Caught in Between (Part I)

This is the first installment in a multi-part memoir narrating Beirutista's upbringing abroad and her wrestling between different cultures. Please also visit Parts II, III, and IV.

Sometimes I wish I weren't Lebanese. It's true: I didn't grow up in Lebanon. I was born in California to Lebanese parents who had only briefly met, fallen in love, and married as the civil war in Lebanon raged on. My father had already been living in the US, having established a home and livelihood there, and without any hesitation, my newlywed mother left her native country to embark on a new life with him. No amount of foresight or planning could have prepared her for what awaited in California, and as my brothers and I were growing, we witnessed how arduous Mom's assimilation and adaptation to the American culture were.

Mom constantly reminisced about her large family in Lebanon--her mother a widow at 29, her two brothers and four sisters--how closely-knit and loving they were, each taking an active interest in the other. They'd struggled without success to warn Mom of a life abroad, a life thousands of miles from her cherished family, homeland, and everything familiar. But Mom couldn't be convinced. She blindly followed Dad, taking with her only the fondest memories of Lebanon and the chaleur of the Mediterranean culture.

Mom and Dad raised the three of us single-handedly: they never left us with a baby-sitter, and if there were functions where kids weren't welcome, they simply didn't go. They strived relentlessly to meet fellow Lebanese families, driving us every Sunday to a Maronite church 60 kilometers away, attending church socials religiously, and even striking up conversations at the mall with complete strangers whom they'd overheard speaking Arabic. We were incubated from a young, tender age to love Lebanese hospitality, to embrace the intricacies of the culture, and to speak the language fluidly. Mom would sit us down at the kitchen table during breaks and vacations to teach us proper Arabic: reading, writing, dictation. Her passion for her mother tongue was deep-seated, as she'd majored in Arabic Literature in college and taught it since age 18 at a private school in Lebanon. Apart from this, Mom cooked traditional Lebanese dishes at home and often packed our sack lunches with spinach pies and pita sandwiches. Though we made a concerted effort to blend in at school, we couldn't hide behind our fairer, blonder classmates.

"Where are you from?" they'd pry.
"Err, from here. I was born in Riverside."
"No, where are your parents from?" they'd persist matter-of-factly.
"Lebanon," I'd concede. There was no masking it, even if few actually recognized the country or its shores.

After the Civil War ended in 1991, Mom and Dad brought us to Lebanon at least every other year to spend our entire summer break. Despite the endless flight time between Los Angeles and Beirut and the treacherous layover at Heathrow, we'd be giddy with anticipation, dressed in our finest, and our suitcases bulging from the hordes of gifts we carried. In Lebanon, we were blessed to have cousins our age, and we spent every waking minute with them either at the sporting resorts where they were members, in water parks, at the movies, or at their mountain homes. In Lebanon, too, our parents were unmistakably more lenient: we were allowed to sleep over at relatives' homes, watch TV without a daily cap, launch fireworks from the rooftop, and run around wildly to our heart's content. At our grandmother's, we would go down to the small neighborhood grocery store tucked beneath her building and buy sticky Arabic ice cream. Dad would rent a car for the summer and take us on long excursions across Lebanon, and we'd often stop for a bite at the glammed-up KFC, Pizza Hut, or McDonald's, which were novelties for our relatives and rare treats for us. We became well acquainted with the Lebanese landscape, more so than our cousins, who'd ask us where Kornayel or the Qadisha Valley lay, and to this day my friends are astonished at how well I can navigate my way through the country.

When summer ended, we packed our bags with heavy hearts, wiped tears from our eyes as we bid farewell to family, and braced ourselves for a return to austere American living, where weekends knew no excitement, holidays were spent alone, and the only entertainment imaginable was Super Mario Brothers. We'd arrive the night before the start of the new school year, intentionally having stretched our vacation to the max in Lebanon, so that we could bury our heads in our studies and forget our woes.

But forget we could not. My younger brother John Paul had stashed delivery menus of his favorite Lebanese fast food joints, Malak al Tawouk and Bliss House, and he'd pull them out of his drawer longingly whenever he ached for those summer memories. We nibbled on Lebanese mixed nuts, baklawa, and wedges of Picon cheese, delicacies Mom'd purchase by the kilo to last us into late autumn. Our attachment to Lebanon was irrepressible, and it only intensified with each visit.


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