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The Hyphenated Identity

Opinion | February 22, 2016

My mother has always had that grating kind of Jersey accent. Her voice is loud, rising and dropping in strange places, drawls seamlessly morphing into rapid streams of words. I grew up comfortable with these harsh intonations, finding soothing reassurance in her boisterous affection and essential fear in her disappointing scolds. If you cut her off on the highway, there are 70:30 odds that she’ll scream a classic Jersey “Bozo!” and I love it every time. Equally soothing is the fiery Arabic she spits over the phone, the shrill laughter and disconnected pacing so different from the voice that would call me down to do homework the moment the conversation was over.

My father has always had an oddly formal Arabic accent. Some friends from our small New York State church—essentially the community center for Coptic Egyptians in the tri-state area—would come to ask me if he was, maybe, British? His accent is funnier than that of their parents. I always marvel at the way he has to repeat himself on the phone, customer service calls leading to minor frustrations of repetition until he eventually employs the classic “M as in Mary, D as in dog…” Ironic to use such simple words when his vocabulary is more expansive than my own, yet he still claims English to be a limited language, reminding me that in Arabic you have many words for “sun”—each describing it in a different state, a different emotion.

When my parents come home from work, their conversations interchange these languages fluidly. They speak with two tongues and one understanding.

I have a slight-Jersey/New York, “all-American” accent. I stretch out my A’s awfully and constantly break out into obnoxious college slang—“for sure, dude,” being a trademark response in most conversations. My mom mocks my lingo and tones, and we sarcastically spar with each other over the way we pronounce words and how we make mistakes. I rarely attempt to speak in Arabic, as well-warranted embarrassment has made me shy away, and trying is only a reminder that my throat, my mouth, my tongue cannot make shapes for the sounds that fill the language—the language of my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents. The kids at church know that I am “Americanized,” and it comes out in casual remarks, blatant comments, and hilarious jokes—never malicious, but with a clear message. I revel in those moments when we break the façade, ones that occur more now that we are older. We giggle over the natural drama between college amusement and strict parents, American friends, Egyptian expectations, and stories of antics that completely defy them. There’s a similar excitement when I talk to other second-generation American friends. Even when the foreign quirks of our private lives differ, there is a shared sense of connection and relief in exchanging tales of navigating between our houses and our schools, our origins and our residence, our blood and our place.

Around the world, the question of second-generation status is becoming more prevalent. Last June, the Greek parliament passed a law granting second-generation non-national Greeks (the children of “migrants”) citizenship if they were born and raised in the country. Up until this point, these “second-generation Greeks” had essentially no citizen status, could not obtain a passport, and were in extremely vulnerable positions within a society that they had grown up in their whole life. A Nigerian-Greek expressed his joy at this change, describing how he could now travel to Nigeria to visit family. It is still nearly impossible to gain Greek citizenship as a “migrant” if you cannot produce evidence of Greek blood. This is not a uniquely Greek phenomena; jus sanguinis—Latin for right of blood—is a component of nationality law for 29 countries, privileging citizenship status to those who have blood ties to the nation-state.

This conundrum of ancestry, origin, and migration is complicated and fascinating, and by no means new. Confined by the concept of the nation-state, those who traverse these deeply symbolic and historic boundaries have always been the loose threads. They are typically met with great fear and harsh resentment, reminding us of a truth we know but do not want to confront: that the fabric of our modern conception of the world was not made to last. The reality of the hyphenated identity, of people like me, and people whose parents or grandparents (and so on) are like me, is the fleshy proof that this rigid conception of nationality is a farce. But from a hyper-nationalized global perspective, the reactions to us are logical. Our motherlands do not recognize that we are her children, and our homelands, often, do not provide us hospitality. The options we have are limited, confusing, and slightly bleak. Some find solace in the diaspora, some dramatically assimilate, few harbor asocial resentment that may even transform into violence. From the many people I have talked to, or at least just speaking for myself, we are somewhat lost, doing the best we can in a world that has no real structure for what we are. There really is no formula, or pattern. Adaptation in a world that lacks a holistic recognition of migrant identity (even after centuries upon centuries of this reality) is a unique and arduous process. It is defined by all the terrifyingly immeasurable, eclectic parts of human interaction, so much more about individual experiences than politics (though that too plays its own, often dark, role).

We cling when we are frightened. And so, in a sense of peculiar irony, the weight of identity seems to only get heavier, more central, more “tangible” in a world that is becoming less compartmentalized. With elevated consciousness, increasingly globalized economies, and a logical tendency to migrate for a chance at opportunities—as well as with constant sensational news—the “migrant” issue is a source of frenzied confusion; one that the whole world is tuning in to, because each of us is tangled up in its ideological complexity. A complexity that forces us to go beyond the political questions of resources and policies, and interrogate the difference we have embedded between being from a place and of a place.

The hopeful strand in me sees this rising awareness as a new opportunity to shed our global tendency to mark one another by where we are “from.” But there is a valid wariness (and for many a deep horror) in transitioning to a mentality that deemphasizes historic and cultural realities of ethnic identity. It seems naive and romantic to believe in achieving a currently unknown balance between recognizing our pasts, yet still (perhaps more so) seeing a shared humanity in the present. And, of course, it is not a colorblind humanism that is needed, but rather a rejection of adhering to identity as a divisive concept that can ideally begin to alleviate the brewing tension between morphing identities and the nation-state.

I cannot speak my mother tongue. But I know my mother’s tongue, how its dexterity can cross the oceans between New Jersey and Egypt, accents as a portal through the massive space that divides and surrounds two distinct cultures. It’s an intangible form of comprehension, familiarity, and understanding with no need of a full knowledge. It’s eerily similar to the intuition that can sprout between two strangers; perhaps it is just another form of empathy, rising above our desire to constrict one another into national identities. We will never fully know another, or even ourselves, but, as a friend once remarked, we can—like the edges of an asymptote, brushing the x and y-axes, extending on each side towards infinity—get imperceptibly close. It seems we have, for millennia, deluded ourselves into believing nations are the inevitable and necessary tool to survival. We huddle with our identities and our cultures to rationalize ourselves, and deem everyone else a certain kind of other. But the undeniable reality of second-generation bodies, and their never-ending anecdotes, is the reoccurring thorn, uncomfortably protruding through the thigh of this lie.

My notion of home has never been contained to a single land. Instead, home really has been all those cheesy, sentimental ideals of justice, trust, love, and acceptance in their most mundane forms. It’s the warmth of my house on Fairmount Street, the smell of frying falafel in my teta’s Jersey City apartment, and catching two beefy men with gelled hair and excessive cologne joyfully conversing in Arabic at the back of the Red Line. It’s watching Broad City with my homies and getting far too flustered with my dad for constantly making up words in Scrabble. It’s getting lost in a book by a Mexican author on a porch in Medford, and finding kindred spirits on a balcony in Athens. It’s walking into an Orthodox church anywhere in the world to the familiar waft of incense, and my best friend’s dog following us around during high school parties. It’s so much more true than an America that sees me as Egyptian, and an Egypt that sees me as American. I cannot locate my homeland, though I know I have been home many, many times. I am just trying to figure out how I keep getting there and how to properly welcome our ever-changing neighbors.