Finding home in Bejaia

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I’m walking down the streets of my my dad’s hometown of Bejaia, Algeria, for the second time in my life. He points out the house he grew up in, the beaches he swam at and the mosque his family attended. I listen to his stories. I repeat them in my head even though I’ve heard them all before, and I take in everything that I can. It doesn’t look like any home I’ve known in the United States, but at the same time, it doesn’t exactly look foreign to me.

I feel like I am a part of the city that I’ve heard about in his stories. I see the same traditional Kabyle dresses in store displays that I have hanging in my closet at home. I hear the same Chaabi music that I’ve listened to on every family road trip. Outside every patisserie, I recognize the familiar smell of kalb el louz, which I once tried to make in my own kitchen. For the first time, I am familiar with the culture that I share with my family and ancestors. I am full of love for this place I can only wish I had known firsthand when I was growing up.

I’m in the middle of my walk with my dad along the Port of Bejaia, taking in the reflection of the city in the clear blue mirror of the Mediterranean Sea in silence. A group of rowdy boys in their early teens walks past us, breaking the silence, when I hear the word “Chinoise” muttered under one boy’s breath. It takes a minute for me to realize the word is referring to me. It stings, but I’m not angry.

I don’t even stop in time to look at the boy and defend myself, or to explain that I have ancestry here. I want to tell him that I am not Chinese, that my mother is third-generation Japanese American, that my dad was born here in Bejaia and that I grew up in the United States. But I just let the word sink in, knowing that because I don’t look like him, I don’t belong here.

It stings a second time when the merchant at the boulangerie asks my dad why his kids look different, which seems to me like he’s requesting a little more information than is necessary for us to buy some bread. I want to mutter something cold in response, but I can’t even find the words in French.

These instances are not isolated. Every time someone stares a little too long or asks questions that are a little too personal, I’m reminded that no matter how desperately I want to be a part of this culture, I will always be a mixed-race American. I was born in Boston, not Bejaia. I only know English, not French, Arabic or Kabyle. While this is where my culture is rooted, it will always only be one piece of my identity.

I try not to pay attention to the distance between myself and the otherwise homogeneous Kabyle population of the city. But as the days pass, I can’t help but see this distance become unavoidable. The town is full of families that have been living in it for generations and that share the same history, traditions and language. The community stays consistent — school classmates become lifelong friends, and childhood neighbors become family. There aren’t often outsiders in the city except the tourists who crowd the mountains and beaches every summer. So I don’t resent them for the remarks that simply point out an anomaly. I can’t blame them for being curious or confused; they have the right to be.  

So, to blend in, I start wearing sunglasses and tying my hair up — I try not be treated like an outsider in a place I’m trying so hard to find a connection with. I just want to have a meaningful family bonding experience without being reminded of how out of place I am. I want to be able to prove that I am not just a tourist, that I belong here — which is difficult when I even struggle proving that to myself.

Sometimes I feel like I need to apologize for my differences and prove myself to members of my extended family in order to gain their acceptance, even though I know they’d deny it. I can try to understand the culture, visit more often and learn a bit of French, Arabic or Kabyle — that much I owe to them. But I can’t change the genetic traits that constitute me or the American culture that I grew up in.

Relatives may welcome me as if I’m one of them, but they will always first see the fusion in my features and hear my harsh American accent. They will always first see the glaring differences between me and the other cousins or nieces or nephews before they see the similarities.

But one of the most important elements of the Kabyle people is that they consider family more valuable than anything. During my time there, our relatives cooked feasts for us every night, drove us around to explore the city every day, constantly reviewed their English just to communicate with us and treated us as if we had been there our whole lives.

I didn’t have to ask for their acceptance; it was automatic. And their warmth and affection were more than enough to make me feel like a part of the city again.

Regardless of my background and lifelong absence, my family will always offer unconditional love. And maybe I should stop thinking so hard about why I don’t deserve it and be thankful that it’s there for me to take.

Jasmine Tatah writes the Thursday column on having multiple cultural backgrounds in America.

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