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The motif of loneliness and isolation
Look at how many stories deal with characters who are fighting for relationships. Almost all of them do that. This is a motif, a constant suggestion that life can be incredibly lonely at times, and the effect of the reminder is that each relationship is precious when a person is alone, no matter how complex or emotionally difficult.
Fighting for marriage as a motif
Marriage comes to represent more than itself in this collection. By showing the different cultural assumptions around romance, and by depicting romance as a constant struggle toward marriage, instead of showing happy, committed couples, the author brings the reader's empathy to the struggle for community in a world of isolation.
Alcohol as a recurring symbol
Alcohol is not a positive symbol in this collection. In "A Choice of Accommodations," alcohol intensifies the emotional distance between Amit and Megan, his wife. In "Only Goodness," Rahul's struggle with alcohol is the final straw in Sudha's struggle to keep the relationship. As a symbol, alcohol seems to carry a meaning of hopelessness and giving up.
Career as a secondary motif
People's professional lives are highlighted in the story, but it's almost assumed that many of the kids in these families will be successful in American society. The real problem is the emotional adjustment to America's individualistic, sometimes careless, culture. By constantly showing immigrants with successful careers as a background motif, the reader is not allowed to reduce these stories to economic problems alone, but as humanistic problems that matter to everyone.
Education as an double-sided symbol
Many of the characters in this collection go to school, and some of them attend prestigious universities, and that's a huge deal regardless of cultural and ethnic background, but for Indian-American students or Pakistani-American students, it serves to dramatize the kind of loneliness that people feel. The MIT student is considering abandoning his education to go back to his family because of the despair of loneliness and homesickness. But only Rahul fails to finish school—at Cornell, no less—and the suggestion is that his failure was the product of mental health issues and maybe alcohol abuse.
So here are the two sides of education as a symbol: One the one hand, it still represents exactly what it represents in real life: the hope for economic freedom and a meaningful career. But on the other hand, it serves to bring more attention to the already-difficult problems of loneliness and homesickness. It's a symbol not for growth and joy, but for the acquiescence to loneliness that is implied in the shift from a tribal sense of family to the American nuclear family.
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