Distracted for a moment, you see a sprig of jasmine, white like peace and delicate in its beauty. In that moment, you forget everything else around you: the ghostly neighborhood, the cramped balconies clothed in bullet holes and rubble. Then it comes back. The Israeli occupation of 2006 is no place of beauty, and thousands of visitors are evacuating. Dripping with sweat from hours under the hammering sun, they pack onto ships like sardines, eager to leave Lebanon. One of the videos of these refugees stands out: the evacuees dancing and enjoying music, “[managing] to have some fun and forget about the war” (RHM Productions), not merely surviving, but enjoying. This use of music has, in part, been keeping Lebanon alive in times of strife— in other words, almost always. Many Lebanese citizens use music as an escape and mouthpiece for emotions, harnessing its power to conjure wistful images and express political opinions. Music can capture feelings and release political tension, allowing Lebanese citizens, among others, to use it to wrest some control—either illusionary or real--over their politically chaotic world.
"Each of us has a place where we feel comfortable. For some it’s a church, for some a mosque, a sanctuary, a movie theater, a stadium, a market. I feel comfortable in a kitchen. And it’s not that surprising, because I’m a good cook...I’m not a dishwasher as they say in the restaurants of Rome. In Shiraz I had a good restaurant...Soon I’m going back to Shiraz. I know I am." (Clash 19)
This is stated by Parviz, the first of many characters who help narrate Amara Lakhous’s novel, Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio. In this brief passage, Parviz outlines a thematic discourse that is present throughout the novel and throughout much migrant literature irrespective of time and location. This is the discourse regarding “place,” a concept which is much more complex and interesting than a mere plot point on a map or a chart. Rather, place is a space imbued with certain qualities and even an identity. It has psychological power and meaning. When Parviz talks about being comfortable in certain places, he is referring to this dynamic in which places are given the psychological power of comfort and empowerment. This discourse on place is one that is inherently a part of the immigrant experience. Immigrants arrive in new spaces that have few if any meanings or attachments for them. The goal of an immigrant generally is to turn meaningless space into meaningful place, though this often leads to conflicts with others by whom certain places have already been created and to whom the presence of migrants alters the essential qualities of that place. This tension can be found reflected in migrant literature. The creation of place is a process which the characters of Clash of Civilizations and all migrants, real or otherwise, undergo. Though the creation of place is fraught with potential conflicts, the existence of dynamic migrant literature indicates that immigrants are simultaneously establishing real and literary “places” within their adopted homelands.
When American politician Horace Mann termed education “the great equalizer” in 1848, he demonstrated enormous faith in the idea that a person’s mobility in life was not contingent on his being born into wealth (Rhode). Society at large appears to agree with Mann: more than ever, high school students have been urged to apply to colleges and to earn at least a bachelor’s degree, a trend which points to the belief that receiving a higher education is the surest path to the “American Dream.” For low-income students, however, educational statistics reveal a more disheartening story behind the American higher education system: among the nation’s 193 most selective universities, wealthy students outnumber low-income students by 14 to 1 (Dreier). On the other hand, more than half of low-income students who receive aid through Federal Pell Grants attend public two- and four-year colleges, institutions which are historically known to be the least funded and most resource-deficient (Dreier). These statistics are indicative of a “zero-sum-game” within the system: as wealthy students continue to be admitted to selective universities for their competitive SAT/ACT scores and extracurriculars, low-SES (socioeconomic status) students are forced to poorly-funded colleges where they are falling behind in degree attainment and shouldering large student debts. Although the college education system has long been touted as a socioeconomic equalizer, it inherently exacerbates wealth inequality in the United States by catering to the privileged and affluent who can more easily invest in quality education. This increasing issue of classism begs us to reconsider the value of learning much beyond its so-called market worth, a step which is key to sustaining the feasibility of the “American Dream.”
Thanksgiving, the pinnacle of any American holiday, is when my family gathers not to eat a whole oven-roasted turkey with cranberry sauce or mashed potatoes with rich gravy, but rather to feast upon a ten course “Chinese Thanksgiving” meal. This includes a juicy roast duck with its head still on instead of turkey, a steaming pile of freshly-made rice infused with coconut milk in place of mashed potatoes, a bok-choy and garlic sauté because my family never had a taste for creamed spinach, fried rice made with honey baked ham, and of course to end it all, pumpkin pie with vanilla ice cream, along with other exotic ice cream flavors like durian or taro. My sister and I always joked that we never got to experience a real “American Thanksgiving Dinner” like the rest of the kids at our elementary school who would chatter about savory stuffing and buttery bread rolls when our teacher asked what we had for Thanksgiving the next day. I honestly did not even know what cornbread was until I stumbled upon a Rachel Ray cooking show. I mean, why would you put corn in bread? However, I now consider my hybridized Thanksgiving experience as a part of my ethnic identity.
Media’s treatment of the female body is a disappointing reflection of what this culture deems beautiful or ugly. In American culture, body hair is considered ugly and even trespassing social media safety guidelines. Even women’s hair removal product companies, though aimed at selling their razors and shaving creams to women, do not allow the appearance of actual body hair in their ads. This censorship conveys the message that a woman in her unaltered, unshaven state is unacceptable and even offensive. This upholds a double standard of beauty. While photos of bikini-clad women in their unaltered states are censored, naked celebrities photo-shopped to glossy, toned “perfection” are splashed across magazine covers and the same social media sites that censor nipples and female body hair. Women in their natural states are censored while photo-shopped images of the female body are used to sell and make profit, while promoting an unnatural and idealized standard of beauty. Meanwhile, ads showing men with pubic hair peeking out from the top of their Calvin Klein underwear are also freely displayed.
It’s exactly four minutes past two in the morning, and my dorm room is softly illuminated with Christmas lights and the glow of cell phones. My feet dangle over the edge of the sink counter as I lean back into the cold embrace of the mirror, watching the three girls sprawled across my bed. My best friends. The twins are tossing popcorn at each other, with Cayla opening her mouth as wide as possible to catch Calli’s lopsided underhand. Laura is laughing along, ignoring the missed kernels that we’ll have to vacuum up tomorrow. My body feels restless in its inertia, and I’m suddenly hit by a wave of claustrophobia. We need to get out of this room, this 20 by 11 foot box made smaller by the two beds and piles of clothing scattered throughout. I stand up.