I’m sitting in a café right now, tapping away at my keyboard, fully embracing the cliché of a struggling writer punching out yet another piece of their soul while surrounded by the wafting aroma of Aceh Gayo coffee being slowly extracted, and swatting at the occasional mosquito I’ve come to accept is part of life in the tropics. The window to my right overlooks a stream of sputtering motorbikes, punctuated occasionally by large SUVs with glossy, tinted windows. Even on an early Sunday afternoon, there is no reprieve from the tightly packed traffic on Jakarta’s roads.
Like many of you, today I’ve been reading about an upsetting, extreme example of what clinging to the oversimplification of identity can result in – and it got me thinking about my own sense of identity, and what identity even really means to me; what it might mean to my children one day. And now I see that this piece has been wanting to burst out of me for a while.
Roughly a week ago, while I was still on holiday in Egypt with my family, I went on a grocery store run with my father to pick up some last minute items for the journey back home. Like a bona fide Egyptian girl should, I always stock up on big, sturdy jars of tahini to take back with me to Indonesia because there isn’t a guarantee that it’s always in stock at my usual store.
My dad and I have a strange, shared love for supermarkets, shopping lists, and the chocolate bars that sit invitingly by the checkout, a reward for successfully completing what most consider to be one of the drudgeries of life.
On this shopping trip, however, I felt like I was on edge the whole time. And it took me a while to figure out why. It finally clicked when my dad, who sometimes speaks to me in Arabic, but usually in English, was telling me something (in English) as some fellow Egyptian shoppers walked past and stared.
I felt – and this feeling surprised me – embarrassed.
I didn’t tell him this at the time – but I kept subconsciously thinking to myself, barely a whisper at the back of my head: Please just speak to me in Arabic. Or at least speak a little quieter. We’re drawing so much attention to ourselves – and I’m embarrassed. I don’t want people to know that I’m different; that I actually, technically, don’t belong.
I realised on this recent trip back to the land of my birth, the land where most of my family is “from”, the land of the culture I’m supposed to relate to the most, that there is a truth about being a third culture kid that I’ve never acknowledged.
The truth is that sometimes, I wish I could just belong. In a simple, uncomplicated, one-dimensional way.
Sometimes, I just want to say, “Yes, I’m Egyptian”, and unapologetically leave it at that. Without caveats about where I actually grew up; without justification as to why I’m not fluent in the language; without the worry that they might find out I’m actually a fraud, that I’m actually not really Egyptian.
The more I thought about this truth, the more memories came flooding back to me, memories from decades ago – decades – that I had blocked out somehow.
I remembered one of our annual trips back to Egypt for the summer. I was around 11, and my siblings and I were hanging out with my cousins and a bunch of their friends. We were playing some game, and one of the boys made a comment in which he referred to my sister and I as “Chinese”. We were living in Macau at the time, and had been for 8 years. We learned Chinese at school, spoke, read and wrote Mandarin relatively fluently, and many, if not most, of our friends, teachers and members of our community were Chinese.
I’m pretty sure that was the first time I consciously registered that I was different. They think I’m different. They don’t accept me as one of them. I don’t belong.
And even now, as an adult, it hasn’t stopped. In fact, sometimes I feel it even more strongly now.
During this recent holiday, I was gently berated by both family and complete strangers, on numerous occasions, for not speaking Arabic, for speaking Arabic with an accent (for the record, I only do so with people I’ve never met before, and never with family), and for failing to teach my daughters Arabic and properly instilling in them true Egyptian culture.
Don’t get me wrong, I do wish that I had more confidence, or maybe more resolve, to speak my mother tongue. Many of the older members of my extended family speak little to no English, and my fear of exposing my broken, heavily accented Arabic prevents me from having any kind of meaningful connection with them. There are a lot of “appropriate” phrases and behaviours that you’re meant to use to respond to other phrases and behaviours, and I simply don’t know them all. I often find myself stuttering, blushing, and essentially saying nothing – or the completely wrong thing – because I feel so out of my depth, even when someone has offered a loving, heartfelt compliment or kind word.
It can be hard, being complicated. It can be hard, being a child of a generation that is caught between multiple cultures, multiple identities. It’s hard for me to accept that because of my lack of confidence, I’m limiting what my children will know about a huge part of their heritage. And I think many of us sometimes crave the simplicity of a one-word, or even one-line answer to the question, “Where are you from?”
But what if the world needs complicated? What if we need things to be multi-dimensional and messy? What if the confusion and doubt that these in-between generations are experiencing is part of what the world needs to break us out of the moulds we’ve held as a society for so long? What if “belonging” needs to stop looking like “us and them”, and more like, “Who can I include today? Who can I connect with today? Who can I let in, learn about, learn from?” Isn’t it both arrogant and ignorant to say that we fall purely into one category, untouched by any other?
I think of my own daughters, whose stories will not be one-dimensional or straightforward. Like me, if not more so, they will be caught and tangled between cultures. On the plane on the way back home, a friendly Spanish woman asked my older daughter where she was from, and she said, with the kind of confidence you only come across in a 3-year-old, “Jakarta”. I couldn’t help but smile at her unequivocal answer. But it also reminded me that for her, for now, it’s simple. And as she and her sister get older, the waters will be muddied, and they will start to ask questions.
It won’t always be easy. Their generation will probably have moments, like me and those of us who face the same conundrum, where they will wish it was simpler, with a crisp, clear roadmap that gives you unambiguous directions on how to navigate the complexities of identity.
But maybe it’s simply unavoidable that these generations, the ones that are suspended in between, have to bear the brunt of this struggle to build a bridge from the world of simple, pure, easy-to-classify identities, to a world where we embrace every little bit of “different” that makes up our own identity, and the world around us.
I hope that when my daughters start tuning in to the difficulties of a multi-faceted identity, they also realise that no one, whether they’ve never lived anywhere for more than 2 years at a time, or only ever lived in one place, is one-dimensional. It’s not actually simple or straightforward for anyone.
So, maybe simple and straightforward is overrated. Maybe – it doesn’t exist.