhattan hospital, my mother cleaned Park Avenue apartments by day and midtown offices by night -- and managed to save enough money to buy a house in Queens and send me to Georgetown University.

Roberts focuses much of the book on children like me -- Generation Next. "Being a child of immigrants can be a complicated way to grow up," he writes. "Generation Next is often pulled between the past and the future, between celebrating their own tradition and creating their own identity."

Take Herbert Chan, whose parents, Tom and Maggie, started a fireworks business in California. When it came time for Herbert to go to college, his parents wanted him to live at home and go to a nearby school. He chose the University of California at Santa Cruz, about two and a half hours away from the family home in Marin County. His parents expected him home every weekend. "My parents thought I was getting away from them, but actually, I wanted to hang out with my friends," Herbert said.

After graduation, he got a job with Wells Fargo, but when his father got sick, he knew what he had to do -- quit his job and help run the family business. "It's family first, no questions asked," he explained. Herbert's younger brother Arthur took a different path. He crossed the country to study at Georgetown, where he never lost his "Chineseness," as he put it, but redefined his identity. He had no interest in joining the family business and moved to New York. "One felt an obligation to his family, and came home; the other felt an obligation to himself and left home," Roberts writes. "Both young men reflect the immigrant experience, the transition from foreign-born parents to native-born children, just in different ways.

In my family, I was the one who left home. My two older siblings still live in Queens. I have often thought that I abandoned my family but have reasoned that my parents sacrificed themselves so that I could earn that college degree and become a professional, something they were never able to accomplish. Still, as much as my parents have told me how proud they are of me, I feel guilty at times.

Perhaps Roberts writes so well about Generation Next because he too comes from an immigrant family. In his memoir four years ago, called "My Fathers' Houses," he chronicled his family's journey from Bialystock, then part of Russia, to Bayonne, N. J.. This new book, he says, is an update: "In a sense I have been working on this volume my entire writing life."

Roberts focuses on each family and tells its tale in a compassionate, engaging way. Thankfully, he is not Pollyannaish about the American immigrant experience. Not every immigrant he profiles makes it in the New World. After all, the American Dream can be elusive. Some never rise up in the ranks of their companies. Some still have financial problems. As he aptly puts it "Immigration is not for the 'faint-hearted.' "

Nancy Trejos is a travel writer for The Washington Post.

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