Since arriving for orientation in Washington, D.C. about a month ago the one phrase I have heard the most when describing what my summer would be like is “remember that you’re not in America anymore”. It struck me as really self-obvious at first. Well duh we weren’t going to be in America. We were going to a place where everyone spoke Arabic (except not really) that was going to be quite conservative (except when this song was playing in the supermarket a block from our hotel) and probably really hot (except when it wasn’t.) In contrast, we were coming from America, where hardly anyone speaks Arabic, (except the roughly 1 million who do) women don’t wear hijab, (except for those who do) and Islam doesn’t have a huge presence (except for the 2.6 million Muslims in the United States).
I think the first problem with reminding our group that we weren’t in America anymore is that no one told us to be on the lookout for the similarities we’d see. We hit the ground with some of us expecting something completely different and got air conditioning, KFC, and Wi-Fi along with the call to prayer, the smell of frankincense, and the Omani sweet called helwa (like a super super sweet jello-type thing but not really). There are a lot of differences, certainly. I wouldn’t feel comfortable rocking a v-neck and shorts but I’m also not required to cover my hair outside of holy sites or wear an abaya. The eggs in the supermarket aren’t refrigerated, there are skin bleaching products instead of tanning ones, and my roommate is one of about three blondes in the entire town. But I would argue that there have been more similarities than differences. The day we learned a traditional Omani dance and one of my classmates found that it was identical to one her family does in Eritrea. The time our professor confessed to having watched the Lord of the Rings movies a dozen times each and asked my roommate for a copy of the soundtracks. The session where a classmate asked a speaking partner how to say, “Ouch” in Arabic and the speaking partner replied, “It’s very complicated. You say ‘Ouch.’”
I think the second problem with the thought that Oman or any other country is defined as “not America” is that the definition of America depends completely on who you talk to. I was asked what the American identity was in a class and knew that I couldn’t even begin to answer that in English, much less Arabic, only managing to get out that America is diverse because some people are of European descent, some from Africa, some from Asia, some live in the city, and some live in the country. What I couldn’t say in Arabic was that for some classmates here Oman feels more comfortable than the United States, (one of my classmates is excited to go through a week of Ramadan and not be one of the few people she knows that is fasting) for some classmates going to different regions in America would be like traveling to another country, and for some classmates America was the single town they’d grown up in their whole life.
Then, if you make it past trying to wrap your head around another country as being a “not America” without having an existencial crisis, you end up getting asked The Question. The Question is what you will be asked an awful lot if you don’t look like you know where you’re going, if you look out of place, or if you’re carrying a heavy bag (ie. any traveling situation or during Freshman Orientation.) The Question seems very simple at first, and for some people maybe the answer is really easy, but as time goes on it’s getting harder and harder to answer succinctly.
The Question is “Where are you from?”
Exhibit A: Kindergarden. I was frankly terrible at Kindergarden (is it possible for a child to not understand naps, Hooked on Phonics, or the proper way to hold a pencil and still turn out okay? The answer is maybe not because that child was me.) Teacher asks The Question. I say that I was born on Long Island. It’s sufficiently exotic-sounding enough that I’m cool for like a day until everyone finds out that Long Island isn’t a tropical island but is basically New York but not the cool part. No one says I look like anything but a mop of curly hair over Disney-themed clothing.
Exhibit B: High school. I move from a public school to a Catholic one. I get asked The Question and say that I’m from a public school. My Spanish teacher asks The Question, I answer, and she says I look “Hispanic” (whatever that means). My religion teacher asks only at the end of the year and adds that she thought I looked “Jewish” (whatever that means). I start trying to figure out what on Earth I “look like” because everyone seems to think something different. I go to Jordan and get mistaken for one of the Jordanian students traveling with the American group. A kid at a debate tournament after a round about Iran sanctions swears that I must be part Persian.
Exhibit C: Freshman Move-In Day. I meet all three criteria for being asked The Question and my RA is nice so of course it’s a nice icebreaker. I chirp, “Las Vegas”, get the expected “What’s it like over there?”, and everything’s cool. There is a weird period where I feel the need to add “But I was born in New York!” to this explanation but I quickly drop that. Then there are certain people who ask me The Question after I’ve known them for a while and I add that I’m Puerto Rican and Italian so they don’t have to guess.
Exhibit D: Oman. My choice to not wear abaya or headscarf automatically pegs me as an outsider, someone who isn’t from around here and for better or worse isn’t going to try to hide it, and The Question pops up often. ”I was a student at Johns Hopkins,” I reply, because I haven’t been in Las Vegas for more than five consecutive days since December. I grew up there, but I don’t know if I’m from there anymore. ”I’m studying at Columbia University next semester.” School affiliations have trumped geographical location, and now country of origin speculations run wild. ”I’m American” I insist. ”But you look Persian/Syrian/Greek/Jordanian/Egyptian! You do not look American! Where are you from?”
“لا, لا أنا من أصل الايطالية و بورتوريكو و أعيش في أمريكا”
“No, no I’m of Italian and Puerto Rican descent and I live in America.”
I think that’s probably the most succinct, and thus most inaccurate, way to answer The Question. Because 1) it’s way too broad and makes me sound like I’m in West Side Story and 2) it tells you nothing about me, just like saying that Oman is not America tells you nothing about what it’s like. It makes you stay on high alert for even minute differences instead of focusing on the similarities between people, and what you consider to be Italian-American or Puerto Rican-American or Las Vegan or Baltimorean culture is extremely subjective. Lumping people into groups is a great way to draw borders around groups instead of letting people cross those borders on the basis of a common dance or dish or idiom. Identities are fickle things, I know I’ve changed mine an awful lot for someone under the age of twenty, and I really hope that I’m not the only one that’s done this because it would make me feel like I wasn’t doing something important if it didn’t make me question a lot of preconceived notions I had.
I was speaking to one of my professors after giving a presentation about the origins and traditions of Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day. I tried to explain to him in Arabic what a leprechaun was, and he said it was like a jinn. I tried to not think of the genie from Aladdin (because apparently that’s not an accurate portrayal of a jinn) and nodded. I said goodbye in Arabic, and he said something I didn’t understand.
“Could you repeat that?”
“Legen….” he looked up at me expectantly. My mind scrambled to remember what “legen” ment in Arabic and how I was supposed to answer.
“I don’t know that word,” I finally said.
“Of course you do. Legen. . . ” I just looked at him blankly. ”Legen. . .wait for it. . . .”
“. . .dary?” I finished weakly.
He beamed. ”I love How I Met Your Mother! Do you watch it? Challenge accepted!”
I definitely think that when I get asked about the people of Oman, I’ll have a lot to say in Arabic, and I’ll know how to say that I don’t know what to call them because there’s no way to sum them up. What should we call them? I’ll wonder. What should we call me? I can’t call them one simple name, so I’ll just have to use stories. A lot of them will be about Eritrean-esque traditional Omani dances, authentic Lebanese food served by Egyptians, and my professor watching Neil Patrick Harris suit up in the house near his date farm.