Friday, July 22, 2016

Save Me A Seat

Save Me A Seat 

by Sarah Weeks & Gita Varadarajan

Joe Sylvester and Ravi Suryanarayanan. Two kids starting fifth grade at Albert Einstein Elementary. Two kids from completely different backgrounds, cultures, corners of the world. Two kids who just want to fit in. Two kids who are unlikely to become friends.

Written alternately from Joe's and Ravi's perspectives, by two authors, the book unfolds the first week of school where Ravi is a brand new kid, not just to this school, but to America. His family has just moved to New Jersey from Bangalore, India. His paternal grandparents came along as well. His mom is a homemaker while Ravi's dad works full time.

While Joe has been in this school since KG, he has always felt an outsider thanks to his APD (Auditory Processing Disorder) which makes every single noise in his environment equally stimulating and distracting and so is unable to focus as needed while tuning out the unwanted sounds. His mom takes any work she can to supplement the family's income, while his dad is on the road a lot with his trucking job.

Dillon Samreen is a typical spoilt, rich ABCD - American-Born Confused Desi* - another name for U.S.-born kids of Indian immigrants, who craves attention and seems quite popular, thanks to his clothing and antics. [*Desi = Indian]

It's a regular school story, centered around the lunch time in cafeteria. Each section of the book is named the day of the week staring from Monday and ending in Friday. And that's not all, each day of the week is further qualified by the cafeteria lunch served in Albert Einstein Elementary. "Monday: Chicken Fingers." "Tuesday: Hamburgers." and so on. And, sure enough, Dillon is the villain-of-sorts with his bullying and insensitivity and selfishness.

Rather than elaborating on every moment of each day of school life through the week, the book focuses on hand-picked incidents that strike an emotional cord, tailored specifically to elicit poignant responses in the readers, young and older. The clever device of picking up the same incident from Joe's perspective where Ravi left off the narration previously (and vice versa) is done seamlessly and brilliantly. So that, without exchanging much dialog with each other, somehow Ravi and Joe are easily connected, destined to end up together as friends.

Bridging the cultural diversity, the book offers fairly authentic perspectives into Ravi's and Joe's lives without espousing a favored position. Touching upon subtle disability (ADP), we see a bright kid, Joe, from a working-class family, struggling to make friends and share what he can offer. Being from a very different culture, we see Ravi's food and demeanor as authentic to his upbringing so far, with a sense of eagerness to please and to excel even while limited by a hard-to-follow accent.

With two authors bringing their own unique perspectives to the characters, the book is innovative and brilliant. Veteran Sarah Weeks tugs at our heartstrings with effortless ease, while Gita Varadarajan brings rich sensory information about Indian culture through credible characterization of Ravi's family and their interactions.

Being an American of south Indian origin, there were quite a few aspects that resonated with me and, of course, quite a few that grated my nerves. Which is not a bad thing for a book like this, for an adult reader like myself.

One thing that irked me was that Ravi's grandmother says, "Be proud of who you are and remember where you come from. If you are not careful, you'll turn into one of them. Your grandfather didn't slave in the tea plantations so that his only grandson would become some rude, overweight, beef-eating cowboy." 

While I do not advocate ever forgetting one's roots wherever that may be, the words, "don't turn into one of them" rather rubbed me the wrong way. As if Americans are all uncouth and unworthy somehow, at least according to grandma, by being overweight cowboys. I can understand the spirit in which it is written, of course.

On the other hand, Joe's dad says, "Immigrants. They're visitors in this country; who do they think they are, pushing us around?" when referring to Dillon, an American kid of Indian origin. But, Joe points out that Dillon was born in America and that Dillon's dad is a reputable doctor.

There's nothing wrong with blending in and absorbing the host culture without losing one's own beliefs and identity, picking the best of both worlds. At the same time, are guests wrong to expect the host culture to be open-minded in welcoming them? And then again, is it truly a host-guest situation or a host-parasite relationship that creates this fear and mistrust? Rather than always trying to find fault and be derisive about cultural practices and affiliations different from one's own, is it possible for us to accept and appreciate aspects of various cultures without trying to prove why one is somehow inherently better than the other?

Also, towards the end when grandpa helps Ravi gather a few leeches for his Personal Reflection project, I cringed initially thinking why would grandpa equate Indians to leeches - blood-sucking parasites that drain the hosts and move on?  But then, grandpa states, "These leeches are a reminder of who we are, and where we've come from, Ravi, and of all the hardships we've endured to get here."

Rising from a humble tea plantation guard who protected the workers from these nasty leeches, grandpa is proud that his son worked hard to gain recognition for his intellectual abilities and was sent to U.S to contribute his knowledge and expertise for a better world, so that his grandson can live the American Dream, such as it may be. But, their fairly upper middle-class background was not convincing enough to justify this speech. However, when I realized that it is drawn from author's own personal experience, it settled in quite all right.

And both kids found Ravi to be quite sweet and easy to befriend if he was in their classroom. Being familiar with some of the foods Ravi brings to school, the kids were furious when Dillon called Ravi  "Curryhead" and told him that his food stank and that he stank. The 8 year old was horrified that Dillon would get away with such an insensitive and inappropriate comment. Or that Dillon's cronies would laugh when hearing such hurtful words.

Both kids immediately took to Joe as well, wondering why Joe does not seek an adult intervention when Dillon screams in Joe's ear on purpose. That is cruel and unacceptable. Their argument: If Joe is not confrontational, it is fine, but, he should not condone that behavior by keeping quiet about it and trying to find a subtler way to get back. How will Dillon learn that what he does will not be tolerated if he does not get any consequence from adults for such an unacceptable act of torment?

Even if it was written with Ronaldo from Brasil or Ridwaan from Somalia, instead of Ravi from India, the story would have rung true, and that's the diversity in books that children need to be exposed to. Back of the book has Joe's glossary and Ravi's glossary, plus recipes of Joe's and Ravi's favorite foods.

[image source: Scholastic]
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