What if a refugee asks, “Who did you vote for?”

Photo generously provided here.

I’ve been asked a couple times over the last few weeks, “Who did you vote for?”

Not by my American friends. No, they’ve probably already assumed who I voted for. Most would choose the thrill of speculation over just asking the question.

My refugee students are different though. They’re not afraid to ask.

They’ve not asked with any hint of malice, judgement, or anger in their tones. I can’t hear a single tone of offense or unkindness in their voice. They’re just genuinely curious.

Americans know this question is personal – impolite even. Our reserved and individualized culture is so deeply woven within us, this question might surprise us coming from the wrong person. Our default answer to that big question might sound something like: my vote is my vote, and it’s none of your business unless I invite you into it.

Instead of getting offended by this question, I have to step into the shoes of a refugee.

This has been my first presidential election I’ve been a part of in my time working on the field with refugees and immigrants. I was surprised to learn how invested my students have been in this great, American process. This is their front row seat to democracy in action, and that’s not a thing to be taken lightly.

Refugees don’t know what it’s like to vote.

Many of the people who resettled here in the States fled broken, war-torn countries. They had no vote or say; they were forced to leave.

But here we are, a nation of free people who each have a responsibility to exercise our right to vote so that our nation doesn’t cave in. The foundational component of our nation is our human right to vote. Though we have not always exercised that well, we’re trying. America might not be perfect, but at least our citizens have a right to speak up. We get a say in the direction we want our country to go in.

Have you ever considered how incredible that thought is?

This is very different than other nations across the world. Take the refugee friends in our communities, for example. They’ve never had a say. No one has ever asked their opinion about who should be in office. In fact, they’ve been forced to leave their heart land because of corrupt government and powerful people who said they didn’t belong. Basic human rights are stripped from the refugee, including their voice and vote to create a safe, flourishing nation.

Our right to elect arguably the most powerful position in the world is a privilege. It’s a wonder to those who can’t participate.

They can’t vote, but they can care.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve seen my formers students from Hong Kong sharing articles on social media about the U.S. election. This is mind-blowing to me – to realize that an entire world is watching how this pans out. It so happens that some of our friends of other cultures are here on American soil, unable to vote but still fully invested in the election.

I can’t speak for my friends overseas, but I know one thing for certain: our refugee and immigrant friends on American soil care how this turns out. I’m going to state this bluntly –

They love this country.

Refugees who were resettled in the States are so grateful to be here. They wish no harm to come upon our nation, this place that we both call home. They hope for freedom, peace, and opportunity just as much as much as any natural-born citizen.

They’re here for the long run. They’re impacted by our vote just as much, if not more, than we are.  What happens in this election might affect the world, but it affects us here on American soil first and foremost. And no one hopes for a safe place to build a life in more than those who have made the long, dangerous, tiring trek to be here.

The people asking these hard questions are filling in the cultural gaps and making our country richer.

Our friends from other countries might not get how impolite it is to ask someone who got their vote simply because their culture is different from American culture.

Our American hearts shrink up and lock up at a bold question from a stranger. But our refugee friends’ hearts might say, “I’m unashamed to ask and share because I belong to my community, and my community belongs to me too. We’re in this together.”

That doesn’t make them wrong. It doesn’t make us right either. It does make American soil all the richer, deeper for making space for differing opinions and perspectives.

I’m grateful for the courage of my refugee students to ask the awkward questions.

What an honor it is to be a part of a decision that will affect people for generations to come, including my refugee friends. I must not ever forget that most people in this world don’t get a voice; I’ll strive to do well with the one I’ve been given. It truly is a gift.

English learners asked me a hard question, and they might have given the most helpful perspective this entire election season.

I hope one day I get the privilege to ask, “Student, who did you vote for?” I hope they don’t take offense to the question. I’m sure they won’t think I’m rude for asking. In fact, I bet they’ll beam with pride at the opportunity to speak up and mark their vote on a ballot.

The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli: Tension of Love, Culture, and Learning Lessons of Honesty

The Matchmaker’s List | Sonya Lalli | Fiction, Romance

Paperback: 329 | Publisher: Berkley (2019) | ISBN: 9780451490940


Here’s the first thing to know about The Matchmaker’s List: it’s not a holiday rom-com.

Wanting to read some sweet, Christmas funnies, I searched for a few to put on hold at the library. The Matchmaker’s List popped up in my searches, and I’m ashamed to say, I judged the book by its cover.

As it turns out, the white specks on the cover are not snowflakes. They’re just dots. And the red flowers the men are holding aren’t poinsettias. They’re just flowers.

Believe it or not, I had read the synopsis. But even so, I refused to believe it wasn’t a holiday rom-com. “The Christmas and the snow will be here somewhere!,” I told myself, holding out hope for a Christmas love story.


The *Not-So-Holiday* Story

In this story of learning to love and self-honesty, author Sonya Lalli takes readers on a journey of a 29 year-old bank analyst, Raina, who has made a deal with her Indian grandmother, Nani: if Raina isn’t married by her 30th birthday, Nani gets to arrange a marriage.

In a race against the clock, Nani chooses suitors from all over the Toronto Indian community to pair with her granddaughter. However, with each date, Raina finds herself more frustrated. And what Nani doesn’t know is that Raina is secretly holding on to hope for a man she loved (and still loves), wanting to believe that he might be ready to love her too.

Oh, and she’s internally battling with the tradition of her Indian culture too.

Throughout the journey, Raina asks hard questions. Why does she have to marry to be happy? Why does her Indian heritage leave no space for her opinion or space? What if this isn’t what she wants? Who even is she, apart from the marital expectations placed on her?

In The Matchmaker’s List, as Raina pines for a man she keeps waiting on to change, watches her best friend’s mom plan an elaborate Indian wedding, navigates the confusing dynamic of her family relationships, and of course, goes on multiple dates, Raina discovers that maybe love and life really does happen in ways that are not always arranged or planned. And maybe that’s okay.


My Thoughts

Shout Out to All the Immigrants Making it in a New Home

“Nani rarely spoke about the past, and I thought about pressing her. How had she felt about leaving her parents, one day suddenly packing her things and moving in with a husband she barely knew? What was it like getting on a plane for the first time in her life, crossing into a new country – cold, barren, and raising children in a land you knew nothing about?”

Sonya Lalli, The Matchmaker’s List, page 96

One reason I chose The Matchmaker’s List as my next read – despite my reluctant doubts to believe it had nothing to do with snow or Christmas – was because of the opportunity to learn more about Indian culture and customs.

Lalli does not disappoint as she describes the textures and scents of the culture across multiple pages; I loved those moments. So often, I felt myself cooking beside Nani or sitting in her living room with tea. I heard Nani talking to the other women, and could picture myself wearing a sari in the beautiful big to-do of Raina’s best friend’s wedding.

And with each beautiful description of the culture, I saw the sacrifice that immigrant families make to come to a new home. I felt the effects of their children growing up on a different continent, and the confusion of generationally integrating in a new home.

How do you honor your history and culture, while also making a home in a new, totally different place? felt like an underlying question throughout.

The book hinges on Lalli’s description of the tension mostly between Raina and her Indian community. As a granddaughter being raised by traditional Indian culture in a progressive, large, Canadian city, Raina’s internal conflict in The Matchmaker’s List is probably a tension felt by all immigrant and refugee families resettled: seeking to make a better life, in a new home, while still honoring their heritage.

I enjoyed Lalli’s perspective into this confusing, messy, and under-told perspective of the immigrant and refugee story.

But, It Felt Like My Home

The Matchmaker’s List is not only a unique glimpse into Indian culture, but it also resonated familiar feelings of love for home within me too.

Although the underlying tension of Raina’s relationship with her Nani was the center of the plot, I adored their relationship. I love Nani like my own granny, and understood Raina’s desire to meet her expectations and make her proud. Actually, Raina’s gentle love and understanding of her grandmother convicted me, making me wonder if my love for my own grandmother’s mirror a level of grace like Raina’s.

I did love Raina and her grandmother’s relationship; their love was evident, and honestly, probably a testament to the close familial ties in Indian culture. Reading that from an individualist, American worldview was refreshing.

I Know Relationships are Hard, But…

Lalli did a wonderful job at painting images of all of Raina’s relationships. With Raina’s transient mother’s sudden coming and going, the clash with her best friend, the guy that she didn’t expect to fall for – Lalli captured the complex nuance of relationships.

She agreed with us that living with people is hard. But she also showed us that it’s beautiful and worth it, and requires hard honesty and unconditional love woven at the center of those complicated relationships.

With that, Raina came from a messed up family. Oddly, I appreciated that. Reading some of the flashbacks of her life, key points that shaped her, I was reminded of how deeply specific moments root within us – growing with us past childhood and well into adulthood. We are truly shaped by people and experiences. And not just us, but our entire worldview and outlook.

However, despite whatever childhood trauma and confusion she was going through, Raina was pretty unkind to others in her life in the novel. She really hurt a lot of people by lying to them, keeping truths from them, ignoring them, refusing to own up to her mistakes. And it messed up some relationships. She had damage to fix.

She did eventually make her wrongs, right. I applaud Lalli for that. I saw a lot of redemption in those relationships. But I just wonder how different it could have been if she had been brave enough to stand up and tell the truth in the first place, instead of waiting months to gather even more courage to own up to her mistakes.

And Oh, Yes, The Perfectionism

“She reached for my hand, and as he slight brown fingers interlocked with my own, that’s when I realized that in my silence, I was being complicit. I realized how much I truly loved this vivacious, slightly insane little woman, and what I would do to be the only person in her life never to break her heart. I would go along with it. I would live up to her expectations, and that promised I made to her two years ago – brokenhearted and desperate for my life to make sense once again – that if I wasn’t married at thirty, I’d let her make the arrangements for me.”

Sonya Lalli, The Matchmaker’s List, page 13

Probably the aspect that Lalli touched on that most resonated with me was the teaching of perfectionism. She delves into the pressure put on us, especially children of unfortunate situations, to rise and be better – in this case, better than her mother. While I don’t completely agree with Lalli’s execution of this topic, I did feel the weight of the pressure she was describing.

Raina had lived her whole life trying to be perfect, and never disappoint anyone. It took her until her 30th birthday to realize how absurd this was, and to see that actually, in her efforts to not disappoint anyone she’d actually created an even bigger mess.

Life is all about living and learning. Making mistakes and growing. We’re going to let people down. And Raina had let the pressure of believing she couldn’t for so long. I was so sad to see Raina live in this mindset. Humans are not created to be perfect, and in a lot of ways, Raina tried to be the God and Savior of her own story; it didn’t work.

I was glad to see Raina peel back her scales of perfectionism and fear, and by the end of the book, be honest about who she truly is. But man, was it a frustrating journey watching her get there.

Let’s Find a Better Argument Than “Tradition Sucks”

Although Lalli delivered on her description of Indian culture, I did not sense any deep love or appreciation for the culture as a whole. Actually, I felt a sense of shame and frustration with this community. This was disappointing because I thought there could have been more said to pull the reader into a deeper understanding of Indian culture, and there could have been redemptive qualities stated. Instead, by the end of the book, Lalli seems to state through Raina: my culture is wrong and outdated, and it needs to change. She only wanted to focus on the negative.

I’m not sure what to do with that. I think the “tradition sucks” argument is old and worn out, and cheaply done. But that was the premise of the whole book. I would have loved to have seen a more well-rounded, mature approach to disagreement. Instead, I read frustration and low-key complaining throughout.

And honestly, maybe I am working through this personally too. I know that loving people does not mean always agreeing with them, and I am not claiming that Indian culture is perfect. I don’t understand Lalli’s response to her community, and tradition, through Raina though. I’m still grappling with that. 

Major Eye Roll at the “BIG LIE”

Another thing I was frustrated by was the “big lie.” I’m not going to spoil it for you. But there is a huge lie that Raina allows her grandma to believe, and in turn the entire Indian community in Toronto, believe. When the lie is first mentioned, it seems so small. But soon thereafter, the entire plot of the book hinges on this lie.

I really struggled with that too. The lie itself is ridiculous, and disrespectful. I felt that it did not make for a strong plot, and I was actually really surprised to find the lie continue growing and getting bigger. What Lalli wanted to esteem with this lie was actually cheapened by it. She seemed to make a mockery of a topic that the whole premise of the book is to accept.


The Final Word: Staying at the Library (For Now)

I loved the peek into Indian life, and stepping into the shoes of an immigrant’s granddaughter. I loved seeing Raina work through hard choices. I saw redemption in Raina’s self-discovery and relationships.

I think what I’m ultimately struggling with here in The Matchmaker’s List is that Lalli and I have vastly different worldviews.

We have different beliefs on who should marry, and how situations should be handled. We disagree on what it looks like to respect others, and how to be “true to yourself.” We have different levels of respect for submission and tradition.

Sonya Lalli and Brianna Persinger are very different. But I’ve had to settle with this: it’s okay. It is good to read literature and see life from many different angles.

If your experience reading this is like mine, you won’t pick up many quotes to jot down on the back of your bookmark. You’re going to relate more to relationships between characters than you will to the characters themselves. You’ll raise your eyebrows at some of the comments and situations in the book, because you know you’d write it very different. But, you’ll try to understand where Lalli is coming from. You’ll just respectfully disagree.

Read it, because we can not wear out the reminder that everyone is fighting battles that we – that even they – might not yet understand. We all need to remember what unconditional love and respect looks like in relationships, and we certainly need to develop a deeper empathy for the nuanced struggles of the immigrant journey and acclimation.

Although Sonya Lalli arrived to those conclusions different than I would have, I appreciated her perspective to arrive there in some fashion in The Matchmaker’s List. I’m glad to have checked this one out from the library, but am going to leave it there for now. Perhaps I’ll check it out again later, and see what refreshed eyes feel about it then.