Fated families

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 July, 2006, 12:00am

Digging to America

by Anne Tyler

Chatto & Windus, $195

On a humid night in August 1997 the wide grey corridors of Baltimore airport are almost deserted, most of the evening flights having landed. But the waiting area for the San Francisco flight is packed with people, some carrying gifts and balloons, others sporting buttons proclaiming Mom, Dad, Grandma and even Cousin - it's the American-as-apple-pie Donaldson family. Quieter, less obtrusive, tucked in at the rear of the crowd, are three others - another Mom, Dad and Grandma-in-waiting: the Yazdans, migrants from Iran.

All these nervous, excited people are present for the same reason: to await the arrival of two little girls, Jin-ho and Sooki, later to be renamed Susan, babies adopted from Korea.

This first chapter ends, simply: 'Friday, August 15, 1997. The night the girls arrived.' And so Tyler lays the groundwork for a story of two families with shared difficulties, one which tackles the vexed subject of intercountry adoption and complex issues of identity and belonging, adjustment and compromise, acceptance and rejection.

But she immediately subverts our expectations: it isn't the little girls on whom Tyler's penetrating gaze will focus but the adults. Jin-ho and Susan settle in quickly - unrealistically fast, as anyone familiar with intercountry adoption will know. Prospective parents are warned that such a process can take more than a year. It's the only notable flaw in an otherwise humorous and human story that maintains the high standard set by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tyler, 65, over her long career.

Digging to America takes its name from a conversation between Jin-ho and her grandfather Dave as she recalls the day she and Susan tried to dig to China. 'So the kids in China. Are they digging to America?' she asks. 'Sure,' says Dave. 'Why not?' 'He took some pleasure in this uncomplicated, colouring-book version of the world, where children in Mao jackets and children in Levi's understood each other so seamlessly.'

But life's not like that, as Dave, widowed early in the book, discovers when he falls for Maryam Yazdan, Susan's elegant, widowed grandmother.

Maryam's closest friends were also born elsewhere - they discuss many subjects, but their favourite, of which they never tire, is Americans. She's still very much an Iranian, despite having emigrated to the US at 19. Leading her quiet, narrow life, like so many migrants, she feels she doesn't truly belong in either country.

'It's a lot of work being foreign,' she tells Dave. 'A lot of work and effort and still we never quite manage to fit in.'

Yet the two families - Maryam, her son, Sami, who refused to speak Farsi from age four, and his wife, Ziba, parents to Susan, and the Donaldsons, Brad, Bitsy and Jin-ho - become friends after their airport meeting.

Digging to America is warm and touching, yet not overly sentimental. But it's also a clear-eyed look at an important issue in today's globalised world. Tyler's two families have, on the face of it, little in common besides their infertility and their adoption decision. But, as Tyler gradually unfolds her story of intolerance and culture clashes, we begin to see the connections that really matter are no respecters of cultural boundaries.