Monday, August 13, 2012


Book Review and Summary

My friend Stephen Huey and I bumped into a journalist-author who was eavesdropping on our conversation. It turns out she had just written a book and she gave me a copy to read and review, especially because there was a reference to Nigerian immigrant customs. And that’s why I really love the book: it’s a positive portrayal of wonderful immigrant customs brought to the US which have allowed immigrants to thrive and survive in resilient ways that U.S. Americans could learn. The book is called The Immigrant Advantage by Claudia Kolker, and I recommend it if any of you are looking for ways to increase good health, happiness, and hope in small and substantial ways.

The first custom is How to Save, and in this chapter she talks specifically about Vietnamese immigrants in Houston, TX who have formed money clubs. Now, this is not specific to Vietnamese people as I have observed this in other Asian countries, the Caribbean, and in parts of Africa. The Vietnamese call them huis; the Cambodians call them tontines; the Mexicans, tandas; and the Nigerians, esusus. But a Vietnamese hui was the specific money club she first encountered.

In economics or development the practice is called micro-savings, and I read an article recently touting the virtues and potential of micro-savings to impact poverty alleviation. The idea is simple. Every month a group of people get together and agree to pay a certain amount of money into a pot of money (or pool of funds). At the same time, each month, one person (or couple) in the group is chosen to take home the entire amount of money collected that month.

That’s it! It’s a simple way to save money; it avoids usury or interest. You get back what you put in. What’s best is that many immigrants in the U.S. actually used such money clubs to start a business. If someone has a specific immediate need, that person can be designated to be the first recipient of all the money which is like an upfront, interest-free loan immediately.  Usually however, a name is randomly drawn each week to see who takes home the money. However, each club is different and people are usually willing to allow someone to take out the money first if she or he needs it.

Though, such money clubs have been used to buy cars, boats, and buildings for businesses, it’s more usual to find them among those who are financially stable and aspirational since it requires a surplus income (or at least the commitment to save each week). I think what is amazing about a hui is that it works. They have a ridiculously low default rate. One of Kolker’s friends, when asked what she would do if her family her struck by illness or accident one month, said she would still pay. When asked what she would do if she had no money, the friend said she would still pay as Asians usually have money set aside for emergencies. And when Kolker asked what the friend would do if there was no money set aside, the friend said she would borrow the money to make her payment to the group. That’s how strong the peer pressure or the importance of a hui is. It’s no wonder Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammad Yunus borrowed from the money club model when creating his now-famous Grameen Bank insisting that loans would more likely be repaid if they were enforced with peer pressure.

Some hui-starters handpick each and every club member. Whether this happens or not, the loan you receive when your name comes up one month is often called a friendship loan. This is not just because it helps the entrepreneur who wants to collect capital early or that it helps impulsive people save by collecting (receiving the money on your month) money late. It’s called a friendship loan because money clubs often help members who receive a stroke of bad luck—death in the family, an accident—or good luck like an opportunity. And so it is different from a traditional bank, because a money club is about community.

The second immigrant custom Kolker talks about is How to Mother a Mother. I loved this one and plan on doing this (I think I plan on trying all of these customs and many more). This custom comes from the Mexican postpartum tradition of cuarentena in which after birth, the mother is given 40 days of complete rest (and constant guests if possible). The author went to visit an Ohio group of Mexican immigrants for this custom that, in Mexico, thrives most strongly in the poorest state, Chiapas, the Mexican state with the highest infant mortality. A cuarentena  helps protect poor families against infection but, amazingly, guards against postpartum depression (this is why I loved it). I’m not sure exactly how this works, but it probably has something to do with the fact that the first 6 weeks after childbirth are a vacation (or stay-cation). In Chiapas, Mexico, it’s serious; a woman may still be doing house work and farm work up until she gave childbirth. Afterward, however, she was given a caregiver, usually a family member. And friend would come in and relieve the main caretaker each day for a few hours. The main caretaker simply pampers the mother: the caretaker complete cares for the baby, cooks for the mother, massages the mother, coaxes the mother to eat, puts a wrap around the mother to flatten and strengthen the post-birth stomach, etc. Three times or more after birth, mothers in Chiapas go to a steam bath found in every village where the mothers enjoy amazing herbs and steam with a best friend or the sauna mistress. All the while someone is taking care of the baby. It’s pretty amazing.

Of course, in the United States, it has adapted depending on which family members are around and what can be afforded. But it is still done. Maybe for the 6 weeks, a caretaker barely sleeps as she goes to the house of the mother and makes food for the entire family (as well as the caretaker’s own family), dresses the kids, chats with the resting mother who may watch novellas on television, make the favourite dishes of the mother, etc. And in the US, many men take care of the mother for the 40 days (due to small families or no families that immigrated to the U.S.).

And what is the effect? One young anthropologist Laurence Kruckman believed cuarentenas buffered Mexican women (and women from other practicing countries) from anxiety and depression that so many American women face after childbirth. Sociologists Kyriakos Markides and Jeannine Coreil published a famous report showing that Latinos had noticeably longer life expectancies and often better health than native-born Americans among the Latinos. Other studies have confirmed this finding again and again. It’s attributed to better behavior of Mexican-born women—smoking and drinking less than American White and Black counterparts. Kolker talks about another study involving 568 low-income Mexican farm workers in California, found that women who came to the US later in life had better diet and behavior during and after pregnancy than those who came earlier. It also showed that with increased social support after pregnancy, the diet of a mother improved. Research shows social support correlates to fewer pregnancy complications. It makes sense: using the community to strengthen the mother strengthens the mother’s ability to take care of the baby. Another point for community.

Kolker’s third immigrant custom was How to Court referencing the ancient tradition of arranged marriages. Before romantic-love proponent become upset with me, let me say that Kolker studied the South Asian tradition of assisted marriage which is the form in which it is usually practiced in the U.S. and even in India when I visited in June. In this case, you as the potential bride or groom have a say and can reject a potential mate. And so we call it “assisted marriage” as opposed to “arranged marriage” (to be clear, I am not talking about arranged marriages where girls are considered properties of families and married off between ages 12 and 19 to earn money especially during times of crises from societies in China to the Middle East to Africa). Assisted marriage is common in middle-class Pakistani, Indian, and South Asian families in the U.S.

It’s quite interesting. There are websites to enter biodata, data about you as a potential spouse including age, gender, height, education, etc. When I was in India I saw newspaper sections devoted to assisted marriages reminding me of the love-classified sections in the U.S. There are matchmakers who make money from taking resumes of candidates and matching them or finding someone who works for each client. And of course sometimes, when a man and women go out on an “assisted” date, they may not let the parents know that it went well as they still like the notion of having found love through their own efforts or through a natural course. Ha!

Now remember, arranged marriages, then assisted marriages were also the pathway of those throughout U.S. history before we arrived at the U.S. consumerist culture which has been applied to dating (you need to go out and shop, test drive a number of different models before you settle on the one you want). However, according to sociologist Martin Whyte  in a 1992 study on dating and marriage which has not been refuted to Kolker’s knowledge, “women who had married their first sweethearts . . .were just as likely to have enduring and satisfying marriages as women who had married only after considering many alternatives. Similarly, women who had married after only a brief acquaintance were no more (nor less) likely to have a successful marriage than those who knew their husbands-to-be for years” with “no clear difference between the marriages of women who were virgins at marriage and those who had had a variety of sexual partners and who had lived together with their husbands before the wedding.” Of course this study was in the U.S. and not a cross-country study which has shown in the past higher rates of divorce in consumerist dating societies than arranged marriage-dominated societies (this does not mean they are perfect or there aren’t problems). What Kolker points out here is that if the US dating scene isn’t working, why not try every possible tool available? And if the divorce rate is just as high or higher, why not allow people who know you (aunts, uncles, mothers, etc.) to help in the process. After all, you can reject, right? Why not let them help? That’s what community does.

Kolker’s fourth immigrant custom was How to Learn, in which she studied Korean and Chinese afterschool programmes in the U.S. This moves into provocative territory because many of my East-Asian American friends hate stereotypes but you have to admit, there is something going on. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Asian American seniors have topped other ethnic seniors for many years while Asian-immigrant children’s average SAT scores are higher than non-Asian children of the same age. At Harvard, in 2009, 20% of the undergraduates were Asian. One math teacher in the book told Kolker that Asian-American children were smarter. Now, I seriously doubt that, but it’s been evident for years in my education that though Asian Americans are a minority they are not an underrepresented minority in mathematics and sciences and in general in universities across the U.S. In fact, they are often overrepresented as their percentage in the Harvard’s 2009 freshmen class shows. So minority programmes have often not focused on them. However, immigrant children from parts of East Asia have had intense educational focus while in primary and secondary school, for instance, through Korean hagwons—private supplementary schooling to help students with problems, yes, but to also get ahead.

Hagwons offer SAT prep, test-taking skills, math classes, composition, etc. And with each child paying $250-400 a month for a hagwon slot, it can be a lucrative business for hagwon owners. There are huge for-profit hagwons, like Newton, that teach you how to excel in American school. But many people can’t afford $30,000 in tuition, so there are a plethora of simple and humbler options. One Los Angeles study said 50% of Koreans in LA had gone to a hagwon or were attending one at the time of the study.

And so there are many typical amazing stories of how one child did not do well in mathematics and science. Instead of cultivating the child’s love in reading and social studies, the parents put the child in a hagwon and the student grew to become an excellent student in mathematics and science. Of course, an after-school programme is not enough. However, hagwons have a few essential ingredients that make many of them work—more time with the material, a motivated and decently behaved peer group, and excellent attendance. Moreover relationships with tutors at these afterschool programmes can really motivate the children.

There are negatives back home—college entrance exams in China (Japan, Korea, Singapore, etc.), intended to create a meritocracy, have created a huge anxiety that plagues children who can’t sleep and become depressed while both trying to prepare and in anticipation of the scores. This is because so much rides on the outcome, including the family’s future economic sustainability and livelihood. How can all that pressure be on one child? I saw the same to a lesser degree in India. Education is big business and a competitive one, too. I pray and hope more can be done to create a more hopeful hard-work-ocracy without the paralyzing and damaging pressure.

“Americans think they should nurture a child and then when that child reaches a certain age they should be in their own life. Why? We look at it a different way. Turning eighteen doesn’t mean you have to fall out of love with your parents.” These words were spoken by a Jamaican immigrant from Orange, New Jersey, in Kolker’s chapter on the migrant custom How to Shelter. This custom along with the cuarantena affected me deeply. As with many current customs, the customary nuclear family is a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S.

In the 19th century, the romantic relationship became the core relationship in U.S. American life. Intergenerational battles abounded in the early 20th century when conservative Eastern/Southern European immigrants went to the US. And the same happened with native-born Americans. So during the 1920s to 1960s psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health experts discouraged multi-generational living. And with affordable cars and suburban housing, after World War II, nuclear families were encouraged even more. But the negative effects have been obvious. Parents face high pressure and often don’t have enough time for their own relationship, parents sometimes programme their lives around their kids’ schedule, and  grandparents are often less taken care of in a nuclear-family-centered society.

As people rethink multigenerational families (which still exist in many immigrant families) the benefits seem endless to me. Kids learn they are not the centre of the world. Pressure is relieved on parents and over-parenting is less likely to occur. Having other adults in the house redirects couple toward each other. Marriages fare better when there are witnesses (other than just the children). According to psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz, “When any aspect of life is seen by others it becomes more real to the participants. The parts of life that are hidden start to feel a little split off . . . witnesses also provide a married couple with an audience to perform for as a married couple.  People try to perform their best for an audience. Some of the performance lasts after the audience has gone home.” Even childcare is handled; elderly care may be handled, as well, at least while the elders are in the home. Families save money which can be redirected to the education of children or towards the purchase of a better home.

And purchasing a new home and owning it is very important in Jamaican culture, which allows Jamaican immigrants to benefit from multiple family homes and multi-generational family homes. In truth, this is a custom that is common to a multiplicity of ethnic immigrant groups in the U.S. In Jamaican families, it’s part of a pact or understanding. As long as the children are in school, they get everything from the parents—food, clothing, tuition, etc.  And so some parents love supporting their adult children even while they are studying. Some kids just get along so well with their parents. Some see it as a waste to pay rent on someone else’s property when you could be saving to purchase your own.

Either way, as a person who grew up never knowing my grandparents, it’s a beautiful opportunity to allow the grandparents to have a good solid part of the lives of your children. And it doesn’t hurt to have childcare, either. It reminds me of the proverb that it takes a whole village to raise a child. And that village can even start in the home---community.

I think How to Mother a Mother, How to Shelter and How to Be a Good Neighbor were my favourite three chapters. Here she looks at research that shows one of the poorest and least-educated parts of Chicago called Lawndale report asthma diagnosis less than 1/3rd the average in either Chicago’s white or black neighborhoods, whether rich or poor. Strangely, due to triggers and aggravators like poor primary care, stress, diesel exhaust, smoking, mold, poorer areas like Lawndale should be at a higher risk. Some of Lawndale’s resistance is probably genetic and another part is due to selection (the Mexican immigrants who make it to Chicago are probably more resilient physically and mentally). But another part is probably due to what is called the neighbourhood effect. Asthma rates were not only lower in Lawndale, an urban Mexican immigrant neighbourhood, compared to Chicago black and white neighbourhoods, but Lawndale’s asthma rates were low compared to Mexican immigrants who lived outside the barrios. Kolker talks about this working through three methods—sidewalks, shops, and stoops.

In Lawndale, everyone is out and about. People build fences to mark out their yards and then personalize their yards. This way, you can be in your own space and still outside (whereas with typical American front yards without fences, the door is the point of interaction with neighbours). The plaza culture is still strong in Lawndale where everyone is out and about and you can’t get away with anything because you are being watched and no one wants their kids to hang out with the drug dealers. Seeing and knowing your neighbours all results in a lower crime rate. In Little Village, the part of Lawndale Kolker visited, crime rates in 2006 were in the bottom 20% and still trail the overall city rate by two-thirds.

Shops also help. Little Village’s streets are full of shops selling meat, offering to cut hair, etc.  And there is a strong culture of strolling among the shops and looking to see what is there and talking to shop owners. In 1995, in July there was a heat wave in Chicago that killed about 739 people. North Lawndale, with a similar microclimate to Lawndale, saw 19 dead while Lawndale only had 3 deaths. Rescue workers in Chicago said many of the people killed could have been saved if they left their apartments. This is where Little Village’s shop culture paid off. Little Village residents knew exactly which shops had air-conditioning, and if an elderly person went into such a shop (because the heat wave disproportionately affected the elderly, the poor, minorities, and those who were alone) and the shop keeper saw that she was looking ill, he could immediately call for help.

Lastly, the stoop culture in Little Village helps health outcomes as well. People know who lives where and see what happens in their neighbourhoods. Fights can be stopped, kids can be scolded. And again, being outside can be better for asthma especially if there is mold in the house. It seems that the health benefits found in living in Little Village boil down to social interaction and community.

The last custom explored in detail is How to Eat in which Kolker remained in Houston to write about the Vietnamese custom of com-thang, or monthly rice. In this tradition, there are small family businesses that cook and prepare dinner for you leaving you free to pick up your food for dinner or to receive your food delivered to your home.

Why is this good? It’s homemade food. Many of these monthly rice places give you food you can’t find in the restaurants. Third, it’s really cheap. But most importantly, it allows a single parent or dual-working couple to be able to sit down with the kids at a reasonable hour and eat a family meal together. I’m going to generalize for a moment, but eating family meals together allows for conversation, slows your pace of eating down (especially with certain Vietnamese which cannot be eaten fast due to tearing, ladling, removing, pinching etc.), creates a sense of continuity (even in families where relations are bad). Kids who ate regularly with their families knew more about their families than kids who didn’t because people tend to talk more at dinner.

Beyond family meals, ordering ready-made dinners to be delivered reduces the stress of having to prepare dinner. And this culture or custom can be found in Latin America, India, Thailand, and other places as well. If you begin to crave cooking and have the time, you can always stop and take a break. If things get busy again you can always start ordering your meals again or you can do it a few days a week instead of everyday. It’s quite flexible and lets you concentrate on your family community while others work on the food that your community eats.

What I found interesting about Kolker’s book is that every single custom to me was based on community. A community lives together, eats together, interacts outside together, helps each other save, takes care of mothers, assists with marriages, and creates schools to help the community excel. It’s all community. If anything, I think there are even more customs and benefits that come from being fully engaged not just in your home community but your neighbourhood community (and city community). In fact, I’m going to try to do more of that myself. I’m not getting enough fresh air in my dust-infested house which I know is not good for my allergies, so I’m going to go engage some people outside and see if I can’t breathe some wonderful air in while I also breathe in some delightful conversation, companionship, and community.

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