I grew up in the Middle East living between Egypt and the Gulf region until I was 21. I did not see many differences between these countries in the overall lifestyle, religion and the language yet I experienced the uniqueness of each country's culture. While moving from any country (or even a place) to another is hard, it is not very challenging if moving within the Arab World. What I call real challenges include lifestyle adjustment, culture differences, and a whole different level of acceptance when someone with my background (Muslim Arab women) moves to America. You are not just learning and adjusting to one culture, but to hundreds of cultures to become a real global citizen. You are fighting external stereotypes about yourself and internal ones that are already embedded in your mind about America and the American people. Yet, it is your call on how to make your experience of living in the States positive or negative, rewarding or not, enriching or cumbersome depending on the way you define it and decide to make use of it.
The most important thing that needs to be kept in mind and to have the right balance is to embed yourself in the society you are living in, and to be a productive citizen without losing your identity and values.
It has been almost nine years since I moved to America and I thought it might be helpful for many people who live in the Middle East if I put together a list of things that I personally learned from the American people. On the other hand, it might be helpful for the American people to hear a Middle Eastern experience and perspective that contradicts what is usually seen in the mainstream media.
Of course, everyone's experience is different and unique, but I will try my best to touch on the major things that I know most of us struggle with or even have a totally different perspective on before we move here. Whether you are moving, visiting or just discussing politics, I think you will find these handy.
1. The Reality of the American Dream
Being an American citizen, resident or even working on your paperwork to move legally to this country, the reality is that nobody hands you anything as soon as you get out of the airplane. Yes, you can get a great house, a wonderful car and much more of all things that are branded as the "American Dream" but you have to earn it. Working really hard is one of the core values of American society, as well as sustaining a good work ethic that will help you maintain the lifestyle you are dreaming of. Whether you are an entrepreneur with business ideas, a college professor, a waiter or a barber, everyone can make a decent living that can support the desired reasonable lifestyle, but you have to earn it yourself. You can get where you want to be as long as you work hard, develop yourself, stay out of trouble and have a dream. The bottom line (and unlike what many might think) is that no one will hand you anything as nothing in this world is free.
2. This country is HUGE
The United States comprises (almost) half of the North American continent. Thus, you have to understand that the regular/mainstream Americans (neither the politicians nor the highly-educated who are interested in worldwide problems) have enough to worry, think and talk about aside from what is happening in the Middle East and worldwide alike. For most of them, if you live in California and know what is happening in New York means that you are well-versed. In addition, a well-traveled person here is measured by how many states he or she has visited (there are 50 of those) -- not even countries. Sometimes this is considered a disadvantage as Americans seem to be a little isolated from the rest of the world, but when I compare them to Australians and Canadians for example, I think that they are doing pretty well -- but they still have enough to worry about in their day-to-day life and activities.
Most Americans want to enjoy cool places and the beauty they see around them. I am not talking about Disney, Universal Studios, Hollywood or other places (although those are cool too). I am talking about the beautiful nature everywhere in this country including snow caps, rivers, mountains, deserts, forests and oceans. Wherever you live or go visit, you will find a beautiful scene to look at, enjoy and admire.
You might think that the daily issues the Arab world is facing are really taking center stage of the American life; the truth is that some Americans are not even aware where Syria is located! Think about your day-to-day people living in your own country (especially the poorer ones), are they even interested to hear what is happening beyond their own neighborhoods?
3. Government and politics versus the regular people
The American people are (generally) very nice, welcoming and friendly people, but they can also make a comment that you might not like (aren't all humans that way?). Whether you are waiting in line for a train, in a doctor's office or in a grocery shop, you will find people randomly talking to you, commenting on something you are wearing, complimenting on how cute your kids are or even asking you where you come from. Thus, it is best to take out of your brain what you see on TV and hear in the news and treat the people for who they are. This of course applies both ways as the American people also need to take politics out of the equation and treat people for who they are. We all need to invest and enrich in our relationships with each other as humans.
4. Movies versus the reality
When I moved to the U.S., for some reason I thought that all I would see were people with tattoos on Harley Davidson motorcycles! This (of course) did not happen. While there are many great people who ride motorcycles (which is very cool by the way!), there are others who get involved in drugs, crimes and all sorts of things that we see in the movies. There are also millions of highly educated people, religious leaders, artists, singers and people with families and children that want to maintain a good life. You are free to choose your community but it will be your call and your choices that will define your experience and will add tremendously to who you are.
You will also find people who are highly tolerant and accepting, and others who are brainwashed by the media and do not have as much of a level of acceptance and tolerance. Although it is unfair at times, one should always be ready and prepared to have a conversation that might change a perspective or a misconception of one person forever.
5. East and West Coast versus the Midwest
The East and West coasts of the United States are very different than the states in the middle of the country. Immigrants tend to prefer the coasts for some reason. Thus, if you ever plan to move, you might want to consider one of the coasts as it will be very easy for you to find your favorite ethnic food, your mosque, temple or church or even get involved with your community. I personally have been involved with the Italian American Community, the Egyptian American Community, the Sikh Indian American community and many others communities. There is even an area in California that is commonly known as Little Arabia because of the many Arab businesses and restaurants opened in this area. Chinatown and Little Saigon serving other ethnic groups are also quite close. While all of these communities have the American values embedded in them, they are striving to maintain their heritage, culture and identities in which I do not see anything wrong with that. In fact, I think it is really amazing how culturally diverse this country is, and people still get along. (most of the time!)
6. The real meaning of freedom
While you are free to wear, pray, worship, eat, look and behave the way you want, you are always expected to follow rules and obey the law. The application of the law is one of the things that I deeply respect about this country and in most cases (there are exceptions of course) it is applied on everybody whether you are a CEO of a major company or a small worker in a factory. Freedom does not mean to cut roads, burn cars, not stopping for a lawful order, but it means that you can take the mayor to court if he did something wrong to you and win your case.
7. Being American does not mean that you are a White person with blond hair and blue eyes
For some reason, the media has tricked us into believing that all Americans are white, thus when I came here I was kind of shocked to see people from different ethnicities and backgrounds that are Americans too. They all hold the same values of family, hard work and good citizenship. You will see even Chinese Americans serving at the Transportation Security Administration at airports, Sikh Americans serving in the Army while wearing their turbans and highly accomplished Egyptian Americans serving in the U.S.. government. This is important for all of us to understand especially with America's Demographic Transformation in the next few decades.
Before I moved to America, I do not recall that I ever used the words diversity and/or race in my life. In the Muslim countries (specifically) and the Middle East in general, you are never defined by the color of your skin and it is considered rude and actually a kind of a "sin" in some cultures/religions to do that. In any official paperwork, we are never asked about our race or skin color. Of course, the history and the demographics of these countries are very different compared to the United States but there we are all basically the same and we are ultimately defined by our education and social/family status not at all with the color of our skin nor where are we originally from (Turkish decent for example..). When I went back for vacation a year ago and I used the word black (which I rarely use anyway) casually in one of my conversations, people were shocked.
Being American does not depend on how you look or where you originally came from but what you give to this country. The concept of diversity and race is a shared value in the American system.
8. Middle Eastern people are lucky
Contradicting what thousands might think, Middle Eastern people are lucky (at least in some ways). Because of the fact that labor is very cheap, each family -- even the middle class -- has a maid or two, someone to drive their car (or cars), run their errands and buy their groceries. Everything can be delivered to your house 24/7, from a sandwich you are craving in the middle of the night to an urgent medicine that you need for your sick child. People are looking for and finding creative ways to make money, thus they are providing cheap services that make lives easier. You do not necessarily think about it until you move out and realize how hard it is to depend on yourself for (literally) everything, and how expensive it is to even hire someone to clean your house or apartment on a regular basis (even if you are a middle class, upper middle class or rich person).
Even if you think about the Arabic versus the English languages, you will find that anyone who grew up in any of the Arab countries took basic education of the English language. Thus, you will find that the majority of people coming from the Middle East have a basic understanding of the English language and can communicate with few simple words. On the other hand, it is very rare to find someone who grew up exclusively in America with basic understanding of the Arabic Language.
I think that Middle Easterners are very lucky in that regard, but it almost seems as if no one really pays attention to these advantages.
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Mt. Vernon Township High School
Mt. Vernon, Illinois
Note: This is a multimedia entry that also includes an audio essay and a collage.
"An American is anyone who lives in the United States of America. Whether it is an immigrant or a natural born citizen, they are an American." My second grade teacher used to say this to us when we were in our Social Science class. When I heard these words, I felt an unusual joy. But this joy was not for me, it was for my parents. As I am a natural born citizen, my parents are immigrants. At a young age, I could not quite make out if I was an American or an Asian Indian. My life would always go two ways. When I was at school, I felt like an American. I spoke, dressed, and acted like my classmates. But at home, it was a different story. We spoke a different language and my grandparents always wore different clothes.
At school, I always got along with the other students and as far as I can remember, they liked me. I was treated just like everyone else and everyone, including my teachers, was nice to me. Sometimes I am put in the 'spotlight' when someone asks about my culture and traditions. It is no big deal because it does not bother me. If I am from a different nationality, I will get questions asked about my culture. Sometimes I like it when others ask me about my culture. It shows individuality in me. I do not think there is anything wrong with being different or individual. I am glad that school is not a problem for me because education is important to my family and me.
I often ask my father many times why he came to America. He always says the same thing for better education and more opportunities. Whatever he has done till today and will ever do is for my siblings and me. Because of that, I do not ask him anything else. This way I do not feel guilty of reminding him of his homeland, India. After a hard life in India, my father came here so he can give his children a good education and not give them hardship. I know there is no way I can pay him back for all he does. That is why I want to fulfill his dreams. He wishes to see all his children happy and well settled after we start our careers. And, I know I can make him happy in many other ways, but I want to make him very happy by becoming a doctor. After he knows we are successful, he will be relived and I will be too.
Education is just one area in which America has opened its doors. America is full of different kinds of people and nationalities. I feel as if I am not the only one from a different culture. Along with me, there are millions of other people who live in two worlds. That is the good thing about America. This country gives chances to people to find their spot in this world. I am just one out of a million. In America people can practice their traditions as individuals, rather than just one nationality practicing the same tradition.
In my family, we have many traditions that are not like the traditions of other people. A common tradition is taking off our shoes when entering our homes. When I go to my friends' homes, I sometimes forget they leave their shoes on, and so I start to take off my shoes. Then I remember, so I just follow them into their homes, like everything's okay, nothing went wrong. But when they come to my home, they always take their shoes off, because it is our tradition. And, for that, I respect them. Also, every night we sit together at the dinner table where homemade Indian food is served. We are vegetarians, so there is no meat in the house. Every night, after dinner, we sit in front of God and pray to him for safety, happiness, and for him to always be with us.
Then there are those special days, the holidays. Unfortunately, our holidays do not consist of Thanksgiving or Christmas, but consist of the holidays celebrated in India. Such holidays include Navrati, where we dress up in our cultural costumes and dance a cultural dance all night long at a community gathering. A holiday that follows Navrati is Diwali. This is a five-day celebration for the New Year. Then there are colorful holidays, like Holi. This is when everyone dresses in white and throws around forty different colored powders or colored water at each other to show the absence of darkness.
Here in America, we celebrate Navrati only on weekends. We call up friends and relatives on Diwali to wish them a prosperous New Year. On Holi, if we get lucky, we get to go to a temple close by to celebrate for an hour or two. This is because we do not have off for such holidays here. It is usually on weekdays, some people have to go to work, and others have to go to school. When I was young, I did not know why we got off for holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, but not for holidays like Navrati and Diwali. As I grew older, I came to realize the differences and learned to adjust to the circumstances.
Although there are so many differences in my two cultures, I never let myself mix them up. I leave my American culture outside my home and I leave my Indian culture inside my home. Sometimes I find it hard when I am stuck in the doorway. I remember what my father said once at the dinner table. He said, "Yes, I grew up in India, and all my childhood memories are there. If something happens in India, it will upset me. But I am also living in America. America has also given me a home, so now I must worry about America more than India, as I live here." So, just as my father has accepted America, I must accept my American way of life, but I will never forget my Indian customs.