Some of my most distinct early memories are the times I spent at my great-grandmother's house. The smell of her homemade grape leaves being made, the feel of her grass as my cousins and I ran outside, and the sound of a language that I could not understand.
My father is an immigrant from Jordan, making me a first-generation Arab American. Despite being a part of an immensely encouraging and loving family, I often felt a stark divide in my identity. Mine is a story that many of two cultures can relate to; my identity lay in a liminal space, I’m not considered Arab enough to relate to my Arab friends and not white enough to relate to my white friends. In his effort to assimilate to American life, my father did not pass on his language or much of his culture to his five children. I felt as though there was an entire part of myself that I was disconnected from. As I grew up, I began to mourn the parts of my history that I felt I was looking at through a glass window. I was so close to my culture, but I was seeing it from the outside.
I felt a pang of discomfort whenever my family or friends began to speak in Arabic, knowing that in another life I could have joined in the conversation. I longed for the traditions that my cousins in the Middle East were enjoying that I would not be participating in. I longed for the sense of community that being deeply immersed in a culture can provide. There were many moments of my life when I would question who I would be had I been raised in another family that was more culturally focused. This line of thinking built up a feeling of resentment inside me that I held onto for years; resentment at my dad for dismissing my need to feel connected to my culture, resentment towards society for pressuring him to repress his history in order to be accepted, and resentment towards my siblings and peers for not understanding the internal struggle I couldn’t seem to escape.
In recent years I moved to Montreal to attend university. During my time here, I have continued to question my personal identity, while meeting students from all over the world that each had their own unique beliefs and backgrounds. Marley, my close friend, had her own unique identity as her mother is Jamaican and her father is Canadian; one of the things that bonded us most was our mixed cultural backgrounds. She could relate to my identity confusion and understood the struggle that comes from standing at the edge of a community without being fully accepted into it. She, however, saw her background as a strength, believing that she had gained the insight of both communities and was able to use this to her benefit.
As I thought deeply about my past, I realized that I, too, benefitted from this duality within myself. Throughout my life, I have had a diverse group of friends that are able to discuss relevant issues from many different viewpoints. I believe that this traces back to my roots. By being a part of two cultures, I developed into a more tolerant and open-minded person that understands how history and culture can impact the beliefs and viewpoints of others. I am able to educate others because I have had to be naturally observant of those who are different from me my whole life. But most importantly, I began to understand that my identity is up to me to create. My experiences have shaped me into the woman I am today, but my future is completely up to me. I cannot change the hurt I felt in the past, but I can grow into someone who doesn’t let others tell her who she is. I am an “in-betweener,” but this is no longer my weakness. Rather, it is my greatest strength.
Isabella was a 2021 summer intern and is now a current Project Associate at the Reflection Organization. As an intern, Isabella worked on growing the Reflection Series and Reflects social media. She is a current student at McGill University pursuing a B.A. in psychology with hopes of becoming a future clinical psychologist.