Once, at a party, a friend turned to me and somewhat drunkenly asked, “So, like, what exactly are you?”
Despite the weird way she phrased her question, I understood what she meant — but only because I’ve been asked this question numerous times in a variety of ways. As I was born in Connecticut and raised in Damascus, people constantly ask me how I identify myself. “I’m Syrian” is always my response, but most Americans are never satisfied with this answer. Because I look and sound like an American to most people in the United States, the “Syrian” identity doesn’t sit well with them, and some even take offense to what they see as a refusal to embrace the greatest identity ever — the oh-so-glorious American identity. “Syrian Americans” are typically American-born, and their parents or grandparents immigrated here from Syria. They have grown up here and mainly know Syria as the place their parents made them visit over the summer. So that’s out. And identifying solely as an American is simply not an option: Over my dead body am I forgoing my precious Syrian identity for any other.
So when such questions arise, I tend to answer — somewhat sarcastically — with, “I’m pretty sure I’m human.” But sometimes people push.
“No, I didn’t mean to insult you: I just want to know if you identify as white. You don’t look brown to me.” Yes, I am aware I’m not tan. I apologize for my light brown hair and blue eyes that do not conform to your idea of what an Arab looks like. I’m sure you don’t know that most Syrians are not that dark. Yes, my shirt really is from Urban Outfitters: Not all of us actually wear burqas and tons of golden jewelry. My favorite anecdote is when a professor refused to believe I was from Syria and kept insisting I meant my parents were originally from Syria, whereas I had grown up somewhere in California. It took him three tries to finally get it.
I understand, though, that it is difficult for people to hear me speak and believe that I didn’t grow up here. My friends of three years say it still throws them off when I ask in my almost perfect American accent how a word is pronounced or when I don’t understand common phrases such as “raining cats and dogs.” Those moments are when I’m exposed as a fraud, not truly American, and I’m comfortable with that. I like the fact that I still use Celsius and the metric system (Fahrenheit, guys? Really?). And I both like and am amused by how I still cannot count in English: I know how to say the numbers, but my brain has never used English numbers, so it reverts to Arabic when I’m doing math or counting change at work. I like that I immediately switch to full-on Arabic when I’m mad and venting to my sister, not a single English word seeping into my outbursts. It’s these things that remind me of who I am, despite my Berkeleyan life.
Because I do need a reminder sometimes. I’m worried that my house in Damascus, the old city, and my favorite shawarma place will all slip away from my memory. Sometimes during long car-rides or before I go to sleep, I close my eyes and picture the street I grew up on, the huge garden in front of it, the view of the imposing Mount Qasioun from our balcony, the beautiful, intricate designs of the Umayyad Mosque. I sum up all the details and smells and try to memorize them, so they’ll be forever embedded in my memory.
I lived in the States for the first five years of my life and then for 13 years in Damascus. I moved here when I was 18, my huge dreams and goals tagging along, and have lived here for the past three years. Does this mean that, in five years, I’ll be as much of an American as I am a Syrian? I don’t think so. But I know, even if I submit to measuring distances with feet and start counting in English, that I will hold on to being Syrian for the rest of my life.
As for the color question, I don’t know. I’m not brown, but I’m not white. I will still put “Other” for every survey or application I fill out — unless it lists Middle Eastern under white. That’s when I curse them under my breath and grudgingly categorize myself as white. But in social situations, when people ask me what I am, I’ll just resort to sarcasm or truth: I’m an ice-cream-lover, a Harry Potter enthusiast and, sometimes, a huge nerd. I’m a UC Berkeley student, a writer, a California resident. I’m an American-passport-holder, which technically makes me an American. Some of these things may stay true over time, but some might change.
But I always am, and will forever remain, Syrian through and through.
“Off the Beat” guest columns will be written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.