x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

From immigrant to expatriate to my own identity

It's easy for me to live in a city that has 218 nationalities, but real harmony comes from managing to leave my bubble and exploring the other cultures around me.

There were days when I tried everything I could do to belong. I was an 11-year-old Egyptian who just moved to Canada. I tried to conform to how other Canadian youth lived, even when it just didn't fit. I learnt the language and the cultural expressions, and often misused them. I immersed myself in the pop culture, cheered at hockey games and even tried playing it. I memorised O Canada, drove through the Rockies, ate deer meat, camped on river banks, skied the diamonds of Whistler, survived the winters of Northern Quebec and tapped a tree for syrup.

I memorised the lyrics of rap songs and tried to impress my friends by reciting them nonchalantly. Look guys, I am not an immigrant, I am one of you. It didn't help that I was tone deaf and singing with an accent. They laughed. I laughed. I could not rush my immersion. In the midst of all this I tried to hang on to my roots, despite how scattered they were. I belong to the cradle of civilisation - umm al dunya - the mother of the world as we Egyptians call it.

My parents instilled in my brother and I the immigrant's creed: our disposition is a product of the sacrifices they made. We must honour that. The immigrant's creed was the most compelling argument to hard work. "Nothing comes for free," my parents would always tell us. The doors that we walked through were a testament of our persistence. Opportunities did not come our way. In fact, they ran away from us, but we chased them. That's what you do as an immigrant - you chase things.

At family gatherings, we exchanged stories about other immigrants who once washed floors, drove taxis but now drive a Mercedes and vacation in Hawaii. That's what hard work does. Just work hard. We did. We washed dishes, flipped burgers, cleaned toilets, stacked grocery shelves and occasionally got paid in food. I wanted to hold on to the values I was brought up with, but I wanted to embrace so much of what I saw around me. They seemed so contradictory. For a long time I thought I could only be one or the other.

My family struggled to fit in. My cousins and uncles changed their names so it could be easier for Canadians to pronounce them. Such is the extent that so many immigrants go through when they settle in a new country to adapt to the people. I saw many Canadians scoff underneath their breath about how Indians and Chinese live in clusters and shield themselves from the rest of the country. I saw their frustration with how some who have lived in Canada for more than a decade only knew a dozen sentences of English.

Then I came to Abu Dhabi. "We make fun of them back home, but we are doing the exact same thing here," one of my astute American friends said. Being an immigrant is sort of like being an expat. Both are strangers who only experience the richness of where they are if they break through the dividing lines. Break through because it requires effort. Break through because at times you don't feel welcome.

Last summer, one of the hoardings along the Abu Dhabi-Dubai motorway read: "Ambition. It's the reason why 218 nationalities can live together in harmony." I don't fully disagree with that statement, but I have asked myself, do we live in harmony or indifference? Life here can feel like the United Nations at times. Our strength and weakness are the same - it is our diversity. It's easy for me to live in a city that has 218 nationalities, but real harmony comes from managing to leave my bubble and exploring the other cultures around me.

Wherever home is, all the familiarities of home are here, and it's easy to stay home even when we are thousands of miles away. We like knowing a person's nationality because it fills in the gaps. It puts the person in the context of the boxed stereotypes we build about people. A person's nationality can become his shackles. If he is an Indian, he is confined to behaving like an Indian. If he is an American, he is limited to acting like an American.

We disregard that every country, every province, every state and every person you touch, moulds us into who we are. My nationality often follows my name. It is a noun, not an adjective. myoussef@thenational.ae