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Behold the Dreamers [Book Review]

Summary

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue is the story of a couple, Jende and Neni Jonga, who emigrate from Cameroon with their young son, Liomi, in hopes of a better life in New York City. The couple struggles for a while with Jende initially working as a cab driver while Neni works as a nurse’s assistant and is studying to become a pharmacist. Things seem to be heading in the right direction when Jende lands a better paying job as the driver for a wealthy family, the Edwards. That is until both families’ lives are turned upside down by the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

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Show Notes

When Jende first arrived in America three years before the beginning of the story, he was simply Neni’s boyfriend and the father of her child. Living with roommates, he worked hard to save enough money for an apartment which would enable Neni and their son, Liomi, to join him in America. Meanwhile, back in Cameroon, Neni is living with her parents and going through the motions of a monotonous existence while her father begrudgingly helps to support her.

Neni comes from a family that wasn’t necessarily wealthy but had some privilege due to her father’s job while Jende comes from a poor family with several siblings. Yet, by the time they reached adulthood, they both faced a lack of access to money and opportunity in Cameroon which meant limited possibilities for elevating themselves. The decision was made for Jende to travel to America first as things were a bit more pressing for him and his cousin, Winston, who was living in America had the means to help him with airfare.

The original intention (or at least the story they told the visa folks) was for him to visit America for three months as he still had ties to Cameroon and thus plans to return. But with no real prospects back home he got working papers and put in place plans to remain in America and work to make a better life for himself and his young family. It takes a while but eventually, he sends for Neni and the couple are married in a simple ceremony. Behold the Dreamers then begins with Jende going in for a job interview that Winston helps arrange.

Clark Edwards is a big muckety muck Wall Street-type investment banker at Lehman Brothers. The interview is no big deal for Clark but it’s incredibly important to Jende as getting the job should make life easier and more stable. Compared to driving a cab, being a private driver would offer a substantial salary increase. The job would require driving Clark and his family around but would also reduce the amount of Jende’s work hours, giving him more free time.

I enjoyed the flow of the story from the very beginning. The characters felt fully formed and human and I immediately took a liking to Jende and Neni. Yet, I waffled between being indifferent towards and mildly disliking Clark from the outset. He wasn’t necessarily rude during the interview but his description and the dialogue from his end just rubbed me the wrong way.

Jende’s cousin Winston was another character that I liked, mostly because he was funny and jovial. There’s a funny exchange during a flashback to when Jende had first arrived in New York. Winston took Jende to see a Nigerian immigration lawyer, Bubakar, in Flatbush (which is the part of Brooklyn where I’m from). Lawyers are stereotyped as having sketchy ethics and Bubakar is such a wheeler-dealer. Listening to the story of Jende’s and Neni’s relationship, Bubakar comes up with the idea of fixing Jende’s immigration issues by having him create a silly story and claim he’s seeking asylum. Winston is also a lawyer (but of a different specialty) and is so annoyed by Bubakar’s ridiculousness that it requires every bit of restraint to not knock him out.

The relationship between Jende and Neni is very sweet. Neither is where they want to be in life but they have these bright visions of the future and big dreams that they’re trying to work towards. It’s nice to have this couple that is supportive of and championing each other. They take such pride and feel happiness in these simple little things like a job interview and a first day at work.

When Jende is offered the job it brings him into contact with the rest of Clark’s family, his wife Cindy, and sons Vince and Mighty. Behold the Dreamers begins in the time leading up to the financial crisis and collapse of Lehman Brothers. The dominoes haven’t quite begun to fall just yet but they are teetering. It’s a stressful time for Clark as he’s trying to maneuver and help the firm work its way out of this situation. Knowing what would ultimately happen to Lehman Brothers, it feels like they’re all headed towards an iceberg. You know that things are going to get worse.

I’ve always found it weird with shows like Downton Abbey and The Crown how comfortable people are having servants, drivers, etc around all the time and speaking freely in front of them. I think I would be uncomfortable with such an arrangement as there would be no privacy. But because Jende is the chauffeur they likely forget that he’s there or don’t care. And so, the Clarks sit in the back of the car and speak openly on their cellphones about all types of private matters that they probably wouldn’t discuss in front of their friends or family.

I would love to have a housekeeper, personal chef, assistant, and driver because it efficiently frees up time. But at the same time, I don’t think I would want anyone living in my household or close enough to have knowledge of and be mixed into my family’s business. I would still want to have some privacy and wouldn’t feel comfortable having intimate conversations in front of someone in such a role. But I think it speaks to how the Clarks view the people who work for them. They’re viewed simply as workers, not necessarily people so the Clarks don’t always worry about what they say in front of them.

Not only does Jende begin to hear the tremors about what’s going on high up at Lehman but he also hears about the issues in the Edwards marriage as well as with their college-aged son Vince. Mighty doesn’t have any drama because he’s still just a sweet little boy (and my favorite Edwards).

Clark has a very well-paying prestigious job at an equally prestigious company but he comes from more humble beginnings as the child of an academic. He originally planned to follow in his father’s footsteps but was enticed by the money that came with investment banking. Cindy is a nutrition coach for models and activists but spends a lot of time pampering herself and hanging out with her girlfriends. She comes from a very dysfunctional background that has left her emotionally scarred which results in her actions being motivated by self-absorption and low self-esteem. Vince is attending college in the same city but is living away from home as he has no interest in his parent’s world.

Seeing Clark’s home and office made Jende want the same for himself. At times it feels a bit like eavesdropping. But the conversations he overhears begin to offer a different perspective which shows that everything in that life isn’t as it seems as they have their own kind of misery. Clark makes a lot of money but his job requires long hours and is very stressful. This lifestyle and moving in their social circles requires sacrifice and takes a lot of effort and energy to maintain. It’s a life of privilege but that doesn’t mean that there are no problems. Money isn’t a concern with regards to paying bills and keeping a roof over their heads but they still have problems, just different problems.

Things are different for the Jongas as money is a major concern. Neni is balancing working with taking classes in preparation for pharmacy school while also taking care of her son, her husband, and their apartment. With so many competing priorities, it’s a struggle to manage everything. Sometimes she doesn’t have the time she needs to fully dedicate to studying which means she doesn’t get the grades that she hopes for and this makes her second guess herself.

Jende and Neni focus on all the things they’re lacking versus the life they want and try to keep pushing towards achieving those goals while overlooking what they do have. They might not have the wealth of the Edwards family but there is an intimacy and happiness that the Edwards seem to lack. That’s not to say that you should be complacent or not have goals but rather that sometimes we can overlook our blessings. Or while we tell ourselves that we’d gladly trade places with someone else, other people look at our lives and feel the same.

Neni attends a parent-teacher conference at Liomi’s school and learns that he gets his work done but jokes around in class. This rightfully upsets her because Liomi has an opportunity to get an education and hopefully set himself on the path to a life that’s easier than her’s and Jende’s. But as they talk some of her anger dissipates and she sits down to explain to him the importance of taking school seriously. She has big dreams of him becoming a lawyer or doctor while he reveals a desire to be a chauffeur like his father. He idolizes the job because he idolizes his father. But as Neni explains, most people don’t dream about becoming a chauffeur rather they become a chauffeur because it’s the best available job option. She encourages him to aim higher and aspire to achieve more for himself.

Neni is in America on a student visa but Jende has remained in the country as an asylum seeker. His precarious immigration status looms in the background because if his asylum request is denied then deportation proceedings can begin. Between the government moving slowly and the possibility of appeals, his status can be in limbo for quite some time. But he’ll be unable to work legally if his visa expires and receiving a deportation order might force them to move back to Cameroon. The stress of possibly failing at achieving this dream is incredibly upsetting.

For the most part, Jende’s interactions with the Edwards are ok. But then there are also these little microaggressions from them as well as others that the Jongas meet along the way. There are quite a few assumptions made about them being African or related to them being African. Where ignorant things are said without fully considering how ridiculous and offensive the comments are.

The Edwards family goes out to the Hamptons during the summer and Cindy extends an offer to Neni for her to earn some extra money working as a housekeeper as well as a nanny for Mighty. At one point, Neni and Cindy seem to have a shared moment where race, class, and ethnicity don’t matter, just them being two human beings. But at that moment, Cindy says some very insensitive, or more accurately, dismissive things to Neni to reestablish that distance. Here they are talking about their commonalities in life and that things aren’t as different as they might appear. And Cindy goes out of her way to crudely draw a distinct line between the two of them.

Clark is a workaholic and the moment anything comes up at work, he drops whatever he’s doing or quickly cancels his plans with the family. One aspect of that is he sees himself as being the provider and thus his job is to go out and work and to earn a living. This is how he gives his family a nice lifestyle which includes a chauffeur-driven car, a nanny, a maid, a nice place in the city, and a nice house out in the Hamptons. But it’s at the expense of having a solid family unit; his wife and children miss his presence.

Mighty is young and for the most part easy to please. Meanwhile, Vince seems unhappy despite being given all of these things and endless opportunities by his parents. He sees them as trying to mold him into becoming an attorney which is something that he doesn’t want. It’s like he’s trying to do everything he can to run away from them and this lifestyle. He’s miserable in this world and trying to break free.

Cindy is also unhappy because she has a husband and two children along with a nice lifestyle but is incredibly sad and lonely within this world. Her husband is never around and her eldest son doesn’t want to be around. I found it troubling that she spent a lot of time lamenting the absence of her husband and eldest son but then seemingly spent little time interacting with her youngest son who seemed open to being connected to his family members. Why not spend more time with him while he’s still interested and just make the best out of what you have? I didn’t quite understand why she needed a nanny for Mighty while they were in the Hamptons if he was out of school and she wasn’t working.

Neni joins the Edwards in the Hamptons, leaving Jende and Liomi behind to have some father and son time. It’s one thing for Jende to drive them around and hear little tidbits of conversation here and there versus Neni living in the house with them 24/7. She hears not just one-sided phone conversations but also any full-on arguments that take place in the house and also sees things that she’s not necessarily supposed to see.

Clark rarely makes it to the Hamptons and has to leave when he does, which is kind of typical for a lot of families. The dads tend to be busy working in the city and might only come out during the weekends. Cindy pushes for her and Clark to sit down, talk things out, and go to therapy to resolve their issues. But, Clark is resistant though it’s unclear why. She’s trying to keep things together but it kind of feels like she’s running out of options while her world is falling apart. Cindy is making an effort but it isn’t being appreciated or reciprocated.

At one point, against Jende’s advice, she went out of her way to be helpful to Cindy who was experiencing a difficult moment. In response to feeling vulnerable, Cindy turned around and in what initially felt a bit threatening, asked Neni to keep a secret for her. That exchange turned me off from Cindy as I felt it offered a peek behind her mask and exposed her as being a selfish person mostly concerned with maintaining her position and keeping up appearances. She then tried to clean up the situation by essentially bribing Neni with clothes.

Earlier in Behold the Dreamers, Jende told Clark about his hometown in Cameroon and described it as being a beautiful place. This prompted Clark to ask why Jende left if it was so beautiful. The reality was that he and Neni left because essentially they see America as a place of opportunity. They believed that despite where they started in life or who their family might or might not be, based on their hard work there’s potential for them to progress in life. Whereas they felt like back in Cameroon there are limited opportunities to move forward and get ahead in life. To get ahead, you would have to start life ahead.

Both of my parents are immigrants from the West Indies and I agree with Jende’s sentiment but only to a degree. On the surface, America has more opportunities which motivates people to move here. But Jende and Clark both realize at the same time that America also has some major drawbacks. America is relatively expensive and requires a lot of hard work to support yourself and not all jobs have high salaries by default. Yet, people in other parts of the world can have a flawed perspective due to America being misrepresented as though you walk and simply pick up money off the street.

Sometimes people overstate the reality that most people in America are not balling out of control but rather living regular lives. It’s not like you move here and six months later, you’re a millionaire. I have an interest in entrepreneurship and notice this sometimes when people tell their success stories. They make it seem like they started from scratch and quickly and easily achieved success but forget to mention the help they’ve had along the way. It skews people’s perception and causes them to underestimate the amount of hard work it takes to be successful in America just like anywhere in the world.

The Jongas see the Edwards’ life and don’t envy them but rather imagine what they could do with their opportunities and finances. They aspire to have those things for themselves one day. But gradually over time, with the opportunity to observe this family for what it is, they also see the downsides. The Edwardses are financially rich but unhappy because they’re internally and emotionally discontent. Meanwhile, the Jongas might be financially poor but have a rich and emotionally nurturing family life. Neither family would likely trade places with the other but might be open to taking on the positive aspects of the other family’s situation.

And then to add a layer of complexity, we come to find out that neither Cindy nor Clark were born into this life of wealth. Clark is from elsewhere, his father was a college professor, and his sister to whom he was close growing up has chosen a simpler life for herself. Cindy grew up quite poor, attended college, got a pretty good job, and then married a man with a high-paying job (Clark). They’ve both crafted this life for themselves and entering this world has had a dramatic impact on how they’ve developed as people.

Clark’s family wasn’t wealthy but they were comfortable and he had a fairly happy childhood. For Cindy especially, so much of her sense of identity is tied up in not just having money but also having this family. She wasn’t born or bred in this world but places high value on their position and wealth. Having grown up not feeling part of a real family, she’s also desperately trying to hold on to her husband and son.

Behold the Dreamers reaches the point it’s been hurtling towards, which is the collapse of Lehman Brothers. And with that, we then see how it affects all of the different characters within the story. The most directly impacted would be the Edwards family as this is the company where Clark works and his job funds their lifestyle. Clark isn’t laid off but there’s a great deal of uncertainty so in response they make changes with regards to putting some activities and expenses on pause. Because so much of their social circle also works or has ties to the financial industry, a lot of their friends are also affected. Some people have lost jobs while others have lost their life savings to investments that have cratered. If you were in New York City or other related cities, you know about the seemingly nonstop massive layoffs.

In that time of uncertainty and with everything falling apart, it felt like the end of days for some people. Mbue makes a comparison between the financial collapse and the biblical story of Moses versus the Pharaoh and Egyptians. The economic downturn is juxtaposed against the ten plagues that were visited upon the Egyptians in retaliation for them going against God, worshipping false idols, and enslaving the Hebrews.

She doesn’t directly tell the history of America but instead uses the wrongdoings of the Egyptians as an analogy. It calls upon the reader to make the connection between the downfall of these two societies. If you were to look at history, many of the things mentioned in comparison to Egypt could also be applied to America. Going back to slavery in America but more recently, the greed and pursuit of short-term gains without thinking about the long-term repercussions.

I’ve watched several documentaries about the 2008 financial collapse as well as the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. I’m not at all religious but I thought this was probably the most clever and astute analogy as it puts a very different spin on the situation. The comparison isn’t obvious but once made seems very appropriate.

Going back to the Edwards family, up to this point there’s a lot of discussion about the comfort and opulence of their life. They’re not bad people and despite having some money, they have problems just like everyone else. Yet, in having money which allows them to afford this lifestyle, they’re also in a sense trapped by their wealth.

One would think that with a house in the city and a house out in the Hamptons that they should be very comfortable. And as Clark points out his job gives him so much stress, weighs him down, and takes him away from his family. But he doesn’t think about how to get out of the situation and use the money he has to start over and establish a new, more fulfilling life. Some might view his situation as a godsend, an opportunity to simplify his life and make it more enjoyable.

They complain about the lives they have but aren’t willing to give up what they have to pursue what they say they truly want. It’s like that friend or family member who constantly complains about their problems but then refuses to do anything different. Sometimes, they’re just venting rather than looking for real solutions.

Vince feels the same about this life that his parents have created but puts action behind his words. His parents don’t like the life that they’ve carved out for themselves but try to push Vince to follow suit. Realizing that their lifestyle isn’t for him, he rejects it completely and goes out to define and find his happiness. It strikes his parents as being irresponsible and ungrateful but years down the line he’ll probably be quite content.

Instead of letting go of these material possessions and social trappings that are albatrosses round their necks, they continue to hold on. And it just continues to make them miserable. It’s like if you think of a house that’s on fire or a sinking ship. The front door is open or the lifeboat is at the ready but you focus on running around gathering your valuables instead of safeguarding your life.

That might sound a bit dramatic but it comes down to deciding what you place value on, your peace of mind, or material possessions. Are the things that you’re pursuing in life going to give you some sense of happiness and fulfillment or are you chasing someone else’s idea of success? Are you pursuing things that you think you’re supposed to have in life or the path you’re supposed to take in life rather than where you want to go and who you want to be?

The two main characters in Behold the Dreamers are African but the Edwards, a White family, also looms large in the story. We don’t hear from any of the Edwards unless they’re speaking to one of the Jongas. Yet, they’re still presented as complex human beings with both their good and bad points. There are no Black American characters to speak of in Behold the Dreamers but when Black Americans are mentioned, it’s typically the repetition of negative stereotypes though sometimes in jest. It doesn’t happen frequently but the overall absence of Black American characters made it especially unnecessary and it rubbed me the wrong way. I regard this as being a flaw in an otherwise good book.

As tensions mount between Clark and Cindy, it affects their interactions with others. Clark is snappish at times and can go from being quite nice and friendly to rude and cold in an instant. Cindy is also going through her own stuff which initially makes you, as the reader, sympathetic. But the way she deals with things by being selfish and manipulative changed my feelings towards her as the story progressed. She is a prime example of the saying that hurt people hurt people as she goes to desperate lengths to serve her best interest.

All of this drama swirling around begins to affect the seemingly solid and loving relationship between Jende and Neni. They’re not just affected by the economics of Clark’s job situation but also the problems in his marriage to Cindy.

People have a right to choose how their relationship operates with regards to what works and doesn’t work for them. But there’s like a point in Behold the Dreamers where decisions have to be made about the best way forward. Jende decides that Neni should stop working and attending school to focus on taking care of herself and their family.

Yet, this isn’t a conversation where they discuss their options and come to this decision together. He views himself as being the final decision maker and puts this plan in motion for her to take a break without talking to her about it which results in an argument between them. Because he’s the one paying for her to take classes, he essentially controls the purse strings and she resigns herself to going along with his wishes. But it feels unresolved as he merely ends the discussion without them truly working things out.

I don’t want to give too much away but Behold the Dreamers reaches a point where there’s a major plot twist. Things get exciting as characters behave in ways that you wouldn’t expect.

Immigrants leaving their home country and moving to America work hard and sacrifice their time in pursuit of this American dream. This might be because there is a lack of opportunity back in their home country. But then you also have Americans who are working hard and making sacrifices in pursuit of the American dream. Both chase after these things that are supposed to symbolize success and make them happy. Behold the Dreamers explores the flipside of chasing the American dream. Those who achieve it and are still miserable and those who are bloodied and beaten in the process while seeming to not get any closer.

There’s all of this sadness and frustration from overwork and stress that begs the question of is it all worth it. And if there are other alternatives to these goals, would it then make more sense to pursue those things instead of continuing on this path. If there’s a possibility that you might go through all of this and still feel unfulfilled and sad, shouldn’t you then adjust your goals to be more in line with the things that you value in life?

Let’s say you’re pursuing these things to provide your family and yourself with a good life and stability. Does it make sense to sacrifice spending time with your family in pursuit of these goals? Striving to achieve these big goals while failing at the smaller tasks in the journey along the way. Should you prioritize the goal itself or take the time to figure out what you’re trying to achieve and then making sure that what you’re pursuing is in line with that?

With the complete collapse of Lehman Brothers and the economy in a tailspin, it’s now hard to find a job. The question then becomes how do you handle this situation when this thing that you were sacrificing for is now gone but you still have to provide for yourself and your family? For a brief moment, we see Neni is desperate to provide her kids with a better life because of the experiences that she had in her childhood. Her father had come to regard her as a lost cause and placed limitations on her. It put a fire in her belly where she wanted more for her children and was willing to sacrifice everything to give them the life that she didn’t have.

But at the same time, at what expense. Is giving your kids the life that you didn’t have worth sacrificing the good things that you have or the love that you have for your kids. The intimacy of being close to them. I know that sometimes migrating to a new country might mean leaving your children behind in your home country or hometown while you go ahead to find a job and make arrangements. But, is it worth being physically separated from your kids for months or years on end where you miss substantial portions of their childhood?

There’s something I’ve heard in interviews with people who are rich and/or famous. They explain that if you have problems in your life and assume that by becoming rich, you’re never going to have problems again, then you are in for a rude awakening. There are a lot of unhappy millionaires. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t want to be successful or you shouldn’t strive to achieve your goals or you shouldn’t aspire to financial security. But if you think money and status are going to be the solution to all of your problems beyond paying bills, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re trying to find happiness and contentment, more money is not going to be a solution.

Behold the Dreamers speaks to the importance of assessing your goals and dreams and figuring out your real motivations. What are you truly trying to achieve? Ensure that the goals you’re trying to pursue are ultimately in line with what you value and hold dear. If you’re pursuing something because society tells you this is what you should want or value but it’s not in line with what you value, you might find yourself in problems when you do achieve that goal.

People are different and in the same sense that there’s this concept of love languages where people need and express love differently, I think this also applies to success. Personal definitions of happiness vary and thus what makes us happy varies. We’re setting ourselves up for disappointment and discontent if we try to define our happiness through the eyes and needs of other people. Your mileage might vary but that’s the message that I took away from Behold the Dreamers.

Here you have Jende and Neni, a poor couple who are immigrants with big dreams for themselves and their children. And then you have Clark and Cindy who are wealthy and have hopes and dreams for themselves and their kids. The Jongas initially think that they’d like to have the life of this rich family until they realize that they’re wealthier in some ways. The Edwards have weakened a lot of bonds and given up a lot of familial intimacy for money and status. I’m not downplaying the importance of money but happiness and contentment are a kind of wealth.

You can be content but not complacent. Pursue your goals in life but value and appreciate what you have at the moment. When I was a kid my mom would always tell me not to envy other people because you don’t know what they had to do or endure to get what they have.

A good example of this is social media where you get a glimpse into other people’s lives. It’s mostly a lot of posturing and posing. Curated snapshots from people’s lives, rather than the reality of their day-to-day existence. People aren’t presenting their true selves on social media platforms. You have to ask yourself why try to impress and live up to the expectations of people that most likely don’t care about you and ultimately don’t matter. People would be a lot happier online and offline if they spent less time worrying about what other people deem important and more time seeking their happiness and fulfillment. This is an important conversation to have but it’s presented in a very creative manner.

For much of Behold the Dreamers, I thought that Jende and Neni had a good relationship. And as with most relationships, there would be disagreements along the way but nothing major. They showed themselves to be loving, affectionate, and considerate towards each other. But then with stress and difficulties added in, it affected the dynamic of their relationship.

They had lived apart when they were back in Cameroon and thus weren’t making household decisions as man and wife. But now with them living together and having a child, their decisions more directly affect the other person. When they meet stressful points in their relationship, Jende assumes that as the husband he can make the decision. Up to this point, they’ve talked and discussed problems but now Jenge makes decisions and tells Neni about them afterward. In turn, Neni begins to keep secrets and takes desperate action to hold on to the dreams she is nurturing. They begin to adopt a lot of the dysfunctional behavior seen in the Edwards marriage.

Neni loves Jende but part of her wanting to leave Cameroon was her desire to escape her controlling father. Because he was supporting her, her father made choices based on what he decided she did or didn’t need at the time. Now in America and with Jende supporting her, especially after he makes her leave her job and school, she finds herself in the same position of being controlled by someone else. It feeds into her desperation to provide a better life for their children where they have endless opportunities and options.

Now I’m going to tread lightly here as cultures are different and I try not to pass judgment in that regard.

Neni felt that she was coming to America to leave this controlling behavior and limitations behind. But it crops up with Jende and her attempt to push back against this leads to a domestic violence incident. Regardless of the argument or conversation, the situation should never devolve into hitting or any other manner of threats or physical violence. Whatever the problem, you should be able to sit down and talk things out.

Granted, by this point in Behold the Dreamers the four adult characters have all done things that are out of line with the version of themselves that they present to the public. It drives home the point of how much Jende and Neni have changed.

Overall, I truly enjoyed Behold the Dreamers. I started out liking the characters, or at least Jende and Neni. That changed throughout the book. While I didn’t particularly like the Edwards, they were written with a degree of complexity that made them interesting and realistic.

Having lived in New York during this period and been affected by the recession, I was able to relate to a lot of the events that were taking place as well as the characters’ feelings. So often books portray people as obvious good guys or villains but most people aren’t all good or all bad, they tend to be a mix of both. Including that complexity and competing motivations added richness and layers to the story which I thoroughly enjoyed.

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