Ali (name changed) grew up in a privileged, upper-economic status home in Cairo, Egypt. With a light-skinned complexion and a lanky-athletic build, Ali attended one of the best private Christian schools in Cairo even though he and his family were practicing Muslims. He was proud (and perhaps overly confident) that his English language and writing skills were of mastery and that he would have no problem traveling to the US and instantly fitting into the American culture that he had been learning about for nearly 20 years through media and his family’s first-hand accounts. He did well in school, earning above average grades and positive comments from his instructors. But there was one part of Ali’s life that he had a passion for—a passion that’s shared with perhaps hundreds of millions to billions of people worldwide: soccer, and Ali was a rising star as a youth.
Ali was a player on a youth soccer team that funnels players to the premier leagues (someday). His skills were highly competent and masterful, and this made Ali gleam in not only his parents eyes but also to his friends, as well. His mother did not work and was fairly strict, while his father was a successful member of the business community and frequently traveled around the world, including to the US; he was in poor health, however, suffering from circulatory problems including of the heart. All agreed that Ali would travel to the US to continue his studies at the best colleges and live with his adult cousin in Silicon Valley, at the time in the 1990s to be the “place to be” to be successful in business. Ali dreamed of becoming wealthy in the US by either being the CEO of his own company or at the very least the sole proprietor of his own business. He thought his father’s business connections (and financial capital), his self-perceived “go-getter” demeanor, and his superior English skills and school record would place him in such a position that he would have little problems adapting to the latter-20th century American culture—and that he would be easily accepted. But that would soon be a dream with extra obstacles.
While popular in Cairo, at first Ali was very lonely. Living in a decently-sized house in Sunnyvale, what would have been a sign of great wealth in Cairo was just ordinary in the pre-tech boom Silicon Valley. A dream of owning his business and going to the best US colleges was far away as he had to first find minimum-wage paying jobs and make his way on a bicycle around town; community college was even quite expensive as an out-of-state resident, so that would have to be deferred for a couple of years. Working at local stores like Marshalls, Ali with his Egyptian looks and distinct accent found himself to be very non-white and non-privileged in the US—a shock at first since he was considered majority and privileged back at home. Instant discrimination was the norm for Ali, with his ethnic first name and (unusual for Americans) handwriting on job applications (this pre-dates today’s common digital employment applications). Other applicants who applied at the same time as he did found themselves trained on the register fairly quickly, while he was regulated to the sales floor, restocking and cleaning up. In addition, he tended to get the worst shifts: 4pm to 11pm or beyond. A job at Target was no better. In fact, his dream of becoming a store manager seemed to be further and further farther away, so Ali decided to focus on his education and dating—two things that were going to converge in a bit of time.
Ali found out that college was a big struggle. Going over to the main campus in the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District in Los Altos, he made an appointment over the phone with a counselor, but discovered that he had few options. Out-of-state tuition was too cost-prohibited for him since his dad would only pay for his living expenses at that time. He would have to wait a couple of years, and besides, looking at the college catalogue with the procedures and handouts for various degrees had too much information for him to go through it all by himself; his cousin was of very little help, busy with his own work. At the moment, he was adrift. And he was running out of spending money, so he would need a second (or third) job since he was not getting the best shifts and was only making slightly above minimum wage, currently at $4.75/hour.
Everybody loved movies, and so did Ali. His options were to get a job at the local movie theatre on Shoreline or at a video store; he chose the latter. There he met a fellow immigrant who was a store manager from Iran, and they became quite close. In this manager, Ali was able to see some of himself—handsome, educated, successful, a full booming social life, and a soccer player in his spare time. But Ali was still paid close to minimum wage and worked the hardest shifts, until 1am, and he was what they called “running movies back to the shelves”. He was not even allowed to use the computer terminals to check the VHS tapes back in—only to run them back. The manager also arbitrarily shortened Ali’s ethnic name in order to either fit in better or to be more approachable to customers; either way, it would stick for decades until he later changed it to a new Americanized name for when he entered the financial sector post-college. Anyways, it was here that he met someone similar in his age but opposite in personality: Andrew. Andrew had just graduated from a private high school in the area and loved movies, too, but Andrew also was going to be a future teacher and had a knack for helping out people. Andrew was Latinx, also didn’t drive, and had just started to take classes at Foothill. He was also being paid minimum wage (his first job) and got the worst shifts, though Andrew said it was actually the best shifts with the most to-do, fastest pace, and more customers to talk to about movies! Andrew would be quite helpful to Ali in a number of ways.
The store manager approached Andrew and told him to watch over Ali; be his buddy. First, Andrew had to take him to Mervyn’s to get the right brand of shirt for work. It needed to be Oxford, but Ali—using his Marshall’s discount—continued to get a regular blue dress shirt, which wasn’t up to dress code. Next, Andrew trained Ali on the register, even though Andrew was hired afterwards. Finally, Andrew and Ali meticulously outlined the classes Ali needed to take at Foothill in order to transfer to San Jose State University to major in finance. Ali, still thinking about his high marks in school, demanded to take the same classes Andrew had in English and political science, and once he was able to get resident tuition, he entered the political science class with horrible results. Ali, who could speak English, knew very little of English academic writing: summarizing, paragraphs, discussions, essays. He refused to test for ESL classes because of what he falsely considered to be pride, as well, but eventually dropping all of his courses in the Fall 1997 quarter led him to the ESL testing room. And then things began to click. But a legal problem would soon disrupt his plans.
The store manager said Ali could only become an assistant manager if he got a car because he needed to be able to drive to the bank to get change and to make the deposit. Getting a license was easy, but getting a car with very little credit was not. And his car was a clunker to say the least. Ali got into a car accident, trading information, but bailed before the police arrived. Getting a summons in the mail, he did not fully understand what that meant, and when he went to go pay it at the Mountain View police department, his fellow co-workers got worried when he did not show up for his 4pm shift at all. He was held for a bench warrant for not making his court appearance. A call to his cousin led to a call to his father, with his father exclaiming to the cousin, “Get my son out of jail!” Ali had entered the American legal system as an immigrant from a Middle Eastern country, recognizing how privilege works for some and not for others. A humbling experience, Ali went full-steam ahead to get what he wanted out of the American dream: an education, a business, a family and a home. His dream of being a national soccer player came to an end with an ankle injury.
In fact, he full-steam way ahead to meet Andrew at their academic progress, and then some as Ali entered SJSU way before Andrew did and earned two BA degrees. Ali had already become a store manager at the video store, going with Andrew (his senior assistant manager) from store to store in the area to “clean them up.” He got the best shifts that led time for class, the night life, and dating. Ali dated a girl he met in his ESL class, and even though they fought and broke up and got back together more times than Sam and Diane from “Cheers,” he said, they later married and had two children together. But autism, rarely heard or named in Egypt, became a reality for the new couple and so did fighting for IEP (individualized education plan) accommodations, speech pathologists, and instructional assistants 1:1; their youngest is on the spectrum. To provide for his family, Ali started his own business related to cars, but sadly had to close up shop after a couple of years due to problems in the tight margins of revenue vs. profit. Ali started to sell insurance and became a superstar in his first few years, outperforming first years and even some veterans. With the help of his father, he made a down payment on a home outside of Sacramento, but found the commute incredibly difficult; the housing market of 2008 made it worse, and he had to sell his home with only a slight loss.
His new and final job is a desk job, selling applications to large businesses. It’s a 9 to 5 job that’s easily done remotely from his new home in Central California, and he’s able to be the family man that he’s always wanted to be. While he does not have his own business and is not a CEO, not to mention severe financial problems after the loss of his first home, he’s found that providing for a family, watching them grow up and providing everything they need in a home they own is a part of the American dream he had outlined for himself. He still kicks the ball around with his older son, who’s in high school and plays for the school and for club soccer. He’s found that American life has slowed down with age. The fast-paced hustle as a 20-year old working multiple low-paying jobs with no one to be a guide at work or at school was a lot to handle, but in retrospect, that experience is a part of him and he’s able to provide support to others who are struggling to make it work.
His advice for newcomers to the US is that it’s a lot of work if you are arriving with minimal financial support and come from areas around the world that many Americans may see as inferior. How one dresses, the music they listen to, and the company they keep unfortunately can be barriers to quick success. Ali even found that a winning smile can go a long way, and that can cost a lot of money; Ali had to get his teeth “fixed” here in the US, which cost a bit of money for someone working in a job with no dental insurance. What can also go a long way is something that Ali always had on Day 1 in the US: a personal personality who always makes the person he’s working with or talking to like they are the most important person in the room. The most privileged person in the world with the best resources will be on par with an immigrant coming to the US with limited resources if that privileged person does not come with interpersonal skills, he warns, and meeting people and learning their needs is something that is cross-cultural. So he worries about his younger son who was diagnosed with Autism and lacks a lot of those interpersonal skills. His older son seems to struggle with ADHD and school in general, and the virtual learning during the shutdown made things a bit worse, which they are slowly recovering from at the moment. Ali hopes to have his son, who is bi-racial with Middle Eastern and Asian identities, learn a bit of his culture. While Ali knows that he’s suppose to be Muslim, for instance, he rarely practices customs, even after living in Egypt for two years as a youth. What Ali, above else, wants his sons to know is that they come from one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and that his advice for his sons and for immigrants coming to the US is that Americans are very honest and loving as a people and that others around the world may not always see that quickly. Ali highly recommends people come to the US with an open mind to learn and adopt some of our great characteristics such as hard work, trustworthiness, and integrity; he has a very optimistic point of view for Americans today.
In summary, Ali came to the US from a privileged household in Cairo but learned fairly quickly that people are treated differently in the US based on perception. Even the manager that took him under his wing changed his name on the spot by giving him a nickname that wouldn’t make customers pre-9/11 uncomfortable and gave him the worst shifts, but Ali chalks this up to earning his keep in the US. Setting goals, being responsible with credit and making a lot of connections with people helped Ali become successful as a homeowner and a dad/husband, but he understands that people come to the US with emotional and human struggles, something that he was fortunate not to have upon his arrival. In the end, his story is one of many and, happily, it has a happy continuation.
Written by a student at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA