by Teresa A. Statler
What We Can Learn from Newcomers to
America About Health, Happiness, Hope
ntrigued by the success of immigrant friends, awardwinning journalist Claudia Kolker investigated several
customs brought to the United States by immigrants
and their families. These customs are unfamiliar to most
Americans, but Kolker believes that they help explain the
"immigrant paradox"—why immigrants, even from poor and
dangerous homelands, tend to be healthier and happier in
many respects than native-born Americans.
In The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn from
Newcomers to America about Health, Happiness, and Hope,
Kolker discusses several customs, including the Vietnamese
Money Club or hui; the cuarentena or Mexican custom of
"mothering" a new mother for 40 days after giving birth; the
South Asian "assisted" marriage (different from "arranged"
marriage); and the Korean hagwon or after-school programs
for children and teenagers. She also researches some of
the reasons why residents of a poor Chicago barrio are
healthier than equally struggling black residents in the next
The most interesting chapters describe the Vietnamese
Money Club. In the chapter, "How to Save," Kolker starts
a hui with her Houston friends and neighbors. A hui is "a
centuries-old Vietnamese tradition that harnesses peer
pressure to force its members to save money. [T]he hui
hinges on one transaction: every month, cash in hand,
members meet to contribute their dues. And each month,
a different player takes that lump sum home, interest-free."
Kolker tells us about the "thousands" of huis that have
launched successful businesses, restaurants, and fishing
boats for Vietnamese immigrants here in the United States.
The Immigrant Advantage:
What We Can Learn from
Newcomers to America
about Health, Happiness,
The members of Kolker's hui used their cash to pay off loans,
finance a graduate degree, and make down payments on
cars. Like the Vietnamese immigrants who trust each other,
Kolker and her friends found that something so "foreign"
became "utterly conventional: the promise that you could
play by the rules and not be betrayed."
Kolker, a working mother, dives into the Vietnamese custom
of com thang or "monthly rice" delivery to her Houston
home, and tells us about it in the chapter, "How to Eat."
Her excitement at having a fresh, healthy, and inexpensive
evening meal delivered to her front door, after a long day at
the office, is something anyone can understand and look
forward to. She tells us that this delicious tradition hinges on
two core Vietnamese values: "the importance of tremblingly
fresh ingredients and the need to eat with other people. To
serve these demands, com thang cooks … have devised
a repertoire of services." In the United States, and at least
in Houston, these have morphed to include daily home
delivery of a menu decided by the com thang provider, with
a renewable, monthly subscription. Com thang helps busy
families eat together.
J ULY/ A UGUST 2013