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Sunday, May 8, 2011


I watched Amreeka today, a movie by National Geographic about a mother and her son who relocate from Palestine to Illinois and the challenges they face. Based on the director's personal experience of growing up in rural America, she includes her confusion at not having a home country, the prejudice that they faced in every day life, and the adjustments that needed to be made to adapt to a new culture.

The sights, the sounds, all brought me back to familiar memories. I caught words here and there that I could understand, and I could almost smell the dust in the air and feel the hot summer sun beating down. In an instant, I was there, a part of the moment, and I understood the dynamics of the conversations, the home furnishings, and why they kissed each other on the cheeks to say hello and goodbye. The young boy chewing on a cucumber, the men dancing in the Middle Eastern restaurant, the french fries and falafel sandwiches, and the checkpoints with armed soldiers all made sense to me.

From the movie's website, the director says, “My parents immigrated to the U.S. right before I was born.  I was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up in rural Ohio and Jordan.  When people ask me where I’m from, it’s always a confusing question,” Dabis explains.  “For most of my life I felt like I wasn’t American enough for the Americans, nor was I Arab enough for the Arabs.  And as a Palestinian, I inherited my father’s quandary in not having a nation or a national identity, which only exacerbated my sense of not belonging anywhere.  My own desire for a place to call home, a place where I belonged, was always a very big part of my identity.”

Sometimes I sit and think about who I used to be. It isn't often, because part of the reality of being an MK means that you learn quickly how to move on and adapt to the new culture to the point that you are easily recognizable as being a local. I have fooled many of my peers, teachers, and acquaintances into thinking that I was American over the past twelve years. And while it was easy enough to do, as I learned to say "wahter" and "toematoe", to give the traditional "How are you? Fine, Thank you" greeting, found my way around giant supermarkets, and dressed like everyone else, deep inside there was always a piece of me that refused to  change.

The MK must also learn to forget. If you try to bring your previous culture into the new host culture, you will soon find that no one is interested in who you were before. While you try to syncretize the two into something that makes sense, you soon realize that it will not work. The hidden immigrant must remain hidden, for if you determine to hold to your previous culture, you will never be fully accepted into your new host culture. So you forget who you used to be and learn how to be someone different, someone who fits in. 

I spent almost 5 years in West Africa, and 9 in the Middle East before I turned 18. Those 14 years made me who I am today, even though it often seems to have been buried so deep no one can see it anymore. Every now and then, a flicker of memory will surface and startle me. I will wonder where it came from, and I won't be sure if I can even understand why it was there. But I will remember. . .

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