Finding my place: the power of change

Wednesday, July 1, 2020 - 8:54pm

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Graphic by Hibah Chugtai

As I showed my mom my outfit for school in the morning, she performed her routine check. She scanned me from top to bottom, nodding with approval before pausing — a new piece of apparel had called her attention.  After months of pleading, I rallied the bravery to wear a pair of ripped jeans. I held my breath in anticipation, expecting an order to change my outfit, but she reluctantly mumbled “Looks good.”

I heard traces of disbelief in her voice. Why anybody would want to pay full price for destroyed clothing was beyond her, but I think in that moment she finally grasped how much it meant to me. In Lebanon, her home country, clothing like ripped jeans was always rejected and out of the question. My mom’s acceptance, though reluctant, was a sign of accepting a piece of American culture that surrounded us, which also meant accepting we were not in the Middle East. 

I’ve always had an underlying conflict with who I am, but I came to terms with my identity struggle when I began high school. Having come from a middle school surrounded by other Middle Eastern students, I never stood out in the classroom. Because of this, I experienced a sort of culture shock when I entered my dominantly white high school. I felt as though everybody around me had been raised on a different planet with different cultural values, customs and traditions. For instance, dating in Middle Eastern culture is highly frowned upon, especially as teenagers. I was shocked when I began high school and saw my peers dating, and even kissing in the hallways. I had never been allowed to wear leggings or cropped shirts, yet it seemed to be the preferred style among my female classmates. 

Even though I lived and grew up in Metro Detroit just like the other students, I had never felt more alienated. I felt like a foreigner in my home country. Eventually, I voiced my concerns to my parents. My mom was raised in Lebanon and my dad was raised in an Iraqi Chaldean home, where the purpose of secondary education was simply to do homework and attain a degree. Because of this, concerns over American customs such as teenage trends and parties were concerns that they struggled to care for. Events like spirit week, Friday night football games and homecoming were nonexistent for them. Though my parents never held me back and encouraged me to be active in my school community, they had never actually experienced any of these activities themselves. 

When I first tried to have a talk with my parents about my struggle to fit in, they had no idea how to react. My mom and dad had raised my older siblings with traditional Middle Eastern values, and no questions were asked. I was the first of their children to spark conversation about our values and frustrated when my parents accused me of attempting to abandon my culture. 

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Graphic by Hibah Chugtai

“Why are you going against the ways we raised you? Why aren’t our ways good enough for you?” Time after time, I exasperatedly retaliated with “That’s not how it works in this country!” I have never been ashamed of being Arab-American, but as I spent my entire academic career being asked about my “radical” culture and accused of being a terrorist, I could not help but think about how much easier it would be to be like everybody else. I did not choose my ethnic background. My parents made the choice to immigrate to the United States, and everyday I deal with the consequences. 

Little by little, I attempted to prove to my parents that adapting to American culture was not a rejection of my ethnic background, but rather a means of creating an identity for myself as an Arab-American. My mom and dad slowly allowed this change, and each new opportunity was a personal victory. As a 15-year-old sophomore, I finally attended my first highschool party. Of course, I had to dress conservatively, text my mom every five minutes and be home by 9 p.m. I accepted these unsurprising terms and celebrated this step in the right direction. That night, I came to a realization: I hated parties. This was extremely disappointing to me, but an absolute relief for my parents. 

Near the beginning of my junior year, I attended my first dance — with a date. Just two years before, my parents and I discussed that boys were, simply put, “bad news.” Yet, here I was, walking into a school dance with a boy. I smiled, and although my parents were distant, their worried thoughts summoned me as if they were beside me. 

My parents have always emphasized the importance of maintaining my Lebanese-Chaldean roots. I was brought up speaking Arabic and practicing traditional Middle Eastern values, which was something that my high school peers were not familiar with. I grew up listening to Arabic music and watching Arabic television programs. My upbringing taught me certain ideologies and rules to abide by, and my parents were not very happy when I began to assimilate to the dominant American culture. 

Over time, my parents have shown their willingness to let me explore the American culture and to integrate accordingly. Though I will forever be a first-generation American who cherishes the beauty of her Middle Eastern culture, I’ve definitely molded into my own person with my own beliefs. I am more tolerant and open-minded because of my multicultural upbringing, and exposure has drastically diversified my outward perception. My parents and I have grown immensely and learned to find a balance in order to achieve the best of both worlds. Despite the absence of my allegiance to one culture, I have still been able to dissect the aspects of each lifestyle that I truly believe in. Every day, these societal nuances are the driving force that allow me to embrace my most authentic self and perceive my world through a unique lens.