Shirley Geok-Lin Lim was born in Malaysia and spent most of her life in America. She’s explored fiction, poetry, and criticism throughout her career. She spent her professional life working as a professor of English and chair of Women’s Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This poem expresses a memorable opinion of America and the influence a country can have on one’s identity.
Explore Learning to Love America
‘Learning to Love America’ by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim is a poem about identity and a mother’s need to love America.
The poem begins with the speaker listing out reasons to love America. These are simple things. Ones that anyone could appreciate. They include eating fresh artichokes and enjoying the movements of the sea. The speaker lives in California and raised her American-born son there. He’s grown up in a world that doesn’t match his heritage, and this has caused him some distress. He doesn’t know who he is, and the speaker has difficulty helping him figure it out.
You can read the full poem here.
because it has no pure products
because the Pacific Ocean sweeps along the coastline
because I say we rather than they
In the first lines of ‘Learning to Love America,’ the speaker begins by starting her list of reasons to “love” America. These are unusual, and some are vague and hard to understand. The first being that it has “no pure products.” This is followed by a line about the Pacific Ocean that reads far more lyrically and sounds more poetic. The speaker focuses on the land and the ocean in this stanza, suggesting that nature has a resonance with her that objects and products do not.
because I live in California
I have eaten fresh artichokes
my hunger with my mouth
The word “because” begins yet another line. She can learn to love America because she lives in California and has “fresh artichokes,” and there are flowers that bloom in “April and May.” These simple reasons are expanded upon as the poem progresses. It becomes clear that the speaker does not need a great deal to be happy. Simple pleasures are enough.
because I walk barefoot in my house
because I have seen his eyes redden when he is asked who he is
because he answers I don’t know
The following lines mention the speaker’s son, who she nursed into a “strong American boy.” There are moving that which follow that suggest the speaker and her son struggle with identity. He doesn’t know who he is, having been born and raised in America.
because to have a son is to have a country
because my son will bury me here
because it is time.
In the next lines, the speaker adds that to “have a son is to have a country.” Her connection to America has expanded because she’s had her son and raised him in America. It means more to her now.
The poem ends on a slightly darker note, suggesting that the speaker may feel some regret about what was lost. But, it’s too late to change anything, and she’ll be buried in America by her son.
Structure and Form
‘Learning to Love America’ by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim is a twenty-one-line poem that is divided into uneven stanzas of text. The first stanza is one line long, followed by a three-line stanza, another one-line stanza, and so on. The longest is four lines in length. The poem is written in free verse as well. This means that the poet chose not to use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, they did use a great deal of repetition, which is explored in more detail below.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two and lines six and seven.
- Anaphora: can be seen when the poet repeats the same word or words at the beginning of lines. For example, “because” which starts lines one through six.
- Allusion: occurs when the poet refers to something but doesn’t provide readers with all the details they need to understand it. This occurs throughout the poem as the speaker refers to their individual experience.
The tone is accepting and conversational. The speaker knows she’s committed to the choice she’s made, even if there are aspects about America she doesn’t love. She addresses the country clearly without ignoring the fact that life isn’t perfect.
The purpose is to explore the way that a country gets into one’s blood even if one wasn’t born there. The speaker’s connection to America grows as she spends more time there and raises her American son there.
The themes at work in this poem include identity. Her child’s confused identity is one of the reasons that she sometimes feels regret for her choice to live and raise him in America. He struggles to understand who he is and how he fits in.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Learning to Love America’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Identity’ by Abhimanyu Kumar – a relatable poem that explores themes of memory, identity, and personal history while inspiring readers to take control of their lives.
- ‘The Map-Woman’ by Carol Ann Duffy – explores of identity through the metaphorical depiction of the female body.
- ‘When The Rain Started Drizzling Into His Story’ by Riyas Qurana – focuses on a character’s journey out of a hard place in life and gaining the strength to rebuild his identity.