Caught In Between (Part III)

This is the third installment in a multi-part series narrating Beirutista's upbringing abroad and her wrestling between different cultures.
See other posts in this series here: Part I, Part II, Part IV

At UC Irvine, I was vigilant for any scent of Lebanese life. I scouted Ring Road, the campus perimeter, during club week and discovered the Lebanese Social Club as well as the Society of Arab Students, both of which I quickly signed up for.

In classes, too, if I overheard anyone speaking Arabic or if their appearance seemed mildly Mediterranean, I'd summon the courage to introduce myself. There were two--cousins, in fact--in my sophomore engineering statics class who, coincidentally, hailed from the same city where we live in Lebanon. But having freshly arrived from Lebanon, they were anxious to mask their roots and blend in with American mainstream society, a stark contrast to my pride in my heritage. I had shed the self-consciousness from my days in grade school, and now when students asked about my heritage, I quickly, and passionately, proffered Lebanese.

In my quest for the optimum graduate school experience, I considered, along with college ranking, the presence of an active Lebanese group on campus. I dismissed acceptances from Columbia, Princeton, Stanford, and Cornell partly because their Lebanese population was nothing to brag about. Luckily, my top pick academically also boasted a considerable proportion of Lebanese students in addition to a very active circle: the Lebanese Club @ MIT (LCM). LCM had gained city-wide acclaim for its biannual cultural soirĂ©e, Libanissimo, which would draw out hundreds of Lebanese, both students and professionals, from around Boston and its periphery. In fact, during my visit on campus preview weekend, I was overjoyed to meet a fellow Lebanese student in the mechanical engineering department, interpreting it as a sign that MIT would feel like home.

And it was. For two years, I surrounded myself exclusively with Lebanese students. We'd meet on Sunday nights for LCM meetings and informally during the week over lunch, dinner, or coffee breaks. Saturdays we'd shop for Lebanese goods at Armenian grocery stores near Harvard in Watertown. We planned outings to Norwood to dine at the well-known Cedars restaurant that served up traditional mezze and belly dancing. We joined Lebanese entrepreneurial groups to get in touch with Lebanese professionals working in Boston. We celebrated mass at a Lebanese Maronite parish in Jamaica Plain, a 45-minute ride by metro from campus. No distance or effort was too great.

In the summer of 2009 shortly after graduation, I moved to Paris to begin my MBA. Unlike most Lebanese people, I had no relatives or friends already residing in Paris, so I had to build my network from the ground up. The Lebanese cathedral in Paris, Notre Dame du Liban, had an adjunct dorm called Foyer Franco-Libanais for Lebanese students, and it served traditional Lebanese meals in its basement canteen. My first month in Paris, I dragged along my British friend and classmate, under the pretext of exceptional Mediterranean home cooking, to dinner at the dorm, and as two single girls who were new to the community, we soon found ourselves surrounded by chatty male dining companions.

Lebanese boys are not particularly renowned for their timidity, and these Parisian Libanos were the godfathers of arrogance. They would deride their European housemates in Arabic, dismissing them as too run of the mill and stupid. They spoke effusively of themselves, how slick they were, which clubs were their favorite haunts, and how to seduce a French girl with their exotic Arabic accents and olive-tinted skin. After forcing myself to go out on a few occasions with them, I shunned their self-importance and tired of their inflated talk. They spoke of women as subservient simpletons whose education should be curbed and who best functioned in the domestic sphere.

Of course I was Lebanese and familiar with this archetype, but having been born and raised in the US and taught that "all men are created equal," I had no patience for these hotheads. I stopped frequenting the canteen altogether. I'd attend mass early on Sunday mornings along with the octogenarians because I knew that the younger folk populated the evening mass. When I heard Lebanese spoken in the street or on the metro, I looked away. The only thing Lebanese I'd permit myself was the occasional mankouche or kafta poulet at Chez Le Libanais, a hole in the wall that served delicious Lebanese grub on a sajj.

I had come 180. Paris was that turning point in my fetish for all things Lebanese. I recoiled from those whom I used to seek out. My eagerness had fizzled out, and I began to discriminate. Blind acceptance succumbed to critical observation, and awareness replaced naivete. In my book, being Lebanese no longer sufficed. I had scratched the surface, but I needed to dig deeper.

Comments

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    1. Only if my lovely readers demand it :)

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  2. Yes, please write a part IV :D I just stumbled upon your blog and after browsing through some older posts your writing struck a chord with me on so many levels. Being raised in Boston, I vividly remember my family's trips to the church in Jamaica Plain on Christmas and Easter. Now after relocating to Lebanon, I find myself in a similar scenario of being lost in translation, of being bewitched by this country, and of constantly having the American and Lebanese parts of me intermingle. Your observations are as if you read the ideas in my mind as they are on par with mine! I find your work and journey motivational :) Keep up the great work!

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    1. I promise to publish the next chapter in this series very soon! Thanks for your kind words--I'm so glad you found relevance in my chronicles.

      By the way, about them bagels, Duree Resto and Bread Circle in Achrafieh sell them. I can't vouch for their taste or authenticity though--at your own risk!

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