Caught in Between (Part II)

This is the second installment in a multi-part series narrating Beirutista's upbringing abroad and her wrestling between different cultures.
See also Parts IIII, and IV of this series.

In 1992 and again in 1994, my parents attempted to transplant us to Lebanon for good, enrolling us at the only American school at the time--Sagesse High in Ain Saadeh--and buying a house in nearby Mansourieh. Student life in Lebanon was nothing like that in California: students were more critical, judgmental, and devoutly conformist. A few hissed at me the first few days, when I was still without a school uniform: for my delinquency, I risked severe "danger." Teachers were stern, immune to doling out physical discipline in the form of a slap or a tug at the ear. My brothers and I suffered miserably in French class and had to enroll in remedial Arabic classes. But we were kids, and kids are resilient.

We quickly learned to embrace our new world. We'd buy chips at lunch, not for the junk food but for the dinky toy enclosed inside. We learned to write with a calligraphy pen; to blot out errors with white-out, or as the Lebanese prefer, "typex"; and to call erasers "rubbers." Instead of raising our hand in class to answer a question, we simply raised our forefinger, in typical Lebanese fashion. It was a different orthodoxy, and we bent under its reign.

As soon as we felt like we'd begun to adapt, having found our crowd and acquired a taste for salt-and-vinegar chips, our parents pulled us out and explained that we'd be returning to California. The job climate in Lebanon wasn't too friendly, especially in the immediate wake of the Civil War, and Dad had no desire to weather it. So we trekked back to the US, heads hanging low and spirits dampened. Our short-lived memories in Lebanon would only fuel our desire to come back without delay.

By the ninth grade, I'd contrived a plan to settle permanently in Lebanon, and the American University of Beirut was my salvation. In my mind, I had to be the perfect scholar to be admitted. I tore ravenously through high school, enrolling in every possible honors or college-level AP course available, maxing out on semester credits, participating in extra-curricular activities, volunteering with local organizations, sitting on the School Site Council, and heading my school's chapters of the Future Business Leaders of America and Le Cercle Francais. I took the SATs at the end of my freshman year rather than junior or senior year, a testament to how earnest I was to get the college journey underway. I tutored mathematics during my lunch period. I competed in the grueling Academic Decathlon three years in a row. I snatched up every academic award and accolade there was to be had. I wanted my curriculum vitae to be exceptional and irrefutable. I wanted the AUB Dean of Admissions to be swept off his feet, to admit me without reservation and usher me into the halls of the beautiful seaside institution where I'd make my mark.

I developed insomnia the second semester of my senior year as I awaited news on the status of my application. I feared denial. What if I didn't get in? What if my dreams were curbed, my hopes dashed? Surely the universe was plotting to keep me away from my beloved Lebanon. But then it came: the long yearned-for manila envelop that cradled the precious letter of acceptance. I leapt with joy: my hard work had paid off and I was on my way to realizing my dream.

We flew to Lebanon just days after my high school graduation, and one week later, I got an email congratulating me on receiving one of ten full merit scholarships awarded to outstanding incoming freshman. I couldn't believe it. Not only had I been admitted, the red carpet was being rolled out. Dad accompanied me to campus for a visit, where we met with the Dean of Arts & Sciences and a physics professor who'd been assigned to be my counselor. Their reception though was not quite the way I'd played it out in my head. They gaped at me wide-eyed: how could I even be considering AUB when I had the opportunity to study in the US? What did I want with the AUB when I held acceptances from Caltech, UCLA, USC, and the ranks of them? I would never fit in at their university, they insisted. The culture of cheating and student deceitfulness would overwhelm me, and there was no hope of thriving or competing in such an atmosphere. Dad and I stared at each other, befuddled. All of a sudden, my self-confidence evaporated, and I reddened with embarrassment as I explained my childhood dream of living in Lebanon and attending the AUB. The idea seemed silly, and I began to question my own rationality.

We toured campus and the girls' dorm, and at the end of the day, Dad stopped by the bursar's office to pay the $300 registration fee. Though we hadn't discussed whether AUB would be the right fit for me, Dad didn't want anything standing in my way, whatever I decided. His silence communicated volumes to me, and I knew then and there I'd be trudging back home, back to California, back to the so-called land of opportunity.

Dad stayed for less than a month that summer, and I found myself pre-registering online for honors courses at the University of California, Irvine, where my older brother Andre was a rising junior. I, like Andre, had been generously welcomed at UCI with the prestigious Regents Scholarship, which would pay my four-year tuition in full, along with fees, books, personal costs, and even a summer abroad. UCI is in Newport Beach, which was a 40-minute drive from our home in Riverside. Its prestigious, award-winning Campus-wide Honors Program, comparable in rigor to any Ivy League education, was attractive. The school of engineering boasted a very accomplished faculty, state-of-the-art research labs, and every engineering course imaginable.

Though my heart ached for AUB and the return to my roots which I'd entertained, my mind grew at ease as it wrapped itself around the idea of attending a renowned US university, highly ranked and accredited, and in sunny Southern California, a stone's throw from home. I'd missed the deadline to enroll for dorm housing, but I didn't mind the train commute, an hour each way. In fact, for two years, I rode the train contentedly, to and fro, squeezing in study time I otherwise wouldn't have. I had to come home at the end of the day. I just had to. Home was my Little Lebanon, a taste of the old country that my parents had preserved and nurtured in us. Home was a bastion of Lebanese food, Lebanese hospitality, and Lebanese warmth. Home was my lifeblood. And I still needed it every day.

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