A Tri-Cameral Odyssey of Cultural Assimilation
It doesn’t matter where you come from, or when. Some are three generations in and they still waver in and out of the mores like a timid eel, lurking in the sea grass, unsure whether to be a snake or a fish. The immigrant dilemma is marked by many similarities regardless of the origin story. But to sum it up, most of us can relate to the fact that the process of assimilation — or the refusal to do so — is like a threesome of psychological angst. Without the triumphant finish. Yes, it’s an endless fuck-fest of existential torment to determine one stupid god damn thing: “Who am I?”
I look back at my own life and I pity the child that I was, trying so hard to belong. Children are programmed that way, though, aren’t they? They learn through mimicry — observation and integration. An eye facing out and another facing in.
But for me, the experience often felt like being the third person in a two-person conversation. Not even a person, really, so much as a broken telephone between the two, sending and receiving only intermittent moments of the whole conversation. A suspect conduit with hazy notions of my own…
Forgive the mixed metaphors. Think of it as added effort in the hopes that my meaning gets across. Different angles on the same image, etc.
To that end, imagine if you will, that you are walking down an endless hallway in the middle of the universe (or nowhere, or that blank white space in The Matrix). The walls are not so much walls at all but transparent windows, fluid, allowing anything you see on the outside to pass effortlessly into this endless hallway. Your job is merely to walk down this corridor, every step, a moment of your life. On the right side, through the liquid lens: your origin story, your heritage chasing after you; On the left side, the teeming and mysterious frontier of a new home. thousands of miles separate these two worlds, but somehow, this hallway sits right between them, conjoining them— an expansive gateway absorbing and intermingling each side with the other.
Now, every step you take down this path, a moment from one of these worlds (or indeed both, in some cases) breaks through that fluid barrier, and you find yourself adorning that moment like a garment. You embrace it, not knowing full well what it is. In some cases it protects you, informs you, makes you stronger. In others, it cuts you, ravages you like razor blades laced with arsenic.
For a time you can manage the flow from these worlds into that singular space your tread, but as you continue to walk, the barriers begin to soften. As you go, more and more. And on the horizon, just as far as you think you can see, it appears that the barrier is completely dissolved. It’s gone. The space beyond, awash with some unseen and unknowable landscape. Regardless, you keep walking. You have to. Because stopping is your death. But you can’t tell which world you’ll be walking into when you get to that space on the horizon awaiting your arrival. The looming chaos taunts you as you steadily approach, but all you can do is keep moving forward and hope for the best.
Such is the path of the assimilating immigrant: two worlds surrounding a quantum bridge — a passage outside of space and time, where you are set with the task of assembling your identity before the walls collapse in on you.
Three chambers. One mind. And the day-to-day of the life you live. Add to that trying to just be a kid and, well, you can forget about achieving any sense of normalcy or belonging. Basically, you’re born, you take a few breaths, and you’re already making appointments for your therapist.
Those three chambers in my case were… myself, Iraq and the U.S. of A.
Of Death and Sandwiches
A quick recap: I was born in Logan, Utah, of all places: A quaint college hamlet anchored by Utah State University, beautiful landscapes, and white people. My parents were studying to eventually become engineers, my sister had been born in Baghdad, and my brother didn’t exist yet. I was the first American in my family — hoo-fucking-rah. We moved to California soon after I was born (thank god) where I grew up and still have not managed to leave.
Apparently, I spoke Arabic before I spoke English. But I don’t recall. My Arabic now is shoddy at best, though I have a good sense for (re)learning it when I need to. Anyway, it seems relevant, because to this day I find myself sometimes getting tongue tied when I’m speaking English — fleeting moments when my mouth seems foreign to my words.
I don’t have many memories of my early childhood, and I may as well clear things up right here and now: I don’t have the most reliable memory, period. Some of the stories I recount will definitely vary in accuracy. To be perfectly blunt I can’t always recall if a memory actually happened, if I imagined it, or if it was in fact a dream (but we’ll get to all that later).
Here’s a memory I know for damn sure happened (I think). One of my earliest.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Child crack. I loved them like any other. I used to love watching my dad stir the peanut butter with a giant knife (for you kids out there, some peanut butter is natural, and the oil separates, so you have to stir it back into the butter to make it soft). I would just stare at him performing this magical ritual that yielded the most amazing edible experience in life. Anyway, I was tiny, peanut butter and jelly was my life, you get the picture.
One day, my mom was on the phone — the house kind with a cord (analog days, am I right?). She was speaking in Arabic . — I didn’t know what the fuck she was saying. What I did know is that I was jones-ing for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. So, in the absence of my father, I went up to my mom and started tugging at her shirt.
“Momma, I want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
She waved me off, focused on her conversation.
What the fuck, mom? I tugged again:
“Momma, I want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
“Momma!” Useless parental unit. She just sat there gabbing away about who knows what!
I started losing my temper. I was 3, or something, not much patience.
“Mom! I want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!”
She was still talking on the damn phone but she was getting more agitated.
“I want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! I want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!” You can get a sense of what a pestilent little asshole I was being at this point, just nagging and I wouldn’t shut up about the GODDAMN PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY SANDWICH!
My mom’s voice broke.
Her face red.
Something started to happen to her. The room changed. but I didn’t understand what was going on.
She started talking faster, her voice shaking.
And then. Tears.
She was crying now, wailing.
I froze for a moment, just staring up at her. I’d never seen my mom cry. What did I do?! I panicked: “Momma! I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I don’t want the sandwich. I’m sorry momma, I didn’t mean to make you cry! I don’t want the sandwich anymore. It’s okay, momma…”
That long, endless corridor. The continuum beset by forces near and far. Two worlds watching you, imposing upon you. And reacting to each other. A game of mirrors where you forget whether you are the subject or the reflection.
Years later I would learn that that was the moment when my mom found out her dad, my grandfather, had passed away. A man I had never met, nor whose existence was even a concept to me.
For me at the time, that moment was a tragedy about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — a parable about the destructive nature of selfishness. How dare I cause someone such distress over a sandwich? Never again.
Funny to think that I carried guilt about that moment for years. Guilt for causing my mother to cry over such a petty thing. And all the while, it had nothing to do with that damn sandwich, and nothing to do with me. My poor mom had lost her father, and this little 3 year-old asshole wouldn’t shut up about his PB&J.
I was young. The rift in the time-space of my identity was just beginning to form. A wormhole bridging two distant worlds in my brain: on the one side, my grandpa, half a world away on his death bed; on the other, my PB&J — not in my stomach; and right there, stuck in between, this little Iraqi-American kid who had no idea what he was in for. A party of three was taking a seat inside my head, and they weren’t leaving anytime soon.