“No, I’m not Mexican. Nope, not Latino. I’m an American who’s half Syrian and half Indian. Well actually, my father’s former nationality was Syrian. His parents were refugees from Turkey who were expelled during the Armenian genocide. No, they weren’t Armenian, they were Christians who were forced out and into Syria with the Armenians. My last name? It’s Kurdish. No, we aren’t Kurdish either… My mother? She’s from India. South India. From Mangalore. No, not Bangalore, Mangalore. With an M. Yes, I’m sure, I’ve visited there many times. Oh, you’ve never heard of it? Have you heard of Goa? Oh yes, the beach parties. Well, it’s south of Goa. Why does her last name sound Spanish? Well, the Portuguese had a colony there. No, I’m not Portuguese…” And on, and on, and on.
This is often how conversations about my background begin. This type of conversation is not limited to white or black Americans. It extends to people who are supposedly like me. The ones who fit in the Arab- or Asian-American boxes. One would think that because they have presumably had to explain their backgrounds to others, they would understand the nuances of race and ethnicity. But they don’t. Because the way Americans define race or ethnicity is blunt. Because the definition is devoid of nuance, and composed of what’s dominant.
My experience in the communities in which this country has pre-prescribed to belong is fraught with longing and disappointment. In college, I felt free to finally explore my heritage, away from a Texas high school that didn’t understand why I was brown, had a Latino-sounding name, but wasn’t Mexican or Latino. I tried to join an Indian-American student association, and went in with an open heart – finally, I was to be with my people. After all, I had spent many summers of my youth in India surrounded by aunts, cousins, and other extended family. I was so Indian! But apparently not Indian enough. My mixed-looking appearance, lack of an “Indian-sounding” name (first or last), and lack of connection to the dominant Indian ethnic sub-groups at my university closed this group off to me. Or rather, the group closed itself off from me. So I decided to embrace my Arab side, and went on to co-found the first Arab Students Association at my university. Meeting other Arabs was incredible. We formed a tight-knit group, and most everyone I met was welcoming. But still, I felt divided from my friends because I didn’t speak Arabic, and my “Arab-ness” was more complicated than my father formerly having a Syrian nationality. And more than once I was asked how my parents met because, “You know, Indians are like servants in the Middle East…”
The kicker, though was regularly being asked, “Do you feel closer to your Arab or Indian half?” This hope that I would choose a side was implicit in the question, regardless of who was asking. But how could I explain that I am not half anything, but full everything? My father may be Syrian, but I feel wholly Syrian. I taste kibbeh with a Syrian mouth, feel the ache of the oud deeply in my Syrian bones, and love fiercely with a Syrian heart. And at the same time, I speak broken Konkani with Indian lips, dance joyously to the beat of the tabla with my Indian hips, and eat rice and daal off a banana leaf with my Indian fingers.
After I got married, my new husband and I went to Turkey for our honeymoon. I was immediately in wonder of this place. “Oh, you look Turkish,” I would hear from shopkeepers and bus drivers. Waiters and tour guides. “My grandparents were from Turkey,” I would say. “But I am Syrian. No, American.” Here I was, in this country eating food that tasted more like my dad’s home cooking than any Arabic food I’d ever had in restaurants in the U.S., marveling at the fact that my last name was plastered all over shops and restaurants, but remembering that I was in the country that made refugees out of my grandparents. How alien they must have felt in Syria, which was not theirs, but would eventually become their children’s country, and how their granddaughter would be identified somewhere halfway across their world.
“The Great Gatsby’s” famous narrator Nick Carraway said he felt “within and without.” That is how I feel, every day, all the time. Within, and without. Belonging everywhere, and nowhere, all at the same time.
So, I will not check any boxes. Because I am within and without. I am a child of the history of the world. One borne of massacre, and colonialism, and immigration, but most importantly, one borne of love that traversed boundaries and definitions and literally made me what I am.