“Where are you from?”
As an immigrant, I used to think that this might be my most dreaded question. Do I act like I didn’t hear them and hope they let it go? Do I awkwardly laugh to distract them from the question? Or start crying to make them regret they ever asked?
How would I answer it? What about Egypt? After all, that’s where I was born. It’s where my veneration for my family originates, it’s why I love the unlocked front door in case a relative happens to pass by and why I get exhilarated by the spices used to prepare the 17-course meal buffet for the family gathering in two weeks. However, since I’ve only lived there for the first four years of my life, can I still say that’s where I’m from?
Alright, let’s go with Italy — where I spent eight years of my childhood. I crave pasta al pesto whenever I miss my old friends, I feel nostalgic when I look at pictures of family road trips in our Fiat Punto and still fear skateboards from the time I fell and my knee bled out on the little concrete hill that every Italian in Varese is sure to encounter (or even stumble over) on their everyday business. Wait, they’ll figure it out. I don’t look Italian after all.
That leaves America. Good idea, I’m going with America. My reader might believe me when I say I’m American at first, but soon enough, they will figure out my tactless lie: Even after perfecting the art of differentiating “though” and “tough,” “throw” and “through,” I only have my tongue to blame for the occasional “I need to charpen my pencil” or “He’s just over zere don’t worry.”
“What’s your name?”
Another question I fear. Sure, I’ve had my fair share of “Sorry, how do you pronounce your name? Is it Marian or Miriam?” But I had never heard, “Are you Mariam or Menna?” prior to this summer. Someone meeting me for the first time might mistake me for my sister, but the question hits particularly hard when it comes from my little cousins.
This summer, after five long years of not seeing my family or my birth country, I was finally able to return to Egypt. The plan was to spend as much time as possible reconnecting with my family, catch up with friends and finally have the familial experience that we have been missing out on in America. My mom, sister and I would sit every evening prior to our trip remembering our past vacations in Egypt. We would laugh about distant memories of our aunts and cousins, and reminisce about all the days we spent together with the conviction that they would repeat this time around. We made some new plans too, with me and my sister hoping to finally attend an Egyptian wedding, and with my mom telling us that we would be able to celebrate Eid al-Adha with our family for the first time ever. Then we would wake up the next morning to continue recounting our stories from the night before, and to add more items to our to-do list.
I could not have anticipated that they would still have to ask what my name is.
“Hi Farida, I missed you so much, do you remember me?” I exclaimed while hugging my little cousin. After two planes and a two-hour car ride, we had finally made it to my grandma’s house, where the entire family was patiently waiting for our arrival.
“Ummm hi, are you Mariam or Menna?” she replied. The question made me physically take a step back. I thought she was joking, but when I broke the hug, she stared at me with an innocent face still expecting me to answer. The family I was so attached to and dearly missed didn’t even know me.
When I was in America, I felt like I was part of the family, like I hadn’t missed anything and that once I went back, the pieces of the puzzle would fit together as if I had never left. I can’t blame them when I’ve only been to Egypt long enough to attend one wedding and the birth of only one cousin out of 10, but I had carefully collected a whole album of pictures of each one of them and of their accomplishments until I had memorized their features and convinced myself that they knew me just as well as I thought I knew them.
But that’s not how real life works. It had been so long since my last visit to Egypt and so in my cousins’ young eyes, the two “missing” cousins were “Mariam and Menna,” a single unit, as if we were some abstract concept, a picture or Facebook mention. During most of my stay, my name was used interchangeably with my sister’s to the point that I began to answer to both. Eventually, as they started to get to know me more personally, they learned to differentiate between me and my sister, but the initial shock I felt when they first asked that question made me realize just how far we are. The cousins I had only seen in pictures and videos also began to change in my eyes as I got to know them more personally and not thousands of miles away through Facebook posts.
“Goodbye, Mariam!” The time of farewell is when they all finally got it right.
I am not part of any culture alone, but I will forever belong to those countries and cultures because they have influenced who I am and how I act. My cousins see me as a short little vacation during the summer of 2021, but I will forever hold my family close to my heart. I will continue to hear “Where are you from?” and struggle to find a way to concretely vocalize my answer, but that’s okay as long as I know who I am myself. I will continue to hear “What’s your name?” from my little cousins and later their children and I’ll answer each time until they remember to say it at the end of each visit. I exist between these two hard questions; my identity is patched together with fragments and memories of the lives I led in each country, and my name is a summer breeze that is gone with the change of seasons. But I will always be here. No matter how well I can sew together a concrete answer to where I’m from to accommodate the person in front of me, no matter how many times I have to introduce myself to my little cousins, I exist.
MiC Columnist Mariam Alshourbagy can be reached at email@example.com.