Sources + Origins, continued...

Contemplating where we come from and how that makes us who we are is a lengthy process; all the words and pages are sometimes not enough. Introductions to these essays were featured in our February print issue and are continued in full right here...

Navigating the World as a Second-Generation Immigrant

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.

Photo by Youssef Khaireddine

Mother Tongue

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.