One morning this past August, at 5:07 a.m. in Farmington Hills, Mich., it seemed the only thing that would get me out of bed after the lousy three hours of sleep I got would either be some magical burst of inhuman strength or an earthquake (and I wasn’t so sure about the earthquake). As I plopped a second pillow on my head to block out my mom’s reminder that I was the one who didn’t want to be late, I remembered: I’m flying back to California today. That was all the incentive I needed. I immediately got up, got dressed and was in the car with my suitcases in the trunk by 5:19.
At the airport, while I tried to retrieve my friend’s ZIP code from my horrific memory, as my bags would be sent to her house in case they were lost, I heard the United Airlines employee uncertainly say, “Um … Ms. … Dad-Ouch? Is that how you pronounce your name?” Looking up smiling, as I always am when people mispronounce my name, I said, “Sure, that works.” Her face lights up when she notices my numerous flights’ final destination, and she says, “San Francisco! Is that home?”
She looks at me expecting a simple yes or no, not realizing how her question has prompted my brain to go through a slideshow of a hundred different images and memory snippets. I’m sure my eyes glazed over during the few seconds it took me to answer her, each second adding to the almost tangible awkwardness. I finally laugh the moment away and say, “Yes, I suppose in some ways it is.”
I am Syrian. Born in Connecticut but raised in Damascus, I am lucky enough to have dual citizenship. My American passport, and the fact that I look and sound American, prompts both my Berkeley and Damascus friends to tease me about how I cannot deny my true American identity. But just because my mother gave birth to me in New Haven does not mean I culturally identify as an American.
I have spent the majority of my last three years in Berkeley, meaning I have naturally picked up words and expressions used here. Now, I find that pest of a word “like” worming itself into a growing number of my sentences, and I once mistakenly used the word “hella” — but I’m pushing the blame on Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” which was on repeat in my brain last semester. But a friend whom I met here once told me a language is considered your first if you think in that language. And I still think and dream in Arabic, and I occasionally revert to it when I distractedly answer someone’s questions.
When I first moved here in 2010, I got furrowed brows and quizzical looks whenever I mentioned my hometown or country of origin; the change in that reaction over the past three years would be comical if the reason behind that transformation weren’t sad. There is no equivalent for the word “home” in Arabic, but if I got to pick a word that carries that meaning, it would be Dimashq (Damascus).
Everything about that city — its markets, its mountains, its old streets, its generous people — blends together and forms home. But although I belong to Damascus and miss her every day, I still fell in love with Berkeley. I love its crazy weather, how on Tuesday I was rocking shorts and a T-shirt and today am seriously contemplating getting an overpriced Cal sweater because it is just so cold. I love being able to bike everywhere — as long as I’m not going uphill for more than three blocks — and I love the neon pink carstaches that pop up every once in awhile. But most of all, I love the freedom.
I love the freedom of choosing how to dress and the diversity that abounds in Berkeley. I see this when I walk into a classroom to find a skinny-jeans-wearing hipster, a blond sorority girl, a hijabi and a foreign exchange student seated next to one another. Where I’m from, you have Syrians. And that’s it.
I also love the freedom that comes with picking classes on my own, although I am convinced Tele-BEARS has nurtured a secret vendetta against me due to my indecisiveness this semester. There was also the freedom that offered me the chance to vote on propositions last year and the freedom that prompts me to speak out on politics in class, at restaurants or in my apartment. This is something that was and in some ways still is unthinkable where I’m from.
If this Syrian had to pick her favorite thing about this odd little town called Berkeley, it would be just that: freedom.
And Ici. Because Ici is the bomb.
Sarah Dadouch writes the Friday column on international perspectives of Berkeley. You can contact her at [email protected].