The message in the melting pot

Fiction: One Friday evening in August, two families await the arrival of adopted daughters from Korea

Fiction: One Friday evening in August, two families await the arrival of adopted daughters from Korea. The Donaldsons are a loud crew, weighed down with gifts, balloons, cameras and large badges identifying each member of their extended family.

Nobody in the airport lounge has taken much notice of the Yazdans, a quiet, "foreign-looking" couple and an older woman. When the tiny Korean babies finally arrive, the lives of these two families become inextricably linked, their relationship exploring uncomfortable realities about multicultural society.

Digging to America focuses on a series of parties, held annually to celebrate the arrival of the adopted girls. These "Arrival Parties" form a backdrop to numerous misunderstandings, disputes, even punch-ups, and odd touching moments of friendship as the American Donaldsons and the Iranian-American Yazdans struggle to adapt to each other's ways.

Adopted daughters is just about all these families have in common. Bitsy Donaldson swears by an all-organic diet, cloth nappies, handmade clothes and dresses her daughter in traditional Korean costume. Ziba Yazdan, on the other hand, is very glamorous, gives her daughter soft drinks and couldn't care less about the little girl's Korean cultural heritage. The Yazdans are baffled by an invitation to rake leaves in the Donaldson's garden - but go along anyway. The Donaldsons are uneasy about the Yazdans' excess, always bringing gifts, insisting on lavish get- togethers.


These culture clashes become more complex as the Donaldsons become foreigners in their own home, excluded as the extended Yazdan family speak Farsi. The Yazdans make fun of the Donaldsons' openness and political correctness, yet constantly seek their approval.

It is the widow, Maryam Yazdan, however, who is most interesting. Sami, her son, pokes fun at her arranged marriage and her belief that her countrymen should set a good example. The touchy-feely Donaldsons don't fit well with her reserved, solitary nature. While both families struggle to understand her, the reader gets an insight into Maryam's "immigration tango": how she misses Iran but never wants to go back; how she hates being an outsider, but always resists the "communal merriment"; how the Americans don't "understand" rice.

Digging to America is upfront in its aim of unpeeling the complexities of the US melting pot. While there is something admirable about this, there are moments when Tyler could have been more subtle - the message about learning to accept each other's values is timely enough without the mention of 9/11. The self-obsessed, insular tendencies of the characters often makes for uncomfortable reading, but ultimately their good- heartedness wins out. At times the reader feels like a moody teenager at one of the "Arrival Parties", reluctantly listening in on endless conversations about recipes, the merits of having a buffet dinner or who will sit where. This barrage of details can be overbearing, but perhaps that is just the point. It is in the fluidity of these small, everyday functions that Tyler demonstrates how cultures can interact and emerge as something new.

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Times journalist

Digging to America By Anne Tyler Chatto & Windus, 277pp. £16.99

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Times journalist