A College Throwback: Aama in America Book Review

I accidentally signed up for Google Drive, and in doing so, I’ve uncovered years of Google Documents from college.  The first thing that came up was called “Aama Review.”  It’s an assignment from a class called “South Asian Culture and Society” where we were asked to write a review for an assigned reading.  I still had this book on my shelf when I moved here, despite many unsuccessful attempts at getting other people to read it.  I think I left it with Josh.  So, Josh…You should probably read it.  In the meantime, let me toot my own horn a little bit because I think I really deserved the ‘A’ I got on this paper.  Thanks, Professor McGilvary.

Rather than using anthropological jargon one would find in an ethnography, Broughton Coburn wrote a book that appeals to the much larger American demographic. It includes details of his and his girlfriend’s personal lives that give appeal to Aama in America toward the American public. However, he cannot expect to gain tenure at an accredited university with this work, as it lacks detail when it describes Americans’ reactions to Aama’s way of thinking and even ends many sections with ellipses making it seem as if Aama’s way of thinking about certain aspects of the road trip is silly or childish. It is clearly the work of the editors that nearly halved this book to make it readable for a demographic outside of a small group of anthropologists. Ironically, this intention from the editors exemplifies America’s skin-deep and sometimes thoughtless society that Aama finds throughout her journey.

This book chronicles a Nepalese woman, Aama (Nepalese term for mother), who at eighty-four years old, travels to America with her “Dharma” son, Coburn, and his girlfriend, Didi. They travel from Washington to Maine, visiting sites that include Seaworld, Redwood National State Park, Disneyland, and a dairy farm. In each place, Aama finds a little bit of her Hindu culture and scorns Americans for their lack of appreciation for nature and Bhagwan, a term equivalent to the Christian “God” or “creator.” Being only four feet, eight inches tall and wearing gaudy jewelry and a sarong, she is stared at by both children and adults, and is referred to as “practice” for him and Didi to have a child. Coburn tends to forget that Aama has spent nearly all of her life in remote mountain villages and abandons the respect he shows her in the beginning of the book when he describes his interactions with her. At times, he portrays himself to be condescending toward her. Having been in the Peace Corps and spending many years living in Nepal, it would be expected that he would have more patience for a person with no experience in America, an astonishing new world with much to see, as well as criticize.

However, when he is not discussing their interactions with each other and the public, Coburn uses his narration to recognize how Asian life styles and Aama’s mindset are benevolent to a society with hypocrisy prevalent in religion and a market value on nature.

Of course, this text is not just three hundred pages of critical analysis of American superficiality. Coburn goes into some detail of South Asian society and how it has affected, what can only be described as, his “coming of age” during the middle of his life. One notable quote in the beginning of the book exemplifies his enlightenment: “…happiness and inner peace, unattainable as they are, are not strictly a product of external events or one’s upbringing. Ultimately, who we are as humans shouldn’t be affected by where we are (47).” He consistently writes these thoughtful verses which gives the reader more to think about outside of the text itself.

Once in a while, Aama takes a break from her consuming wisdom and reveals a side of her that makes the reader want to violently shake and slap some sense into her. However, Coburn loses patience with her before the reader does. She makes quirky comments and assumptions, like when she thinks the whales at Seaworld are machines, but her ignorance of technology is excusable when one takes into account that she has never used a telephone before. South Asians litter because packaging materials is a sign of wealth and status, so Aama takes it upon herself to throw a used paper plate into Redwood National Forest. Even though Coburn takes the time to explain reasons why she acts in these ways, it is necessary to read these parts with an open mind and an anthropological perspective of different cultures. The author shows that it is easy to forget Aama’s wisdom and knowledge when frivolous habits from her own culture surface.

Within this cross-country journey and Coburn’s self-discovery, there is a much deeper message within the text to be realized. Aama finds spirituality within in the minutest details of America and finds reason for Americans to stop and examine their busy lives and their self-centered motives for working, vacationing, and worshipping. Her simple way of seeing the entire world with respect crosses the boundaries that religion and social classes have created in America. This is surprising considering that Hinduism is not just a religion, but a culture that has set up strict social boundaries within itself. Her practice of worshipping Bhagwan – in nature, churches, and temples – shows a very different and pluralistic practice than what is seen in the world today. There is one very touching moment when Coburn sees a shrine that Aama has made around the windshield of the car which frames the sunrise and the open road, and is made out of gum wrappers, strings, and other items that would, otherwise, be considered trash.

Though the editors seem to have compromised the integrity of Aama in America, it nonetheless delivers a heart-felt and much needed significance for those who read it. There are not many other books that capture this rare view of America that is embedded into this book’s expedition. Remember that this is not a biography of Broughton Coburn or an account of Aama’s life, but it is an unorthodox ethnography given to the author by Aama that relates Hindu culture to American society. And while one must forgive Coburn for his sometimes selfish behavior as often as one must forgive Aama for her ignorance of American culture, this should not be overlooked because it is difficult to find a worthwhile book that gives the reader a new perspective on his or her own life.


About Tavie Crockett

Like "Davy Crockett," but with a "T."
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