Greetings dear readers, from the hallowed lands on which this blog was in fact originally founded (fun fact); Egypt. As I write these words I am halfway into my first visit back in just over three years. This post comes as a result of the inner struggle and range of emotions I’ve experienced since being back. I apologize for the fact that it is mostly comprised of my musings on being an outsider to your own culture and has little to do with veganism per se, so if that doesn’t interest you please feel free to skip this one. I will add however that it is an extremely important subject to me, and I hope that by discussing it I can in some way shed light on it that may comfort others who find themselves similarly afflicted.
Now for those of you aren’t familiar with my somewhat confusing back story, I’m what most people would refer to as a third culture kid. Both of my parents and my entire extended family are originally Egyptian, but I was born and raised in the Kingdom of Bahrain where I lived up until I was 17. I attended university and worked in the UK for 4 years and am now back to living permanently in Bahrain.
Growing up in the Arabian gulf my exposure to Egyptian culture was limited to my own household and yearly month-long visits to Egypt spent between Cairo and Alexandria where we would visit relatives and travel around the country. My parents always lamented the fact that my brother and I spoke English before we spoke Arabic as children, and our cousins never failed to point out the mistakes in our broken Egyptian accents, but we paid no mind and were happy all the same.
In my early years I never felt like an expatriate in Bahrain. We had tons of Egyptian family friends, and the British primary school I attended comprised of students from a list of nationalities more diverse than the UN itself. I made friends with kids from all over the world; India, the UK, Pakistan, Lebanon, Bahrain, The Philippines – you name it.
When I moved schools (to what was eventually the American high school I graduated from) I was slapped in the face with a dose of Bahraini culture in the form of a not-so-diverse student body that, for the most part, took pleasure in singling out students that didn’t quite fit in the cookie cutter mould. I quickly learned that speaking in my native Egyptian Arabic dialect was a no-go, that my long curly hair was considered freakish and “weird”, and that the expressive reading techniques that I had been encouraged to use in my old school would get me nothing but merciless taunting.
Fast forward a few years and I had come into my own. By middle school, I had a great group of friends, most of whom were more like myself – highly westernized Arab expats or mixed Bahrainis. We spoke English 99 percent of the time, listened to American bands, worshipped British TV shows and dressed a little less conservatively than most of our schoolmates. My friends and I can all attest that we had a great high school experience – this isn’t one of those stories. I’m also happy to report that as we got older our student body became much more diverse and tolerant in terms of bullying – but to say that I felt completely comfortable with my cultural identity would be a lie. When I did speak Arabic, I spoke Bahraini Arabic almost exclusively, even, ironically at times to some of my Arabic teachers who were fellow Egyptians. The possibility that I would be singled out, teased or mocked for speaking differently was too great a risk for me. But anyways, I digress.
Moving on to the formative years of University. I spent four years studying and working in the United Kingdom. Cue another culture shock from all angles – weather, food, language and socializing to name a few. My British friends couldn’t for the life of them understand why I spoke with a quasi-American accent (the explanation that all my high-school teachers were mostly American or Canadian didn’t seem to suffice), or why I wasn’t covered from head to toe having hailed from an island just off the coast of Saudi Arabia. I didn’t understand why Brits seemed to love queues more than life itself, or how anyone could touch marmite with a ten foot pole.
That said I integrated pretty well eventually and left the UK with priceless memories and life experiences that I will always cherish. But what, you may wonder, became of my already withering cultural identity after being abroad for so long? The answer is; not much.
During the summer of my penultimate year of university I spent close to a month in Egypt to renew my student visa for the UK. It was odd being back, at that age, to a place that felt so far from being home in every sense of the word. A place that was neither Bahrain – the country I’d grown up in and become accustomed to spending summers in, nor was it England, my new “home” and current place of domicile. My Arabic was as rusty as ever, and I hadn’t the slightest idea on what the socio-cultural norms had morphed in to, particularly hot off of the revolution that had taken place earlier that year in January 2011. Add on top of it the fact that I was just on the cusp of transitioning into veganism, and transitioning out of restrictive eating habits, I don’t think I possibly could’ve felt like more of an outsider.
I stumbled, fell and found my footing during that trip. I vowed to make a change and channeled all my energy into trying to “fit in”. I read Arabic books and newspapers, watched Egyptian talk-shows with my family and even forced myself out of my comfort zone by volunteering to attend social functions and visits with my mom that I would usually opt out of. I was practically glued to twitter, and kept myself informed on all things related to the ongoing revolution and protests. By the end of the trip, I had developed a new love and connection to my culture that I had never really had a chance to experience before. I even found myself struggling to switch back to speaking in English once I got back to university – definitely a first.
Following that visit, my absence of three years can be attributed to graduating from university, and settling into a new job and life back in Bahrain. Any time off I had I spent traveling to obscure corners of the world and needless to say my travel plans hardly ever coincided with my parents’ semi-regular visits back to Egypt. So when it came time to plan a trip this September, for a family wedding, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. My anxiety mounted as the trip grew closer and rather than deal with what may befall me I simply ignored it until it was time to get on the plane.
The second I landed, I found myself, once again, feeling like an absolute stranger in what was supposed to be my home country. Sure I may hold the same little green passport, and sport the same signature curly hair as many of my fellow countrymen and women, but the similarities ended there. I walked through the airport dumbfounded – confused and worried at the most insignificant details like whether or not I could fill out a landing card in English or if I could board a shuttle bus without paying a fare. I wasn’t dressed outrageously, but people took one look at me and could instantly tell I wasn’t from there.
I had a long layover at the domestic terminal before I got on to my flight to meet my mom and brother in Hurghada, a resort-type area by the Red Sea. I spent most of it people watching, silently observing, like a goldfish in a tank staring out at a room full of people; although ironically I would also liken how I felt during those moments to a fish out of water.
As I grow older this feeling only seems to magnify, and torment me further. The feeling that I don’t truly belong…anywhere. The feeling that my ethnicity and cultural identity are so completely disconnected from one another. Someone once told me that your home town is where you spent the majority of your life, or in other words where you grew up. I suppose if I had to pick anywhere that feels most like “home” to me, it would be Bahrain – in the sense that I feel comfortable there. It’s familiar. All my childhood memories are tied to it, most of my close friends still live there, and I’ve built my career there thus far. I know my way around the roads, and I can tell you in a split second what all the good restaurants and places of interest are.
But when I look at what actually ties me to Bahrain I realize that the only thing keeping me there is my job and consequent work permit. Without it I would plain and simply be asked to leave the country, being far too old now to be a dependent on either of my parents’ work permits, and not having a Bahraini passport. (For the record, I have applied for one twice; once with my family and once individually, to no avail as of yet). So how could home be a place where I would no longer be welcome if the day came that I was suddenly unemployed? That fact in itself is pretty unsettling, and something that I have to grapple with on a daily basis.
Furthermore, despite the fact that I am obviously privy to socio-cutural norms, speak the local dialect and understand local customs and traditions, at the end of the day, I’m just not Bahraini. I will never be treated as an equal to a local – not at a social gathering, not in a business meeting, nor when trying to buy property or even establish my own company.
As for Egypt, I have always maintained, from a very young age, that while I immensely enjoy visiting – I could never live there. Partly because I’ve become such an outsider and am so disconnected from cultural norms but largely because I’ve grown accustomed to a standard of living that I wouldn’t be able to easily replicate. Things like a tax-free income, driving my own car, an easy commute to work, decent air quality and even the ability to be mobile and feel safe as a young single woman walking the streets are all aspects of my admittedly cushy life that I would have to give up.
So the question remains – where is home and what is my true cultural identity?
I have no definitive answers for either – but what I do know is this: I am extremely fortunate to have been exposed to and influenced by so many different cultures from such a young age. I’m also very lucky to have grown up in a safe and liberal country – a rarity in a region that has become infamous for it’s instability and tumult in recent years. I’m immensely grateful for having had the opportunity to live and study abroad. I’ll never take for granted how that experience shaped me and helped me evolve into the person that I am today. I’m also conscious that I have garnered the ability to be able to relate to so many different types of people – whether it’s Bahrainis, other Arab expats who grew up in the GCC, Egyptians, or even Brits. For all the anxiety inducing aspects of being a “global citizen”, there’s definitely a silver lining.
My solution to this ongoing dilemma of mine would be to say that I’ll simply go on as I have, and that I won’t stress over the minutiae details of where I’m from and who I am culturally. I’ll be thankful for all the wonderful benefits being a third culture kid has afforded me, including might I add, being exposed to and eventually finding my path towards veganism. It would be to say that I’m creating my own cultural identity, one that’s completely unique to me, and that just because it isn’t what society dictates as the norm – doesn’t make it abnormal.
The only problem with that solution?
It might get a little lonely.