Contemplating where we come from and how that makes us who we are is a lengthy process; the words and pages are sometimes not enough. Read on for a follow-up to the introductions to discussions of language, homesickness and being of liminal ethnic status published in the December print issue, as promised!
Navigations in Ethnic Ambiguity
By Youssef Khaireddine
I was born in St. Mary’s Hospital in London; the nationality on my passport is British. I grew up here, watching Art Attack and Tracy Beaker; I have GCSEs, A-levels, and am working on getting a degree at an English university as we speak. By all accounts, I belong here. Right?
But I also spent three of my earliest years living in Lebanon, where both of my parents are from and the majority of my extended family live. I learned how to speak Arabic and English at the same time, so I don’t know what to call my ‘first language’. My family summers in Lebanon every year, if we can afford it. So, I must belong there.
The bittersweet truth known to all second-generation immigrants, particularly those of colour, is that we don’t really belong anywhere. When I’m in London – the city I was born in, where I’ve lived for the majority of my life – I’m too Arab. From my name to my facial features, the West doesn’t want me. Or at least, not without whitewashing me. In fact, all through primary and most of secondary school, I would have people constantly telling me that I was white. Now, I can acknowledge that I’m arguably white-passing; my skin isn’t as dark as it could be, probably because of the lack of sun we get here in the U.K., but my features are, in my opinion, undeniably Arab. Even assuming that I was completely white-passing, that doesn’t make me white. And to be told otherwise over and over again when you’re a child gets you thinking. I started to doubt my own heritage, my own identity, my own brownness, and it took me years to realise that I was literally being whitewashed by my own peers. I can only belong here as Youssef, the ethnically ambiguous, not Youssef the Arab.
The first time I faced an actual microaggression – not including little things like the ‘terrorist’ jokes in school – was actually this past summer. Let me set the scene; my family doesn’t have a car, and I wasn’t in the position to get a taxi, so I began the long process of moving back home by taking a suitcase full of my things on public transport a few weeks before the end of term. I’m standing on the bus with my huge suitcase, an old, white British couple sitting on the seats closest to me. The woman looks at me and my suitcase and asks, “what are you doing with that?” I’m thinking we’ll have a friendly chat, so I tell her I’m moving back home from university, but she doesn’t hear me clearly. As I go to repeat myself, the man with her says, “They use it for shopping, that lot. Not us.” Maybe this can be read in a variety of ways. And maybe it seems like I’m overthinking this. But there’s something about the way he said it, and the look he gave me, that made it instantly clear that by “that lot”, he meant Arabs, or more broadly just people of colour, because I doubt there’s a huge difference in his eyes. I can’t really explain it better than that, but it was clear to me that that’s what he meant, and honestly it threw me. I had never experienced anything like that before, and in the moment I was just angry. But in the aftermath, I realised I just felt ‘othered’. It was probably the first time I realised that I’ll never truly belong here.
Things aren’t any better on the other side. I’m an outsider in Lebanon; my ‘broken’ Arabic makes sure of that. All of my cousins, or anyone I meet really, see me as a foreigner and don’t hesitate to remind me of that. I feel embarrassed, ashamed even, when I mess up while speaking Arabic. People there laugh about it, like I’m a white person trying to learn the language, and honestly it hurts. It feels like I’m letting someone down although I have no idea who; like I’m trying to be something I’m not. But that’s not what’s happening, because I am Arab, and I am Lebanese; I know these things logically, but much like how I doubted my Arab-ness because people tell me I am white, I doubt my Arabness because others tell me I’m not Arab enough.
That being said, however, I do feel at peace whenever I’m in Lebanon, in a way that I’ve never felt anywhere else. I guess that’s the whole ‘connection to motherland’ concept in effect. It’s strange, how you can feel so comfortable and uncomfortable with yourself at the same time; how you can feel such a connection to your roots, even though they’re invisible to everyone else. And this isn’t even including the other factors, like my sexuality, or my (lack of) religious views, that affect my place, my connection to my culture.
I’m on a small island with a chasm around it; far to the left there is the U.K., where I don’t quite fit, and far to the right there is Lebanon, where I also don’t belong. So where do I go? I’ll let you know if I ever find out.
Author's own photograph, taken in Lebanon.
By Maria Orlando
What does it mean to grow up between languages? Where can it bring you?
It seems as though every time that question is asked we’re invited to imagine two sides of a battlefield, a war between two extremes in which the languages one speaks are constantly at odds with each other. But unlike in a war between two extremes, it’s not easy to pinpoint two clear sides; to separate the influences of each language on a bilingual person’s life is simply not possible. I find myself inhabiting the liminal space of an Italian raised through an anglophone education, bred on pasta and slow bureaucracy at home and knowledge of the fringes of American pop culture at school. Not that knowing the lyrics to Don’t Stop Believing displaces you culturally, but still.
When I was five years old my parents enrolled me in an English school, thinking that learning English would provide me with independence and opportunity in a world that grew more globalised and thus, only more anglicisd, by the minute. Thirteen years later I moved to London to study English literature at university, so you could say their plan paid off.
The truth is, I don’t think I live between cultures. That would imply that they are two defined entities, separate and only merging because of my existence. And whatever the word choice, living between cultures does not have the same unbalanced dynamic in my experience as that of others. It feels more like I was threaded into them, and them into me, like a mismatched patchwork blanket. For the longest time I saw English as a way out. By learning this language well enough, I could trade years of hard work for a ticket to somewhere even just vaguely more exciting than the remote small town where I grew up, with a devastating fear of living anywhere near suburbia ever again. Yet I have somehow found myself in the suburbia of my identity.
Learning this language was where this all started. Learning how to string words together without pronouncing all the letters, without putting a damn article in front of every noun. Stripping away grammatical gender from description. But I really struggle to say that Italian is my mother-tongue. Saying that means downgrading English to second-class. But I started learning it when I’d barely started stringing words together in Italian, so what’s the difference? I spoke in English with friends from nine to three, five days a week. I then got the bus home, listened to Italian and English music, read Italian and English books, looked at Italian ads on TV and talked in Italian with my parents, who literally only know how to say “my name is” (pronounced mae naeem ees).
But those worlds, my world, weren’t bound by the limits of language for very long. Growing up, my friends and I would switch between languages without blinking. We always had what we meant to say on the tip of our tongues, but it often was in the other language. I started hearing translation in books. At the cinema, I watched actors’ mouths move differently than the dubbed garble of words thrown over it by Italian studios. Teachers thought I was American until my Italian-ness was proved by my parents’ inability to string together a single sentence in English at parent-teacher meetings. It was never just about language. What does it mean to raise a child that has a whole other mode of expression? A secret language that is only really secret to you? I was allowed access to the English-speaking world with its entertainment and possibilities.
This in-betweenness started bothering me. I talked about the universities I dreamed of going to, the courses I was so interested in, leaving some of my relatives to look baffled from across the dinner table and ask me if I really learnt everything in English. They were focused on linguistics; but if this were only about language, why do I relate to weird tweets that call on U.K. teens, reading ‘do you remember staining pieces of paper with leftover teabags and making shitty treasure maps’ despite not fitting that description.
I lived waiting to move somewhere else. I wanted to be happier and I saw that as going where a language more comfortable to me than my own was spoken. Where I could one day work far away from a culture that I saw as shunning progress through its stubborn refusal to learn English well. But that’s just not true. English was freedom to me, because my particular ticket to the next stage of my life would lead me here. But I’ve realised that shaming people because they don’t speak English well enough, or they have an accent, isn’t effective. Being asked if I’m American every time I meet someone new and explaining that I am not, only shaped by years of education in a language foreign to my whole family, I am praised in response, for not sounding Italian. And I have the opportunity to remind them of the power of private schools and the weird, liminal space of “international” identity.
When I moved into halls, some of my flatmates went back home to Woking during reading week, feeling homesick. I felt none of that at first, and then it hit me all at once. A year late. Because returning to Italy made me realise that I’d spent so much time wishing to be somewhere else that I hadn’t really enjoyed where I was from. I don’t have enough memories of trailing through the piazza half-drunk with my friends screaming obscenities at statues that are older than dried pasta. Maybe I should have spent less time thundering through the streets with music in my ears dreaming of being somewhere else, taken my earphones out and actually looked at the frescoes on walls that look like that nowhere else.
Now I go home and am filled with longing. I have a backlog of love to give to Italy. And two languages to voice it in. So maybe it does come down to language. Two worlds live through me and one prevailed in order for me to write this. I really don’t have an answer to the existential dread of an international student. I haven’t been living in between long enough to know where this path leads. But I’m tired of it living unnamed in my head, almost as if I made it up. So here is where I’m at: two languages, one girl, and a hell of a lot of questions.
Author's own photograph, taken in Italy.
By Ana Bottle
Homesickness creeps like a spider in your room. It crawls unnoticed on the walls, biding its time, until one day, it decides to stand on your dresser and look up at you when you’re choosing which socks to wear. Then, maybe, it’ll go back to its corner and stay there for another inscrutable period of time. That is, of course, considering you don’t do anything with the tiny spider, like trap it between a glass and a sheet of paper. If it were a larger critter I might panic, but household spiders can’t hurt you, as my mom always said. They can make you feel uncomfortable, though, which is why for me, homesickness isn’t a tarantula, it’s a tiny garden spider.
During my first year, I didn’t really see any. They stayed in their creepy corners while I got used to living in a different country and in a big city. Come to think of it, maybe the spiders were there, but I was too excited to mingle with the people and become assimilated with the culture to notice them. I remember finding out how to pronounce Worcestershire Sauce properly… That was a big moment for me. I wanted to learn as much as possible about the place I now lived in that I never really “performed” my nationality – not that I’d ever felt the need to since I’d just lived in my country until then.
However, I’ve now moved out of halls and into a house with some friends, and I’ve found more spiders here and there. I feel the need to express my nationality a lot more. I’ve been cooking Mexican food nonstop, I finally visited the Mexican grocers in Warren Street (took me a year) and I’m making an effort to celebrate the Day of the Dead. Luckily, my boyfriend, who is English, is very eager to learn about my culture and that’s helped clear the little spiders away. Also, in a way, it helps to consolidate London as my new home because I get to integrate these two parts of me.
I don’t know why I didn’t start feeling homesick until this my second year of University. In a way, the excitement of immigrating subdued any homesickness I did feel. But now, I have some regrets about the lack of effort I made to find more Mexicans in London. I know there are plenty, there’s a big Facebook group. Also, I would’ve tried harder with the Mexican society at King’s (I’m still sorry I didn’t participate in the events). It’s really easy to get carried away by the newness of it all, but if you’re new to London, my advice to you is to make sure you have a community to rely on when the little spiders start showing up. That way you won’t tear up when Sainsbury’s doesn’t stock pan de muerto.