Essay: The journey to embracing my mixed ethnicity

Sarah Abdelkahlek, a junior majoring in psychology, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

As a child, I spent a lot of time in my mother’s hometown about 100 miles outside of Pittsburgh. This small, charming dot on the map has a population that is 97 percent white. Needless to say, I stood out with my tan skin, dark eyes and curls large enough to host all 7,597 people who live there. My unusual features sometimes elicited questioning looks, pointed fingers and snide remarks.

A few weeks after my fifth birthday, my mother and I stood in line at her favorite childhood restaurant. The bell on the entrance door dinged and an older couple entered. They took one look at me and my fair-skinned, hazel-eyed, blonde mother and commended her for adopting me. At the time, I was too young to understand how offensive this comment actually was but old enough to sense that it made my mother uneasy. It was clear that the couple was not ill-intentioned, but it highlighted the ignorance that surrounds my ethnic ambiguity.

Media Credit: Emily Robinson | Design Assistant

If I had a penny for every time someone has asked me “What are you?,” I could likely pay the full tuitions of every student in my class at GW. From strangers on the street to job interviewers to professors, the question does not seem off limits to anyone. I am not personally offended by the question, but it becomes a bit cumbersome to answer over and over again.

My initial response is always the same: “I am human.” Then I usually elaborate on my ethnicity. As easy as answering the question of “what I am” seems, it used to be hard for me. I hopelessly longed to blend in without being singled out. Now, however, I am proud to share that I am Egyptian American. But getting to this point was no easy feat: I had to reconcile the two very different sides of my family.

My parents, a small-town Pennsylvanian and an Egyptian immigrant, met at a restaurant in Pittsburgh in the early 1990’s. My father, eager to contribute to his new country, quickly joined the Marine Corps. My father proposed to my mother before leaving for boot camp, and they soon tied the knot, despite reluctance from both of their families. My mother’s family was surprised, as they thought she would end up with someone from her town, as many people did. They knew very little about my father and his ethnic background but eventually accepted him. My father’s family — almost 6,000 miles away in Egypt — did not get to meet my mother before she shared their last name. With time, they, too, came to love her as one of their own. Two years later, I was born. My parents named me Sarah — a name that has both Western and Arab roots.

My first language is English, but I have picked up some Arabic over the years, thanks to my paternal grandmother’s favorite Arabic-dubbed Turkish soap operas. She taught me the importance of serving guests with the finest tea and biscuits, burning bukhoor to freshen the house and making enough baklava to cover the thousands of miles between here and Egypt. She, along with the rest of my eccentric Egyptian family, urged me to take pride in my heritage. This, however, proved to be a lot easier said than done in a post-9/11 world.

In a time when anyone with dark features and a complicated, Arabic-sounding last name was labeled a “terrorist” or “terrorist sympathizer,” it seemed imperative to distance myself from some parts of my culture. For a long time, I desperately clung to things that made me “white.” I thought that packing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch instead of leftover koshary would make me more normal. I thought that spending hours straightening my unruly hair would make me more relatable. I thought that associating more with my mother’s white side of the family would make me more “American.” Maintaining this facade was exhausting, and naturally, I began to lose sense of who I truly was.

It was not until my junior year of high school when I realized the error of my ways. I was compiling pictures for a class project and stumbled upon old photos of our family trip to Egypt in 2008. In that moment, I was overcome by nostalgia, unhappiness and regret — mostly regret, though. How could I repress such an important part of my identity? Why would I acknowledge only one culture when I am lucky enough to have two?

Starting college was a pivotal moment in my journey to explore my mixed identity. I was surrounded by a diverse crowd: 3.5 percent of my fellow undergraduate students identify as multiple races. I recently learned that there is even a student organization at GW for those who “fill out more than one box on forms asking for race/ethnicity.” With so much diversity around me, I no longer feel like an outsider.

For instance, I met one of my best friends, who is half-German and half-Lebanese, in a religion course my freshman year. We immediately bonded over the struggle of having language barriers in the house and feeling divided on religious holidays. We also discussed how difficult it can be to form an identity when we feel we don’t fully fit because we’re only “half” or, conversely, too much of one and not the other.

Although staying true to both distinct halves of who I am has not always been effortless, I would not want it any other way. I embrace the fact that I can immerse myself in two cultures. I look forward to one day telling my future curly-haired kids my story, but in the meantime, you can catch me walking around campus shamelessly blasting Amr Diab or Justin Timberlake, with a Tasty Kabob gyro or Chick-fil-A sandwich in hand.

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