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The Relatable Struggles of Being a First Generation Arab-American

posted on: Jun 1, 2022

By Nouha Elyazidi / Arab American Contributing Writer

Growing up with an Arab background in the United States is a very unique experience, to say the least. It provides you with a unique opportunity to be immersed in two vastly unique cultures and identify with both. Being a first-generation Arab American does come with its struggles, such as the feeling of not belonging and cultural confusion. Despite this, being a first-generation Arab American is such a beautiful experience, so let’s look at some instances first-generation kids can definitely relate to. 

Langauge Mixing

Photo: Arabic-English Conversation

Many first-generation children will grow up hearing Arabic in the home and with family, and English when at school and with friends. That being said, being deeply immersed in both can sometimes be confusing. A running joke among first-generation kids is that we made a new language, “Arab-glish.” This is when someone will use multiple words in different languages in the same sentence. Sometimes we will begin a sentence in Arabic and finish it in English, or vice-versa, or even integrate some words in different languages mid sentences! 

Where Are You From?

Photo: But where are you really from? Try another question

Where are you from? This question posed to a first-generation Arab-American might be harder than any final exam ever! When I am asked this question, I never know how to respond! “Where are you from” can be an inquiry about your state/location of residence, ancestry, ethnicity, or nationality. It’s especially confusing for someone who has dual citizenship or grew up somewhere different from where they currently reside. This question can be a whirlwind and make your head spin. What most end up doing is giving them a detailed description, for example, “I live in Chicago, I grew up in Cleveland, and my nationality is American and Lebanese, but my ancestry is Jordanian.” That is a very detailed description but first-generation kids usually have strong ties and connections to multiple places! 

Ethnocultural Identity Confusion

One struggle for many first-generation kids is finding their identity. Personally, I am Moroccan and American in nationality, but Moroccan in ancestry, so I always ask myself where I fit it. Living in America, sometimes I am seen as “too Arab” and less American because of my ethnic identity and dual nationality. However, when I go to Morocco, I am not “Moroccan” because I had a different experience growing up in the United States and do not know what it is like to actually grow up and live in Morocco. Many first-generation Arab Americans can relate to this struggle of belonging. 

Funny Questions

Many first-generation kids proudly exhibit their cultural identity and are more than willing to answer any questions from those who are genuinely interested in learning more about our cultures. However, we will occasionally get interesting questions about our cultures and languages. We often get asked silly things based on untrue stereotypes such as, “do you guys ride camels to schools?” or “do you even have schools in North Africa and the Middle East!?” Those questions are silly in nature and will be answered, but probably with an eye roll. One of the all-time most popular requests for first-generation kids who are also bilingual is “can you teach me a bad word in Arabic?” I am not quite sure where the fascination with learning bad words of all things came from. I think it would be much more useful if people asked questions like, “can you teach me a greeting in Arabic?” But nonetheless, first-generation kids get asked some funny and interesting questions.

The Culture Shock

Despite growing up in the United States, growing up in an Arab household is very different from growing up in a typical American household. There is a sense of shock almost when first-generation kids are exposed to American home culture for the first time. An example would be shoes in the house. Arab culture is very opposed to shoes in the house for it is seen as dirty, but it is a regular thing in many American households. Another example would be the types of food you are accustomed to and the family dynamics. It is very interesting to compare the two!

Despite some of the struggles that first-generation Arab Americans face, many of us can bond and connect with the same feelings and share our stories to build a sense of community.

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