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Being a 'hyphenated American' opens two worlds

When you grow up with dual ethnicity, you face cultural challenges – and rewards.

By Zaina Arafat / February 6, 2009

Enjoy the traditions: New York's Arab-American and North African Cultural Street Festival is held each summer on Bond Street.

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During the 1991 Persian Gulf war, I came home from school one day in tears. My classmates had been ridiculing me, and when I told my mother, she went straight to the administration. She said that during this particularly emotional time, they should make extra efforts to prevent discrimination against Arab-American students. They agreed, and assured her that they would.

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Months later, I came home complaining of the same torment: "They're still calling me fat! Zaina AraFAT!" Right then, my mother realized the teasing had nothing to do with my ethnic background. It was simply kids being kids.

As a first-generation Arab-American, my ethnic duality has exposed me to a series of assumptions that stem from both ignorance and fear of the unknown. But these assumptions exist on both sides.

My parents moved to the United States from the West Bank a year before I was born. Growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., my family seemed just like everyone else's, with a few variations that most wouldn't have noticed. For example, while my friends' fathers cracked open a bag of chips after work, my dad went straight for pumpkin seeds. My friends' moms drove minivans; mine, a two-seater Mercedes. Their parents were big on curfews, grammar, "time outs," and seat belts. Soda was strictly forbidden in their houses, as were Cocoa Puffs for breakfast, and television was allowed only on weekends.

I really didn't understand these rules. My friends found much in my life to be confused by, too, such as why my mom and dad called me mom and dad, as is tradition in Arab culture. They wondered why my parents and their friends seemed to be yelling at each other whenever they conversed, why every social gathering inevitably ended with dancing, and why our nicknames were longer than our actual ones: Zanzoon for Zaina; Abu Zooz for my brother, Zaid.

As a kid, I was insecure about the nuances that set us apart, especially when friends asked for a bologna sandwich as soon as they saw whatever we were serving.

But as I grew older, I began to appreciate my parents' attempt to assimilate while retaining our own traditions. We always had a turkey on Thanksgiving – that it was stuffed with rice and served with hummus seemed a fair compromise. Like most American kids, I got to go to sleep-away camp, albeit to Switzerland to learn French rather than archery and arts and crafts.

Also, since the American tendency toward overparenting contradicted my parents' Mediterranean, laissez-faire approach, the structure and what I saw as rigidity that existed in my friends' houses were absent in ours. Rather, our family was informal and spontaneous.

I found that while being an Arab-American in the US got better with age, the reverse applied when I visited the Middle East. As a kid I couldn't wait for these summer excursions. The moment I arrived in Jordan, where my extended family lives, I felt like a celebrity. I was coming from America, and that alone brought me relative fame and adoration.

But eventually, things began to change. No longer able to get a free ride because of my American identity, I found there were many unspoken rules that were unfamiliar to me: such as when to put out your hand versus going for the cheek, and if the latter, two kisses or three? That no one wears shorts past the age of 12. (Once on a visit to Bethlehem, my uncle had to trade me his trousers for my cutoffs.) I also learned that a camel ride around the Egyptian pyramids should not cost $50 American, marked down from the "standard" rate of $100 because I was "special."

Despite the humbling, awkward moments that accompanied these lessons, I've begun to accept the potential for mistakes as an inevitable cross-cultural byproduct. And in doing so, I've realized that being Arab-American has different meanings, depending on where I am. In the Middle East, it often means having to stress that Americans shouldn't be equated with their country's foreign policy. In the US, it involves explaining that the Islamists shown on television represent a sliver of the Muslim population. It also entails reminding Americans that while Al Jazeera may seem oversensationalized, American media seems sanitized to Arabs.

In many ways, "having a foot in both worlds" means having a full presence in neither. Although the phrase isn't meant to be interpreted literally, after 27 years of balancing between two cultures and continents, I can say with certainty that it's far from figurative.

But it's from such a vantage point that stereotypes are abolished. And as I get further away from a cultural identity crisis – and as a Kenyan-American was able to become US president – I realize that having dual ethnicity may be a great thing after all.

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