Growing up in a household of six fellow Egyptian Americans, we understood that our lives never blended evenly with peers and friends. Our traditions, appearance, and social behavior were sometimes distinctly different from those around us. Many immigrant parents have reservations about their children getting too close to people of differing faith backgrounds and cultures. My parents did the exact opposite, encouraging us to embrace our community in a positive and healthy manner. They explained how the real world wasn’t an organized event with a guest list that is tailored to our private cultural specifications, and that we would meet people of various faiths, ethnicities, and backgrounds throughout our lives who could be just as integral and impactful society members as those we appeared most similar to. I took this wisdom to heart and did my best to embrace my heritage within my present reality.
When asked where I’m from, I instinctively say that I was born in Illinois. “No, but where are you REALLY from,” is an almost guaranteed follow-up question, which I find intriguing. If my friend Sara said that she was born in North Carolina, would anyone think to ask her where she’s REALLY from? Doubtfully so. I wonder what is it that makes me any less American than my friends with lighter skin tones. I was born and raised here, I enjoy attending baseball games, I have the pledge of allegiance memorized by heart, and I know the words to almost every song on the radio. The fact that my parents emigrated from Egypt adds another layer to who I am; not only am I American, but I am Egyptian American. This does not decrease the legitimacy of the American half of my identity, and although both sides of this identity describe me, American does come first.
What sets me apart from my parents in terms of personal identity is the level of emotional attachment to Egypt. My relationship with the homeland is at a close-to-surface level; planned, touristy trips to the Pyramids or the beach and organized family dinners where I’m asked questions like “how are you,” with an expected simple “I’m fine.” I don’t have childhood memories of me in Egypt celebrating a holiday, playing a sport, or riding the bus around Cairo on the way to school. I can’t easily connect with random passersby because a smile may be misunderstood as a flirtatious gesture and a driving error may result in a curse or an angry look. My broken colloquial Egyptian doesn’t help either. While I feel sad to learn of the struggles of Egyptians, I don’t experience the emotional upheaval that my parents go through upon watching the news. My love for my relatives in Egypt fills my heart, and enriches the life that I am living and the future that I am pursuing here in America.
Being an American Egyptian has challenges, but often rewarding ones at that. It is quite amusing to see the surprised look when people see me wearing a monogrammed sweatshirt or eating a burrito, instead of whatever Egyptians are expected to eat (cats?). I encountered many people who thought that Egypt is a vast desert with nomads wearing togas and riding around on camels. The funniest questions I was ever asked were whether my family lives in pyramids and if there were calculators in Egypt. Many people are taken aback to learn that Cairo is much like New York City, with crowded, chaotic streets and billboards on the side of every highway.
I think inaccurate perceptions of an Egyptian American lifestyle are perpetuated by Egyptians and Americans alike when they don’t actively reach out and try to discuss their differences. Blurred lines constitute a major hardship in the lives of many immigrants who aren’t sure where one identity ends and another begins. They either end up abandoning their heritage entirely while trying too hard to fit in, or going to the opposite extreme of holding on too tightly to their culture of origin with little effort to integrate into their new societies. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to the underlying tension when my teachers or my friends’ parents meet my own. The different appearance and skin tone seem to invoke strange assumptions about their language proficiency and cultural familiarity. People start to talk unnaturally slowly and rely heavily on body language. Such situations speak to limited knowledge and lack of awareness as a dark skin color and Islamic traditional head cover do not necessarily mean un-American.
I recently read the expression, “happiness is a decision,” and that led me to tirelessly explain where I come from and take random questions and strange looks as curiosity, lack of knowledge, or limited understanding rather than rudeness or insensitivity. I consider it my personal responsibility to always be approachable and relatable while I introduce the normality of an Egyptian background to those around me and break inaccurate stereotypes or labels. In my experience, the best way to combat this awkwardness is to get to know people better by inviting them over for dinner, making sure to bake them baklava at Christmas, and helping them understand that although my family migrated from another continent, we still fight our parents over curfew, we’re still picky eaters, and our household rules are not so different from those of our friends.
Balancing one’s heritage with the American identity of the present requires confidence and grace; the confidence to explain the value of what others may find weird or intimidating, and the grace to dismiss misunderstandings and laugh at unintentional mistakes. In the future, I hope to take my kids back to Egypt often. Maybe we’ll do touristy trips but I also plan on maintaining strong relationships with my family overseas so that my own children have an additional element of cultural awareness. I hope that when my kids introduce me to their friends’ parents, it will be assumed that I’m simply someone whose identity does not end at U.S. borders.
My family is from Bangladesh. My mother is Moroccan. My father is Lebanese. All are familiar responses that I have heard over the years from first-generation American children of immigrant parents as they respond to questions about where they are from. Such statements are always spontaneous and truthful. At the same time, this type of response causes many parents to get uncomfortable and sometimes feel alarmed about their children’s sense of identity or connection to their motherland. To me, it makes perfect sense to hear you say, “My parents are from Egypt, “or “I am from North Carolina.” In fact, I think that your answers indicate a unique sense of individuality.
My Egyptian origin and upbringing, followed by a journey of transformation into an Egyptian American, all mean a lot to me as they entailed the unique experiences that shaped who I am today. I am deeply grateful for that process, every small event, as well as each passing individual and the way they impacted my character and views. As a loving parent, I do not want any less for you. I do not wish to mold your personality a certain way or steer it through some magical flawless direction, nor do I want for my background or personal experiences to overshadow the development of your personal identity and sense of belonging. I see what I have to offer you as a necessary but small part of the backdrop as you explore your feelings, navigate your way, sort through your experiences, and make your own meaning of what comes your way.
Being at the intersection of two cultures is a unique experience that has many advantages and carries a lot of potential. At the same time, it is important that we know where you come from so that it is easier to decide where we are headed, and I hope that you feel clear and comfortable with who you are wherever life takes you. Your Egyptian heritage presents you with rooted traditions and a lot to live up to. Both of your grandmothers were wives and mothers who also led the way towards advanced education and successful careers. Your grandfathers were progressive thinkers, had strong ambitions, lived by integrity and selflessness, and demonstrated great respect and appreciation for women and their rights. Parallel to that, your Islamic heritage provides a framework to live within, a comprehensive structure of principles, a wealth of meaningful relationships, and a promised yield of emotional security. A deeper understanding of Islam gives purpose to all that we do and emphasizes the manner and the quality in which we do it. I hope that these treasures mark your path with clarity, confidence, consistency, and serenity.
I look forward to seeing how your heritage serves as a strong foundation as you navigate your life in America and beyond, define who you are, and decide who you want to become. I am deeply grateful for the quality of your educational experiences and the range of opportunities that they allowed. I am thankful for your early experiences with community service and employment. I am constantly reminded that the amount of family time that we were able to have in America would not have come by that easily within a comparable lifestyle in Egypt. I am also excited for the prospects that our move brings your way as you live in a society that allows for considerable personal freedom within a premise of law and order. Instead of either/or, I see the situation as both/and, with hopes that you enjoy and cherish your American-Egyptian identity as much as I do my Egyptian-American one.
Identity is supposed to provide sameness and continuity in personality over time and under varied conditions, and that is exactly what I want for you. As you build your character, I hope that your ancestry and tradition provide framework and stability while the present offers opportunity and adventure. I want you to plant your feet where you feel most comfortable. As I watch you grow and mature, I aim to help you develop your own sense of self by highlighting strengths and identifying weaknesses and how to deal with them. I hope to understand the way you think and get a glimpse of your dreams. I wish to share the excitement as you identify possibilities and pursue your plans. While I will always be there for you, I urge you to trust your feelings, follow your inner wisdom, talk freely and ask questions.
So where do we really belong? To me, it does not really matter where you reside permanently or visit occasionally. I believe that the meaning of what we say and the message we deliver are far more important than the language of communication. The interest and ability to connect with those around us outweighs sharing their ethnic origin or family name. A sense of belonging enriches our lives and gives us cause and purpose, therefore, the significance of our lives directly relates to what we do regardless of where we are. At the risk of sounding cliché, I share with you how I see myself. I am a citizen of planet Earth who belongs to the human race and identifies with just causes that bring harmony through empathy and compassion. And my last thought on this is that you should live where you love and love where you live.