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'Home is a Roof Over a Pig' and 'The Forgetting River'

Two very different memoirs chronicle distant searches for family ties.

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Home is a Roof Over a Pig
By Aminta Arrington
The Overlook Press
320 pp.





The Forgetting River
By Doreen Carvajal
Penguin Group USA
320 pp.

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Who are we? Are we best defined by the language we speak, the schools we attend, the religion our parents subscribe to, or the country that offers us citizenship? Or does it require a blend of all of the above and more to determine our identities?

Two very different American writers were propelled to opposite corners of the globe in their separate quests to answer such questions.

In Home is a Roof Over a Pig, Aminta Arrington didn’t move to China looking for her own roots. Instead, she was seeking out the cultural heritage of her adopted daughter. Three years earlier, she and her husband had adopted a charming Chinese toddler they named Grace. But the first time they removed Grace’s clothes and replaced them with “the cutest outfit we had brought with us and a fresh Pampers,” Arrington worried that they were changing something more fundamental – “her identity.” 

It is the search for Grace’s roots that prompts Arrington to take a teaching job at a rural Chinese university and move her family there. “We are in the real China,” her husband notes the day they arrive. Arrington concurs – and it’s just what she wants: “A China of raising children, taking crowded buses to work, sitting on stools playing Chinese checkers, hand-washing laundry and hanging it out the window.”

The family of five – Arrington and her husband, their other two children, and Grace – crowd into a tiny concrete bunker of an apartment. The children enroll in public school and Mom and Dad join the university faculty. Slowly, as months and then years pass, the Arringtons absorb the language, adapt to the culture, and begin to belong.

Arrington is a sunny (“Cynicism and I cannot breathe the same air”) and energetic guide to today’s China – where Volvos glide among donkey carts and the Kitchen God coexists with Marxism. It is here that Arrington – while seeking out her daughter’s roots – also discovers “the person I was created to be.”

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