Does your culture define who you really are? Can you choose a place you call home? To answer these existentialist questions, I have had to compromise who I really am. Sharing this was a tough decision to make as these thoughts had never traveled beyond the metal, cold walls of my mind… it is an intimate story of a journey of my struggle during which I have witnessed my soul shatter into parts as a pearl necklace falling one pearl after another on the floor before my eyes. Years of pain and fear I could not defy nor control till my life got covered with black ashes I have not been able to fully wipe away.
I grew up between Lebanon and Syria and always had that feeling that I did not belong. My way of thinking was different, and for many people I was rebellious. As a teenager, I questioned the religious and social norms and how rigid they were. I knew, then, my free spirit would be caged there …. and I longed for the day to move to the US. Little did I know that my soul would be ripped, and I would never find a place to belong to.
My boyfriend, a Lebanese-American guy, had always assured me that I would be able to express and enjoy my true identity and beliefs in the US. The first day my feet touched the American soil, I was wondering why I did not experience separation anxiety, separation from my parents and family, separation from my culture, and separation from my childhood memories. I was ready to start a new life. I successfully completed my graduate studies at a relatively young age and was able to land a full-time job as an English professor.
As we moved between Michigan and Texas, I have gotten to experience different cultures and different life perspectives, but still I have not been able to present myself as a true American for many people. I have experienced discrimination, specifically in the workplace, and no matter how hard I worked, I wasn’t white enough…. With questions about my foreign name, where I came from, and my abilities to teach English, which is my second language, I have always had to prove and justify myself.
Every morning, fixing my makeup and getting ready to head to work, I questioned my skills and my abilities if I could do my job well and if people would take me seriously and see beyond my foreign name and accent. I hated this daily conversation in front of the mirror. Every night, I would go to bed with a wet face, loathing my weakness and inability to move on and end this struggle. It did hurt to put a smile on my face during the day while I was devastated from the inside. I felt like my heart had failed me by not taking in any more pain or tears; my mind had failed me by not being able to process any new thoughts or solutions to move on and get over it.
I questioned my judgements and choices in life. I questioned my decision to move to the US, and wished I was just a subservient girl who willingly complied with her cultural and social expectations to shape her decisions and choices. I tried to ease my pain by looking at my kids’ innocent faces and enjoy their smiles, by appreciating my husband’s efforts to make me happy, but I was tangled by my fear and I hated myself; I hated my weakness and wished to end my life, but was too weak to take that step…. I knew what the problem was and could see through my heart and mind how alienated and fragile I had become. “Have I failed my wild spirit?” I questioned! I also knew that, for many, it was an easy issue to solve and move on. But for me, it was bigger than my abilities; it was bigger than my life.
This had taken a toll on my heart and soul, leading to chronic depression and anxiety. I had to live with this overwhelming depression for over eight years, and it was like a humongous black monster that was able to take over my soul. That confident, fierce girl had turned into a withdrawn, shy creature. I was not able to pump life into people around me.
The more I tried, the more fragile and weaker I grew being identified as different. I tried to celebrate my differences from the others, I tried to teach my students and people around me about the uniqueness of being different, I tried to defy stereotypes. Ironically, I was able to make a difference in some people’s lives but was collapsing from inside.
During my first trip back home, I felt strange… I felt I did not belong there! After being away for over five years, I felt crippled and unable to fathom why my people, even the ones I grew up with, saw me too American…. I could see my soul shattered into tiny pieces but I was unable to glue them together… how could I explain to them, or even to myself, that I did not belong to either worlds, so I felt as if I was turned down from both sides. It was an identity crisis, an endless struggle I have had to face … till now. “Is it normal not to have a sense of belonging?” I have asked myself. For a long time, I dwelled on the idea if I could redefine who I was, recreate who I had been. That was nonsense and very unsuccessful.
With time, my identity dilemma has not been resolved, but I have learned to live with it and have accepted that I am no longer who I used to be. With all my attempts to continue proving myself to others around me, I have learned that the world’s feedback on who I really am should not shape my response. What matters is the way I construct my identity even if I have to deviate from my lane, although sometimes, I feel as if I am left with one option: to live with it and hope for a day when I look back at my rear-view mirror and clear the blur to look for a better road. Till I find an answer to end this identity dilemma, I will continue to tame that monster refusing to live with it silently.
Despite the fear and anxiety that still dwell inside me, I have never made excuses but continued to pull through. As much as I know about the different factors that influence our definition of who we are and our perception of home, I can proudly say that I am an Arab-American woman who calls the US home because it is not only the place closest to my heart but also the place of my success and achievements. It is home because it is a symbol of my journey to explore who I really am.
I truly believe that immigrants and different people who are labeled “the other” should be aware of the magic of persistence even if they have to justify their presence, knowledge, value, worth, and even names every day and every time. Let others redefine their identities from yours!