All my life I’ve been raised to appreciate that “living in America and getting a first rate education” is a luxury that many around the world would kill for. When I would go on road trips with my family, or car rides to Half Moon Bay, Monterrey, etc, I would prefer to listen to music or read a book instead of look out the window and see the “beauty that many around the world would kill for only a second of.”
These were the words that were said to me (scolded, yelled, etc) whenever I complained. Recently my dad and I went to pick up my new phone from Verizon and on the way there my dad started telling me the same affirmations. I was not feeling my best: I was having a relatively major acne breakout, my hair was in a frizzy bun, I was in skinny capris and a flannel that needed to be laundered and loafers that looked like they came from the graveyard. But this time when my dad said to me, “You have so much, you live in America, you are a pretty girl, you are going to university in an American school, and you’re smart,” it hit me: in a way he was right. I was so lucky to be in America. To have traffic lanes, sidewalks, and people who didn’t judge. I had a preponderance of luxuries that I had failed to see in my attempt to succeed in America. Around the world, just living in America is considered a form of success.
When I visited Egypt the summer of 2013, I was shocked by the level of destitute living conditions surrounding my relatives’ apartments. The amount of polluted fog, the heat, the judgement. I hated all of these things while I was there but now that a year has transpired, I miss Egypt. I miss the familial quality I received from everyone, even from people I only saw once: the barber, the clerk, the postman. Everyone was so incredibly loving that I was literally sick and tired of it by the time I left. Regardless of these positive attributes, I still remember the fog, the smell of gasoline and dust all mixed together. In fact, that is how I remember Egypt. If I smell something on my way to class, work, home, school, etc that reminds me of Egypt, my first thought is, That smells like Egypt.
So when my dad reminded me of my good fortune, my first thought was the fog, the crowds, the noise, and I looked around me, here in San Jose, California, and I saw none of that. Instead I saw organized street lanes, I saw quite streets, I saw clear air and I realized, for the first time in my life, how truly blessed I was. Not in any cliche way, either. I understood that this position I was in was not to be taken lightly. Being in America is no joke. I am not here for no reason. Many people would kill for this opportunity, as my dad would say.
But it’s not that simple. My work here at MOSAIC has made me realize, over and over again, how difficult success in this country really is. As someone emerging from an immigrant family, success in America is the beacon of light. But through my research with this job I’ve begun to realize how much power dynamics, racism, and systematic oppression play into this pursuit. I am a Muslim, small, colored, Arab, girl. I’ve been dealt a very difficult hand.
But on the other hand, when I look at my dad, who is a very dark Arab Muslim from southern Egypt, and I see the amount of success he’s achieved and I know that it’s not all race. One can transcend his or her circumstances. The extent of this transcendence is obviously very dependent on the situation of the individual. I happen to be a very sheltered Muslim girl, so I do not know how far hard work and hard dreaming will take me.
So to what extent does race play into my experience in post 9/11 America? Probably a large extent. But can I play that race card every time I feel that life is not going my way? Or should I try to surpass all expectations like my father? When I was in high school, I was in art class for four years with this one guy who, my senior year, when I told him that I wished I could be white, told me to shut up. He said that if I truly wanted to make something happen then I would go and do it. This guy was white, he was the quarterback of the varsity football team, he was popular, and he was from a relatively affluent family. He got dealt the right hand.
Over the past two years I’ve reflected on this moment pretty consistently, because several times I have been through experiences that have brought this specific memory to the forefront of my mind. Is he right? Is he wrong? I don’t know. On one hand I think race is completely ubiquitous and it influences and effects every aspect of our lives. On the other hand, I think that if I get too caught up thinking about these labels, then I will never achieve that dream of success. So to what extent am I going to let race play a part in my life?
This is now my question. This duality of my experience as an immigrant in America has effected every corner of my life. But I can control that duality. I can find a place on which to stand on this seemingly infinite spectrum that is comfortable for me, and only me. And in my eyes, this has nothing to do with race.