What does it mean to make a life? Where and what makes your home a true home? If you were (or perhaps have been) forced to flee your home due to cultural and religious persecution, what would you do and where would you go? And what expectations would you hold about ever returning?
Immigrants and refugees worldwide are living these questions right now. As author Madeline Uraneck beautifully states, the question of why people leave their homelands “… is the connective tissue between an immigrant’s personal story and a global issue — whether it’s a civil war, an overthrown dictator, drug lord terrorism, reunion with family members, or simply hope for a better job.”
The current discussion of immigration in the United States, like so many topics, escalates into heated political debate if participants aren’t monitoring their gut emotions. In “How to Make a Life,” Uraneck — who serves as president of the Friends of Folklore Village — presents a compelling contribution to the current discourse, although the story begins during a “kinder and gentler” era of politics and international relations, the early 1990s. Uraneck’s approach is to tell the story of one immigrant family and her close relationship with them. Through the microcosm of one couple and their four children, we see universal themes of forced exile, family separation, joyous reunion, loss and change of culture via assimilation, and reshaping of identity.
As I devoured this book, I felt a pang of nostalgia for Madison in the 1990s, with its palpable spirit of multiculturalism celebrated on the UW campus and in the heart of the city itself. Those were my impressionable college and early work years, and I remember an influx of Mexican, Central and South American, Asian, Middle Eastern and African immigrants. New ethnic restaurants opened up around town, the Isthmus weekly listed endless international music events, and yes, many students earnestly sported colorful, if appropriated fashion sense (cultural mixing and matching, for better or for worse).
Charmed and well meaning as it might have been, Madison in the 1990s was (and still is) a regular U.S. city in most respects. This is particularly true regarding labor issues, especially when those workers are skilled in areas not easily applicable to first-world city life, or are limited English-speaking. This is the setting in which Uraneck introduces her main characters: herself, a state worker at the time, and her now lifelong friend, a Tibetan woman called Tenzin Kalsang (referred to as simply “Tenzin”). When the story opens, Tenzin is cleaning Uraneck’s office cubicle, and the two begin a fated conversation that is still ongoing, 25 years later.
Quickly the reader learns that Tenzin worked multiple minimum-wage janitorial positions, as did her husband, Migmar Dorjee (referred to as “Migmar”), once he arrived in Madison. For decades they cleaned countless toilets, emptied trash, vacuumed and smiled through aches, pains and fatigue.
Although Uraneck describes the hardships of immigrant life in an American city, she does not focus excessively on the negatives in North America, in Tibet or the exile communities in India, where she had the opportunity to visit. The travel chapter is one of the most stimulating parts of the book. It is also not Uraneck’s aim to summarize Tibetan religion or culture from an expert’s perspective, or to emphasize esoterica for the Western reader. I particularly appreciated Uraneck’s angle, as it is so easy for memoir to become a platform for soapboxing, for showing off one’s expertise, or navel gazing. She deftly avoids all three of these.
Uraneck’s book spans genres of memoir, biography, cultural history and anthropology, to name a few. This is part of what makes her work unique. By design, it is a both/and, not an either/or. Hence the second half of the book’s title, “The Story of a Tibetan Refugee Family and the Midwestern Woman They Adopted.” Uraneck is the narrator, but her extensive experience with international education and cultural immersion, and likely her innate sensitivity and humility, led her to tell the story collaboratively. She painstakingly, respectfully checked factual details and requested the subjects’ permission and help with editing.
Those who read Uraneck’s enchanting book will fall in love with the family, and laugh out loud at some of the anecdotal humor. Readers will also pause and consider their own family’s immigration history. The author shares her own personal story within the first few pages, satisfying our initial curiosity about her family composition (both her family of origin and family relationships at the time the story takes place). She also briefly describes her ethnic heritage; in other words, how recently her ancestors immigrated from Europe, reflecting on which cultural elements remained intact by the second generation of Americanization. In so doing, she reveals thoughts and feelings so many Euro-Americans encounter, those of grief over lost identity, and of curiosity to find out who we really are.
Bazile Booth is a native of Boulder, Colorado. She first met Madeline Uraneck by chance at the June memorial service for Marion Nelson, co-founder of Global View, where they connected about common interests, including cross-country skiing, international travel and writing.