I have always felt proud to be Afghan and American, simultaneously. Afghan-American: the hyphenation is incredibly important because it is where I draw my identity from. I am not only one or the other, but rather, a mix of both.
When I was in Kindergarten, I remember befriending other first or second-generation American children, who like me, were silently confused. Imagine being surrounded by kids your age and a teacher who doesn’t speak your language and doesn’t know your culture. Some days, I came home in tears, grieving for the challenge my parents had presented me – with an American birth and an Afghan background. When I started school, they were worried about whether or not I would succeed. As a second-generation Afghan-American, I spoke Persian at home. English was a second language. Thankfully, I had wonderful teachers who assured them I would learn in no time.
English Speakers of Other Languages classes also helped tremendously. I remember my bubbly teacher who loved arts and crafts. She had us practice words by writing little books to take home. And we always had dessert in that class! For one lesson, she brought in mini pancakes and had us put whipped cream and fruits on them while taking turns talking about the shapes, colors and flavors of our food. These interactive, inter-cultural classes were the best part of my day.
Over the years, I was frequently asked what my name meant and where I was from. Somehow I became a walking encyclopedia for Afghanistan, especially for those who had never heard of the country. I wore my culture with pride, but somehow the origins of my parents was used time and time again to make me feel like a stranger in the land I was born in.
It was wonderful and perplexing when I finally had the chance to visit Afghanistan. Here, people all spoke my parents’ language. They understood the culture I had only experienced at home and with other Afghan friends back in America. But the hyphenation came into play again. Even in my motherland, the home of ancestors to whom I ached to feel connected, I was a visiting foreigner.
My cousins asked me a lot about American life. I was a celebrity of sorts and they were highly interested in everything. Some were astonished that I could converse fluently in Persian, knew the dominant religion and was already happily accustomed to eating delicious Afghan cuisine. They were impressed when I claimed that I did not have a boyfriend and that I rarely pluck my eyebrows. How could I be so Afghan as an American? Again, I was acutely aware of being different and an encyclopedia of the United States of America, this time.
I have many stories where I felt I had to pick whether to be Afghan or American. The cultures can clash. Today, I’ve become comfortable having eased my soul into a calm agreement of who I am and what I stand for. I will never be 100% Afghan or 100% American, but it doesn’t matter because I am content as an artistic compilation of the two.
Editor’s Note: This story was written as part of a collaboration between Free Women Writers and StoryCenter’s Silence Speaks initiative, involving a three-part online storytelling workshop. For more information about Free Women Writers, contact Noorjahan Akbar. For more information about Silence Speaks, contact Amy Hill.
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