Essays on Identity, Belonging & Finding Home in a Polarized World.
Updated: May 1, 2021
I lived in Kuwait for 31 years, whilst never truly feeling that I belonged there. It was the closest place to home. However, I always knew it could never be home.
I was born a multi-cultural child with two separate identities that belonged to my parents; a Middle Eastern Muslim and an Asian Catholic. I still recall my early childhood memories of decorating Christmas trees and delicately stacking the presents under the tree, while also observing Muslim religious occasions like Ramadan and the big two feasts; Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha.
These were the happy moments that I’ll forever remember and cherish. They were moments of childhood innocence and of being immersed in the moment, embracing whatever comes in my way. They were the memories that enriched my view of the world, and taught me how to embrace differences instead of viewing them with disdain. They fuelled my curious little mind and pushed me to look for the unknown between the covers of books and old magazines.
But as I grew older and was exposed to different environments beyond our household, like school playgrounds, classrooms and play dates, I soon realized that I was different. Little did I know that this was paving the way for what would be my perpetual struggle with identity, belonging and relating to others.
Things like explaining what a peanut butter and jam sandwich is to a non-English speaking classmate, or pretending that I couldn’t speak English in 6th grade in an attempt to fit in among my Arabic-only speaking peers, or worse, justifying how I was Middle Eastern when my cheeky eyes and pale-yellow skin revealed otherwise.
Sometimes, I think that those who are born with multiple identities are destined to never truly find home. In my case, I was more Middle-Eastern, but gravitated towards learning about English literature and American pop-culture, and loved Asian spring rolls and a warm bowl of vegetable noodles, complimentary of my mom’s impressive cooking skills.
According to contemporary psychology, identity is the accumulation of memories, experiences, relationships and values that influence and shape our own sense of self. Things like the nationality we hold, the language we speak, the foods we eat and even the way we dress.
But, if our life’s experiences are not linear, as it was in my case and as I believe it is now in this ever complex and globalized world, how do we begin to define who we are and based on what criteria? For the longest time, I struggled; I think I still do, with defining my own identity. I’m not exactly Eastern, Western or Asian, but probably a complex and rich formula of all these cultures.
Growing up, I was taught that culture and religion defined who we are. However, I never found myself fully able to embrace any of these single identities. How could I when my own genetics was a hybrid of multiple cultures? Multiple identities? Multiple histories and stories, and, as controversial as it may sound, even multiple religions?
I grew up in neither of my parents’ hometown, which also made me a third cultural child.
Kuwait, the country where I had lived the past 31 years, was the closest place to home, although it never really felt like home to me. It was a place where I was never allowed to own a property, open a business independently, to exist without a job visa even while I was born there, and was constantly reminded of and shamed for belonging to multiple identities. It felt like I was not allowed to embrace my identities or to take them in with pride, even if I wanted to, as I often did.
I faced rejection, within society and in romantic relationships, as I was seen as the person on the periphery of things. The label, half-Middle Eastern/Asian stuck with me for the majority of my adolescence. Until I learned how to gulp those societal labels, one after another, like a flaming hot shot of tequila. Except that there wasn’t a dizzying after effect that would numb the sharp pains of rejection I often felt, and held close to my heart.
But, this isn’t my story alone.
A few years before I left Kuwait, I had multiple conversations with people who told me they faced similar issues, albeit within a different context, with different characters and a different timeframe. But, what was intriguing in each of these stories was the theme of cultural or religious discrimination, where a person was told he/she was not allowed to be something or to belong somewhere based on a religion and a culture that was defined by their lineage rather than by a conscious choice of their own. And where they were shamed for being something they had no control over.
When we dissect these stories of prejudice and discrimination and attach a history to them, equipped with full characters and scenarios, settings and lightings, and reflect the lifelong pain and trauma that often grow as a consequence of our collective ignorance, we learn to think beyond the numbers, beyond the labels, and beyond the “us” vs. “them” division.
We learn to look at these characters with empathy, an emotion that is greatly needed in this strange age of separation, division and xenophobia, not just in Kuwait where I grew up but globally. In the Americas, in Europe, but especially within areas that are dominated by conflicts and sectarianism like the Middle East and under developing countries.
We learn the skillful art of looking at another’s story with mindfulness instead of judgment based on what we think we know. As it turns out, more often than not, we don’t actually know. We learn to listen more than we speak. As the old age philosophy goes, we have two ears and one mouth, so that we may listen more than we speak. However, we often do the opposite.
We learn to park our years of cultural and religious programming aside, even if for a moment, so we are able to look at people beyond the numbers in the evening news, morning newspaper and fake social media pages that are driven by bizarre algorithms.
We learn to employ compassion over logic, because we understand that we are emotional beings, and while we’re confronted with the inevitable pain and suffering of the world, we might just need to be seen, heard and felt in a safe space, instead of being labeled and shamed.
But, we don’t always find our home where our roots are. Sometimes, we need to move miles away, while carrying the building blocks of our new home. Some say that home is where the heart belongs. But, when the heart is blocked by pain and suffering, it might spend a lifetime not realizing what lies in front of it. Other times, it needs to grow a new perspective on seeing life.
They say we cannot heal in the same environment that broke us. While it might not hold true to everyone, it was reality in my case. I found myself constantly running from my own labels, until I realized it would always haunt me unless I break free, as cliché of a phrase as it may sound.
Today, my story took me to Canada, miles and miles away from the home that confined me, in an attempt to forget but also to reconcile with the broken shadows of my past. To change but also to add to the multiple layers of identity that had shaped my earlier upbringing and adolescence, while helping me understand the future in new lights.
But most importantly, to re-write the story of my identity and to feel integrated in a space that embraces those parts rather than rejects them, as this is where healing often starts. While realizing that it may never have the perfect ending I often fantasize about, but it is still a story I choose to write instead of having one written for me.
I truly believe that the stories we choose shape the strongest parts of our identity, and eventually help us integrate in an ever growing and challenging global world.
As I found my path to re-define my understanding of home, belonging and identity, we can all start somewhere. And it starts here.