Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review: Home Is a Roof Over a Pig

I find that most memoirs fall into one of two categories: a good story told by an okay writer, or an okay story told by a good writer, and Aminta Arrington's book falls into the former category.  Home is a Roof Over a Pig is her family's story of adopting a baby girl, whom they name Grace Amelie, from China and then moving there with their three small children in an attempt to give Grace a connection to her birth country. They also want their other two children to grow up with a wider world view than the typical American child's, as well as to give Grace's siblings a chance to know Grace's homeland and create a way for all of the children to share both American and Chinese identities.

Arrington's narrative style is mostly a conversational one and it serves her story well enough, though it does verge into the land of repetition on a regular basis.  It's when she tries to be more "writerly," for lack of a better word, that the writing really sticks out, but not in a good way. The chapters are more episodic rather than a linear narrative, and occasionally she jumps forward or backward in her timelines. That's okay, though, because her story is so interesting and unusual that I'd forgive the writing great deal more.

Aminta's husband Chris decides to retire from the military, giving them both a chance to re-invent their lives.  They can choose anywhere in the world to start over, and as Chris is facile with many languages and Aminta has always been interested in international relations, they know that the US is not where they want to be.  When Chris's older sons from a previous relationship move beyond their teens and their daughter Katherine is a baby, they decide to adopt a sister for her from China. During the adoption process, Aminta unexpectedly gets pregnant again with their son, Andrew, and soon the couple have three children under the age of three.

Now that Grace is a part of their family, deciding they should pick China as the place to raise their children is the easy part. The hard part is finding job placement for two adults with three small children, but in time a regional university in Shandong province called Taishan Medical College find teaching spots for Chris and Aminta, together with a tiny two-bedroom apartment in family housing. Though there are many frustrating moments when they doubt their decision to move to rural China, overall the family adapts fairly well to their new country, with the children adjusting in varying degrees and at varying speeds.  Soon they become entrenched in their neighborhood and in their teaching and church communities.

The title of the book comes from the Chinese character for "home," which Aminta learns is esentially the pictogram for 'roof' combined with the word for "pig," and that pig-farming was one of the earliest non-nomadic occupations for the ancient Chinese.  Thus, if you had a roof over a pig, you stayed put there and it was your home.  Learning tidbits about language like this is what made the book so fascinating for me. Like most Americans, I am not fluent in any language beyond my own, despite my own interest in language, dabbling in French, Spanish, and even Latin during high school and college, and taking an introductory course to linguistics in graduate school.  I may have no facility with it, but language has always interested me; learning a bit about a language whose characters are conceptual meanings rather than based on letters that combine into phonemes to create words was endlessly fascinating.

Beyond the language lessons, I especially enjoyed Arrington's stories about the young people taking her English classes--the cultural divides that become smaller and smaller as the book goes on, such as politics or the importance of family and maintaining cultural traditions, but also those that grow even wider, such as feminism, their respective views on Tibet, and the importance of independent thinking. Learning to understand (and respect) a worldview that is radically different from your own may be difficult, but both teacher and student know that it's essential to try, even, or perhaps especially, if you do not agree with it.

I'd recommend this book for people who are casually interested in China, international adoption, travel memoirs, memoirs about parenting or teaching, or simple readers looking for an unusual perspective.


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