Author Ha Jin

A New Culture Club – Through Books

The Chinese character for book.

Traditional book clubs have never appealed to me. The idea of reading a book and then having to answer questions from a reading guide and discuss the book as if in school just didn’t sound like my idea of a good time (and I am an English teacher!). So why then did I jump at the chance to sign up for the Melibee book club’s first meeting this February? Well, as I’ve learned, Melibee is anything but traditional so I had no doubt that this book club wouldn’t be either. As I am now half way through one of the books, A Free Life, I thought I’d share why I’m excited about the Melibee book club.

Two Books For The Price of One

The first book club slated for February 18, 2014 features not one, but two books. The first book A Free Life by Ha Jin is the fictional account of a Chinese immigrant family trying to

Author Ha Jin
Author Ha Jin

make it in the U.S. while overcoming both the cultural barriers that exist in their new country and the memory of things left behind in their old country. The second book, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman is the true story of two classmates who backpack through China in 1986. Immediately I could see that the two books would be ripe for comparison. The two novels are set right around the same times period. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is set a few years before the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square, while the Wu family of A Free Life leave China shortly thereafter. One book is a detailed and intimate look at the daily life of the immigrant experience while the other is a page turning adventure. One book views the host country through the reality of settling down as an expat never to return home while the other views it through the lens of travelers on an adventure. As I finish the first book and move on to the second I’m curious to see what other connections and convergences between the stories will emerge.

Exploring Culture Through Literature

Author Susan Jane Gilman

Culture is something that I am very interested in as I’m sure are most others in the field of international education. The idea of a book club that has the intention to explore culture through literature aligned perfectly with my own interests. China is not a country that I have been to or personally know a whole lot about other than superficially, so this book club is a change to delve into its culture from a few different angles. 

Connections to Our Work and Daily Lives

The Wu Family of A Free Life may be just one of many immigrant family stories, but I think that a lot can be gleaned from reading about their struggles and dreams. In reading their story I can see my newcomer ESL students struggling to learn English in a new environment and their parents trying to navigate the educational system though occasionally naive. I can see the Chinese restaurant on the corner by my house in Brooklyn with the owners’ 10-year-old son in the first booth with his homework spread out and violin by his side. As I read the Undress in the Temple of Heaven I expect to come across connections to myself as a traveler exploring new lands. bookclub1

These stories touch our daily lives and we can see reflections of them all around us. I am excited to hear how other international educators connected with these stories and how, perhaps, they might influence us in the work that we do. If the other MelibeeU workshops that I have participated in are any indication, this book club discussion will be lively, intentional, and anything but traditional.

If you are interested in learning more about the book club, you can do so here!


About the Author: Lindsay Manzella is an international educator who has worked at an international school in Beirut, Lebanon. She lived in Italy and then Brooklyn, NY prior to moving to Beirut, and has traveled to over 30 countries. She holds a B.A. in Italian and a M.S. in TESOL.