The subtlest nuances of assimilation within another country and culture are portrayed in Anne Tyler’s novel Digging to America.
The beginning of the book places belonging and identity squarely in the middle of the narrative. Two contrasting sets of parents—the Dickinson-Donaldsons, consisting of Bitsy and her husband, Brad, and Sami and Ziba Yazdan, who are Americans with Iranian roots—receive their adoptive daughters, who arrive from Korea. The infants are handed over to their waiting parents by Asian women officials after the completion of some paperwork. This first chapter is a narrative that delights in description of all the people present at the airport on this occasion. It emphasizes the contrast between Brad and Bitsy, who have arrived with both sets of their parents, their siblings, and a large contingent of extended family, and the Iranian American couple accompanied only by Sami’s widowed mother, Maryam. With a fine eye for detail, Tyler paints a vivid picture of the balloons, pink- and blue-wrapped gifts and video cameras carried by Brad and Bitsy’s family and its utter contrast with the Yazdans, who are unencumbered by any such trappings. It also describes several other people, such as a very tall young man who meets his mother and sister and “A teenage boy with a backpack so huge that he resembled an ant with an oversized breadcrumb.” Brad Donaldson reaches out to the Yazdans when it is clear that they have also received their baby from Korea, and the Dickinson-Donaldson family extends an invitation to them to join in a celebration, but the Yazdans are too absorbed in dealing with their precious new bundle to take this seriously.
In chapter 2, the plot of the novel unfolds through a series of parties. Bitsy reaches out to the Yazdans a couple of weeks after the arrival of the girls. She invites them to a leaf-raking in October. Supper is also a part of the invitation, and the two families begin to spend more time together after Ziba and Sami respond to Bitsy’s efforts. Maryam Yazdan delights in her new granddaughter, who has been named Susan and whom she spends time with on the two days of the week when Ziba is working. The chapter explores her feelings about being perceived as a foreigner after thirty-nine years spent in the US. It also provides a glimpse of her personality, which is perceived by the others as formidable, self-contained, and aloof for the rest of the book. Bitsy’s mother, Connie, is seen to be suffering from cancer. Although Maryam initially resents what she considers her daughter-in-law’s “crush” on the Donaldsons, she invites them to her home for the Iranian New Year in March and serves a quantity of authentic Iranian food. This chapter establishes how the Americans and Iranians each feel judged in some way by the other. Ziba feels judged in the way she is bringing up Susan by Bitsy remarking on how she and Brad are not trying to “Americanize” their daughter, Jin-Ho. Sami reproves his mother in the department store where they are buying supplies for her New Year’s party and asks her to “quit judging” young Iranian Americans who are “only behaving like everyone else.”
Chapter 3 features a recurring event in the book, which is the Arrival Party thrown every year to celebrate the anniversary of Susan and Jin-Ho’s arrival in the US on August 15th, 1997. This party follows a pattern every year, which includes the screening of the video capturing Jin-Ho being received by Bitsy and Brad, with a tiny glimpse at the end of Susan and the Yazdans. It also has all the assembled guests break into the song “She’ll be coming round the mountain, when she comes,” which is something that Bitsy’s nieces enjoy a great deal. During this chapter, we learn that Connie’s illness is now serious enough to require a day and night nurse. While her brothers and Bitsy have discussed how to approach their father, Dave, about getting help, it is actually Maryam who is able to put them in touch with a caregiver—the same one who had tended to her husband, Kiyan, in the last days of his terminal illness.
In chapter 4, Sami’s complex relationship with America, the land of his birth, is explored. He loves to play to an audience of his relatives, talking about how Americans insist on calling Iran “Persia,” as well as Americans’ other idiosyncrasies. How he met and married Ziba, who was then newly arrived in the US from Iran, is also described. Dave is shown struggling with desolation after the death of his wife, Connie. A dramatic twist to Sami’s impatience with American attitudes is shown in the second Arrival Party, now being held in Ziba and Sami’s home. After Bitsy attributes Jin-Ho’s stomachache to her having had a soft drink and this upsets Ziba, Sami tells Bitsy, “You’ve said everything wrong, and you owe my wife an apology.” This sharp exchange leads to Brad coming out to the yard to ask Sami if there has been a misunderstanding. The men then push each other till they fall to the ground, with the shocked faces of the rest of the guests watching them from the doorway. But this doesn’t end badly, as the men get up and hug each other, and Sami thinks they must resemble “two wild and crazy Americans, two regular American guys.” It is as if a rite of passage has been crossed in Sami’s personal Americanization.
Chapter 5 is about how much Dave misses Connie over a year after her death and his memories of their life together. While Bitsy is the only one who can share some of his memories of Connie, she and Brad are also preoccupied with plans for adopting another baby—a girl from China. Dave is not enthusiastic about this, but he agrees to take care of Jin-Ho when Brad and Bitsy will have to go to China to pick up the child, more than a year later. Aside from his happiest memories of Connie, Dave is also burdened by remembering her as a peevish, demanding terminal patient. At yet another of the Arrival Parties, Dave finds that this is something only Maryam Yazdan understands, from her own experience with Kiyan’s dying days. The chapter ends with his becoming aware through a dream about his strong feelings for Maryam.
In chapter 6, Sami and Ziba move to a house close to the Donaldsons’, from where they can maintain a closer friendship. Dave makes more efforts to be around Maryam, but she continues to maintain a certain formality with him. Maryam adopts a small gray stray cat who is christened “Moosh,” and this makes Susan very happy to visit her. Maryam visits her cousin Farah and Farah’s husband, William, in Vermont, where she finds William’s extreme efforts to appreciate all things Iranian ridiculous. When she comes back, Bitsy asks her bluntly if she would go out with Dave. Maryam finds this disturbing, and when Ziba, too, seems to echo a similar sentiment, it triggers her memories of how she met Kiyan in Iran and how she followed him to the US to begin life as his bride.
Chapter 7 sees Dave and Jin-Ho spend time together when Bitsy and Brad have gone to get their second child from China. Jin-Ho wonders if children in China can dig a tunnel all the way to America. She imagines a child from China popping through her school’s playground one day and wondering where they are until Jin-Ho tells them they are in “Baltimore, Maryland.” This chapter also discusses the effects on people in the US who look like they are from the Middle East in the wake of 9/11. Bitsy and Brad return from China with their new daughter, Xiu-Mei, and are received at the airport by the usual large gaggle of relatives as well as Sami, Ziba, and Susan. The tiny baby Xiu-Mei arrives with a pacifier in her mouth. Maryam reaches the airport after the others and offers Dave a lift back home in her car. The chapter ends with her acknowledging that she is too sensitive about her foreignness and with her clasping Dave’s hand in the car when he invites her to “Come in.”
In chapter 8, other characters wonder about the exact status of the relationship between Dave and Maryam. Dave and Maryam attend a New Year’s party in Washington together that is being thrown by Ziba’s parents, the Hakimis. Not only Bitsy and Ziba, but also Maryam’s brother’s wife, Roya, and her friend Zuzu are also very curious about what Dave and Maryam mean to each other. Xiu-Mei is proving to be a much more difficult child for Bitsy, so Ziba volunteers to repeat the Arrival Party at her place, even though she and Sami hosted it the previous year. In October, Dave proposes to Maryam in front of all the family during a leaf-raking party. Trying to borrow from an Iranian ceremony, he has Susan and Jin-Ho grind sugar over Maryam’s head as he kneels before her on the grass. Maryam says “Yes,” and everybody celebrates with champagne. However, the next morning, when Ziba is still nursing a hangover, Maryam arrives at Sami and Ziba’s place and tells them that she is going to call it off with Dave.
Chapter 9 explores events from the perspective of Jin-Ho and is almost entirely concerned with the hilarious happenings of the Binky Party. The party has been organized by Bitsy as a means to get Xiu-Mei to give up her pacifier or “Binky,” named thus by Brad’s mother. Because Xiu-Mei cries unless she has a pacifier in her mouth, Bitsy and Brad have amassed a large number of pacifiers since her arrival. Bitsy determines to say farewell to them by tying them to helium balloons that will be released by guests at the Binky Party in a beautiful, visual, and symbolic good-bye. A hurricane that causes a three-day power outage and trees fallen across roads, including one that crushes one of the Donaldson cars, is not enough to thwart Bitsy’s determination for the Binky Party to go through as planned. The balloons are filled at home with a canister of helium. But after forty-eight “Binkys” have been seen off at the party, Xiu-Mei still manages to find one brought her infant guest Lucy.
Chapter 10 is the final chapter of the book. Dave and Maryam, who have not been meeting socially since Maryam retracted her “Yes” to his proposal, meet at Susan and Jin-Ho’s ballet class. Maryam learns that Bitsy is ill and consulting an oncologist about her treatment. She writes a note to Bitsy expressing her concern and offering whatever help is asked of her. Certain aspects of Dave and Maryam’s relationship are revealed. The Arrival Party looms, and Maryam falls asleep when she is getting ready to attend. The novel ends after the Dickinson-Donaldson clan disappears from the party and arrives at Maryam’s doorstep. It is when they are about to turn away in disappointment that Maryam realizes she does not want to be left behind.