Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What is an American?

Some questions that have occupied my mind are related to identity - more specifically, my identity. Not a day goes by that I am not asked where I am from. Some of my favorite guesses are Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq and Lebanon. My least favorite guess is Russia because of the negative view of Russian women in Jordan due to their activity in prostitution. (And the assumption that I can't speak Arabic well at all... That's always a pride bruiser!)

Honestly, where am I from and where do I fit into the larger picture? I am an Arab-American that could potentially become a future president. (That's assuming that I wanted to be the president.) When I am on the streets of New York, Chicago or Denver, there are no inquiries related to my heritage or nationality. My heritage is almost irrelevant, in part because my accent and attire reflect that of a typical citizen. In the US, heritage enriches the citizen, but does not play an active role in the life or capacity of the citizen unless they allow it. Instead of heritage playing an obligatory role in one's life, I feel as if it is almost optional. At the same time, I belong to a select population who actually qualify for Jordanian citizenship. I have chosen not to become a Jordanian, but if I changed my mind, it would be a doable procedure. Because of my intimate connection with both worlds, I am a dichotomy.

Admittedly, I do have firsthand experience with rejection of my Arabic heritage. As most youth do, I completely rejected the facet of my identity that was embarrassing to me. I think I was ashamed because that phase of my life immediately followed the terrorist attacks. I hated the connection that people made between Arabs, Islam and the attacks and instead of standing as an advocate, I was a coward who wanted to be "normal." I claimed that I was 100% American and anything beyond that didn't matter. As I began to interact more with relatives and cousins, I quickly realized that being an American without roots excluded many rich traditions and relationships that could not be ignored. Heritage adds dimension and meaning to life and gives a person purpose and direction.

In the Middle East, states are derived from nations. These nations are groups of people that are all ethnically homogeneous and exclusively grouped. They are linguistically unique, yet have overarching similarities. An outsider cannot become a citizen of an Arab state (unless an Arab man marries a foreign woman and offers her citizenship), even if that is one's wish. Because the population is so ethnically homogeneous. I find that I have a difficult time validating that I too belong to this land, because my phenotype is not quite consistent with the majority of the population and my accent is quite confusing. I sound like a Lebanese woman who has spent considerable time in Iraq and Jordan. I'm sure that I would be more widely embraced as a Jordanian or Palestinian if I dressed differently and if my language capabilities were stronger. I guess those are both very superficial factors, but they seem to substantially influence the way that I am perceived by my community.

The culture of the United States is a large melting pot in which all that is necessary to be an American is birth on American soil or a series of tests and procedures that deem one worthy of being an American. An American is any color, shape or size whose heritage hales from any continent. The official language of the US is... Oh wait! We don't have an official language, but it is an overwhelming consensus that Americans speak English.

What values and beliefs make America so peculiar?
What foods and activities are dubbed American enough to eat or do on independence day?
Is it wrong to celebrate independence day silently, yet gratefully while abroad?

I also have a rant... It is unnerving to me that some people are unable to embrace their own heritage, while appreciating another culture. There is a young woman in my Arabic class who said that she is Arab in her heart and wishes that she were Arab. Although I am proud to be half Arab, it seems very trite, juvenile and ungrateful to wish to forfeit one's identity because another ethnicity seems more hip, interesting or unique. I am in the process of learning how to strike a respectful and grounded balance between two contrasting worlds so that I can more fully understand my limitations and capabilities and become an engaged Arab-American in the Middle East. If you have any incredible insights, enlighten me.

(Lots of revisions to come... I just needed to throw my thoughts out there so that I would have a starting point...)

1 comment:

  1. This is very interesting to me, naturally. Although I've never thought of it quite how you just put it before, (and I've never been out of North America, let alone lived anywhere else), I still think I relate somewhat to this and am excited to see what else you have to say.

    P.S. The people who think there is something wrong with their ethnicity and wish for another really bug me. (FYI)