Split Between Two Cultures: An Egyptian-American Childhood

By Jacquline Hanna
SC Staff Writer

Matthew Tuck sings, “And now I’m wasting away in my own misery…’cause here I don’t belong!” in his song called “A Place where You Belong.” Every time I hear that song, I just think of how I am one of those people who do not belong to any one place.

The biggest stereotypes relating to Arabs are that they are terrorists, that they are all Muslims and that they are not technologically advanced. These stereotypes are all untrue, and people should not judge someone based on where he or she comes from, but for what they really are.

I grew up in America speaking Arabic because both of my parents are immigrants from Egypt. As a first generation American citizen, I felt that I belonged more to my Egyptian culture than to my American culture, but I knew that since I was living in America, I had to find my place somehow.

As soon as I started school in kindergarten at Middle Smithfield, I was enrolled into an English Second Language (ESL) program. The first time the teacher brought me to my ESL class I was confused. I did not know what was happening, and then I realized that I was different from the other students, that I did not belong in the same category that they did. I was an outsider.

I was in ESL for four years. I began to learn English, but I was much farther behind in English vocabulary than my peers. According to the article, “English Language Learners in Classrooms: A Big Change for US schools,” it states that today, there are over five million students in public schools who are English Language Learners.

In junior high, I was terrible in English and reading classes. One day, I was in class reading a short story. Our teacher was explaining the text, and she used a word that I didn’t recognize, but all my peers understood.

I turned to my friend, Emily and asked, “What does foreshadowing mean?”

She looked at me as if I was stupid, as if I was an alien from three galaxies away. She said, “Ugh, you don’t know what that means? Man, you are really stupid.”

I just looked at her. I couldn’t believe that my best friend for eight years just called me stupid. “How can you say that? It’s not my fault that I grew up with two Arabic speaking parents who couldn’t teach me English.”

After that, I realized that I had to depend on myself. I couldn’t even trust my own friends to help me out in school. I had to change, and it was going to be a lot of work. I couldn’t blame my parents since they couldn’t have helped me either.

In eighth grade I forced myself to enjoy reading. Before then I was a weak writer, a poor reader and I hated school because I couldn’t get good grades. But that year was the year everything changed because I forced myself to love to read.

That same year was my eighth time going to Egypt. During that visit to my mom’s side of the family, I realized that I didn’t belong in the Egyptian culture as much as I thought I did.

The more I learned English, the worse my Arabic became. I developed a strong accent when I spoke Arabic because Arabic was no longer my strong language. Also, I started to forget some of my vocabulary, so I constantly kept asking my dad how to say certain words. I was no longer able to communicate effectively, and I hated it. I couldn’t even speak to my own family.

The Egyptian culture was radically different than the American culture. I couldn’t wear short skirts or tank tops. I also had to mind my behavior, which was a strange concept to me. I just thought I could just be myself, but I was completely wrong.

My grandmother needed my cousin George to pick up some groceries, and I asked if I could tag along. On our way out, George told me, “Don’t make a fool of yourself. Don’t talk loud. Don’t laugh out loud. Don’t even look at the people we pass by.”

I didn’t understand. What was the big deal? I chose to ignore my cousin and act the way I wanted to. We talked about school, and I laughed out loud and stared at the men that were sitting around tables on the sidewalks. I realized that my cousin was right. Egypt is not America. I could not act any way I wanted because everyone watched me and judged every move I made. It made me uncomfortable, so I acted differently, not much like myself at all since I didn’t want to be stared at like a freak.

After that experience in Egypt, I felt that I didn’t belong in either the American or Egyptian culture. I couldn’t speak either language well. I didn’t know how to behave or do well in school. I needed to find myself, and it was really hard—how was I supposed to completely fit in, in any culture? Which do I choose? What could I do?

When I got back to America, I begged my relatives to teach me how to read Arabic so I could feel more Egyptian. My uncle Phillip tried to teach me. He sat me down and wrote out the alphabet.
“Here is alaph, the letter ‘A,’” he began.

I had a hard time following. By the time we finally finished the alphabet, he wrote down my first word to decipher.

“Okay, Jacquie. What does this word say?”

I looked at the paper with huge eyes because I didn’t understand. The word looked foreign, and I couldn’t comprehend the fact that Arabic was hard to learn. I just hoped that my native language would fall into place when I learned it.

I told my uncle, “I don’t know. I forgot the letters already.”

My uncle started slow, and he began to decipher the word with me. “This is ‘A.’ This is ‘S.’ This is ‘I.’ And this is ‘D.’”
He looked at me while I tried to put the word together.

“Asid!” I screamed. “Lion!” That was the first and only word I ever read in Arabic. After that I taught myself the numbers, and I still remember that, although it takes a while for it to come back to me.

So after eighth grade, my grades improved. I read more and more, and I actually enjoyed it. Everything changed. I never went back to Egypt after that. I started to belong to one culture, and lost sight of the other culture I once thought I belonged to.

I don’t see myself as an Egyptian anymore. I used to see myself as being more Egyptian than American even though I was born in America, but today I see myself as a true American. I lost sight of my Egyptian side, which was always the side that I was most proud of.

Even though I identify myself as more American, I still don’t completely see myself as belonging to any one culture. I still feel divided, and when I think I have finally become American, my Egyptian half comes out.

For example, I am always the oddball out when it comes to my friends. None of my American friends have curfews, and if they do, it is really late, like midnight. I have to be home by eleven, and if I’m five minutes late, I get lectured about how I should be more responsible…blah blah blah…

I just wish that if I became more Americanized, then my parents would too, but I know it’s impossible due to the fact that they are not familiar with the American customs. From what they know about the American culture, everyone is an animal without any rules, which is why they like to govern me in their own way. I do have to give my parents credit though, because as much as I get frustrated with their strict Egyptian rules, they really do try; they are just trying to protect their baby from the wild, which is the only place I want to be.

Have I become Americanized? I would say yes, due to the fact that I have piercings and tattoos that the Egyptian culture would completely frown upon. Do I see myself as an American? Sometimes, but I’m getting there. I still feel, and probably always will feel like I’m different than my peers because I don’t think that I will fully belong to one culture, even though it may seem that I belong to one, which is mostly like the American one.

If someone had told me what I would be like today, I would never have believed them because I never could have known of the struggles that I went through all throughout my young life.
Today, I am an English Writing major. I read well over 75 books a year and write my own stories and started having them published in various places.

If I hadn’t pushed myself so hard in grade school and made myself enjoy reading, I would not be an English major, nor would I speak English well. My vocabulary grew and my writing became better due to reading.

One of the reasons why I love being an English Language Learner is due to the fact that I can relate to others who experience the same troubles that I once faced.

In the Writing Studio, I have numerous students who come from all over the world seeking help to perfect their English and grammar. The job is rewarding because those students come back to see me for help because I understand their situation and know what it’s like to be an outsider and know what it’s like to struggle with a second language.

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