"Where are you from?"

January 24, 2016
La version française sera bientôt publiée.



Ask any foreigner in the United States. Where are you from, sometimes perceived as a slightly intrusive question by unexpecting newcomers, and sometimes even a form of catcalling, is yet the most common question any immigrant to this country will hear. Because in America, the ultimate land of immigration, "Where are you from" means "What the hell are you?". Friend or foe? Conservative or liberal? What do you worship? What do you believe? What is your agenda? What do you want?

And the answer to these implied questions cannot be defined by a simple passport.

I, for my part, hear this question every single day, even in the simplest interactions that require me to open my mouth and speak. Mainly because of my accent, an eclectic mix of French, British, and German. There are also the uncommon expressions I use, some directly transliterated from the five languages I speak. There's also the my appearance, which people have, through the years, defined as the following:

Irish. Scottish. British. 
(Sorry, folks. I do love the UK and shiver every time I hear God Save The Queen and Rule, Britannia, and I was obsessed with Princess Diana when I was six, but I don't have any anglo-saxon blood.)

Russian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Romanian.
(We're getting slightly warmer.)

Greek, Italian, Israeli. 
(Close.)

Japanese.
(Whaaat?!)


For my part, to answer this question the best I can, I consider myself to be mainly from
three different countries. Lebanon, France, and the United States.

Byblos, Lebanon. I could remain by the Mediterranean Sea forever.
Lebanon, where I was born, is the sea, the original source of life. The foam from which the goddess of womanhood emerged. The Mediterranean iodised air that jolts one back to life and health when they return to visit. The historical patrimony, the hundreds-year-old churches, mosques, and forts, and the antique ruins that make me proud to have been born in this land. The connection I feel to my ancient roots, to the Mediterranean gods and goddesses, who still live through legends and traditions.

Downtown Beyrouth, the birthplace of so many childhood memories.
But Lebanon is also conflict, internal and external. It is the imposition of boundless pride that borders narcissism. Its language is one that triggers back memories of abuse and insupportable vociferations by nepotistic politicians on the 8 o'clock news. It is this identity, that when forced on me, fills me with a chill of panic and makes me want to run away, and annihilate it. It is this absurd post-colonialist, nationalist Arab identity that was imposed on radically different nations and people. Lebanon is also the country in which I don't fit, with my poor mastery of its language, my tall stature, my light skin that quickly burns under its sun, and my red hair, that makes many men there mistake me for an Eastern-European prostitute. Lebanon is where I am in danger of being raped for being myself. Lebanon is where I go with my "real woman" silhouette, and get judgmental looks and comments from stick-skinny women with perfect hair, nails, make-up at all times, and Botox and plastic surgery that I get pressured to have done by some who think they are giving me friendly, or even motherly advice. Lebanon is the danger that I am under because I have countless Jewish friends that I love and care about, and because I refuse to systematically hate a nation, and most importantly, because I will never be a Holocaust-denying coward. It's the threat of being killed for high treason because I am a strong advocate for peace and love with our neighbours.

The street where I lived in the 11th Arrondissement.
France. Like all these quintessentially French women who were born elsewhere, from Marie-Antoinette to Romy Schneider, France and I have mutually adopted one another. It is this taste for refinement and distinction that I was born with. It's language is my mother tongue, that which I spoke naturally and without any accent since birth. And France is the cradle of my intellectual awakening and the outer reflection my values: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Secularism. Freedom of expression. Curiosity. Veneration of art. Love, passionate, intense, crazy love. France is my heart that broke twice in the last year, after the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the November 13th attacks, and the anger and nationalistic pride I felt after this country, my country, had its very essence attacked by terrorists. France is the emotion that shook every fiber of me, and the tears that ran down my cheeks as I stood among a large crowd at the Lafayette Square candlelight vigil the next day, holding French flags, and singing La Marseillaise in hushed tones.

November 14th vigil at Lafayette Square.
But France also comes with painful rejection. From high-school kids who tell me that I am not one of theirs because I was not born in France, to officers at the French consulate who inform me that because of my Lebanese nationality, the waiting time to obtain a visa will be twice as long, and the possibilities of obtaining it might be low. France shamefully reminds me of my "white privilege", and that if I had a stereotypically Middle-Eastern appearance, I would likely be subjected to discrimination and racism within its borders. And France is unfortunately the poll numbers that show Marine Le Pen's Front National gaining popularity, a sign that French citizens are giving into xenophobia and are no longer willing to welcome the foreigners that for decades and decades have enriched the country and its culture.

Adams Morgans, the scenery of some of my happiest memories in DC.
The United States. That which was the vast unknown that swallowed away the relatives and friends that were lucky enough to obtain a visa. The country that fascinated me with its popular culture, its actresses and singers, but that also impressed me because of its military and its status as the first world power. The country that people spoke about with both admiration and blame. The inaccessible Nirvana, where I thought going to would be impossible, let alone remain there.

And yet, now, after a visit ten years ago that was supposed to last only a summer, each time I pass through customs at the airport, after waiting in the much shorter line reserved to US citizens and permanent residents, the agent returns my documents to me and, with a smile, tells me "welcome home".

New York. <3 i="" nbsp="">
Because America, the land of opportunities, is home. I may criticise it all I want, complain like a good French girl about the inedible, hormone-filled food and the idle lifestyle that made me gain weight, the intolerance of evangelical Christians, ferocious capitalism, lack of gun control, police brutality, and Sarah bloody Pailin, but America, with its many contrasts, is home. It is the country where I was able to be myself: a free woman. A person who only needs to want success in order to get it. And, thanks to this summer's Supreme Court decision, a lesbian who can marry any person she loves without fearing discrimination.

Two weeks ago, I have sent my application for naturalisation in the mail. Before the end of 2016, I will have recited the pledge of allegiance in a formal ceremony, and, holding at last the prized US passeport, I will be able to freely explore the world. And I will be more than proud to be an American.

The Georgetown Harbour with the Kennedy Center. My oasis of peace.
And on the side lines, there are these two countries that influence me greatly: Germany and Italy. Two countries, and two contrasting cultures that have still defined my upbringing. German is the second language I learned when I was put in a German-immersion school in Lebanon. The school, where, by the way, I was taught english with the British accent that always, always prompts questions about my identity. German is both the tongue of toughness and romance. It is the traditions that I looked forward to my childhood, imported by sun-hungry German expatriates into this tiny Mediterranean piece of land. It is the grammar that intimidated me, the schooling I rebelled against because of the brutish teachers I had, until the unexpectedly kind and gentle Frau S. and Frau C. taught me to appreciate it again and feel secure using it.

Italy is still an unexplored land for me, but one to which I feel an intense closeness, as if my distant Italian blood was intensely rushing back to me. The Italian language is one that I've taught myself by listening to opera and reading translations of books that I knew almost by heart. It is a language so close to my beloved French, but yet, like a long-lost fraternal twin, not quite the same, and I cannot help but feel a jolt of excitement when I naturally understand the turn of a sentence or an expression that is identical to its French equivalent.

This is my complicated take on identity, and my attempt to define my very own. I am certain that every single person has very complex definition of their identity, no matter how much they are encouraged to pick just one and stick to it. The thing is, unlike long-gone generations where people barely got out of their villages or cities, let alone their countries, today we can have access to the entire world from television, computers, and even a mobile phone. Identities are mixed and matched and in the end, good for us. It only makes us more aware of the diversity of humanity, and of the preciousness of global heritage. And it reminds us that is our generation's responsibility to preserve this diverse heritage, and, rather that send it on a one-way trip to the melting pot like our ancestors dit, take pride in it and let its infinite facets always shine bright.

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