I first remember practising some lingo that sounded so inherently American while hanging upside down from the railing of the playground at my primary school in Missouri. He said, “I say,that?” again.
several times all by myself (using a shocked expression I’d heard on TV numerous times before). The final part of intonation was meant to seem like a question or a sudden outburst, so please pardon any oddities. He elongated his “Quéééé?” for comedic effect.
Time in the rec room came and went, but my quest for perfection did not. That’s what I told myself, anyway.
If I could just say those words with the same American equanimity and almost without moving my lips as the children did in my favourite family sitcoms, I’d be mistaken for a giddy American girl who strolled the halls laughing with her friends instead of a strange Lebanese girl whose classmates were trying to get away from her.
I intended to debut it during lunch and deliver it with the air of a sudden epiphany. Those who heard it would definitely put their arms around my shoulders in a loving embrace, as on “The Cosby Show” or “Saved by the Bell.”
However, as I hung there with blood pouring into my brain, nothing improved. That’s why the Arabic accent made it appear practised and artificial.
I’ve made my point known. He finally said the words he had been struggling to find the right way to say, and they landed with a thud. They were met with mostly blank stares and some derisive laughter. He had to try again with a different turn of words.
I looked up to the celebrities of the ’80s and ’90s, who popularised many terms that came to define the era and were often originated by kids or nerds. Don’t worry about it so much, pal. The question is, “I did that?”
Embodiment of that All-American Fantasy,
Teenagers, the embodiment of that all-American fantasy, and their slang more than anything else grabbed me. The significance of pardon me they said it was almost negligible in comparison to what they actually said (the intonation and the way that gave life to those words).
I made an effort to adopt the personas of everyone from ultra-chic Denise Huxtable to goofy Kelly Bundy to snarky Darlene Conner to refined Whitley Gilbert to romantic Angela Chase to weedy, half-disarrayed surfers who starred on the sitcoms of that era.
This was not the case because I did not regularly interact with English in my daily life. Both of my parents’ parents went to the American University of Beirut, so they spoke English and several other languages fluently. The easygoing appeal that had initially captivated me had faded.
I was obliged to pick a cultural camp and remain loyal to it, just as many other immigrant children are. It wasn’t so much that she wanted to cross over to the “white” side, but rather that she wanted to cross over to the “American” side.
When I was a kid, I didn’t think twice about whether a family on TV was white or black. Both new episodes of “The Prince of Rap” and reruns of “A Different World,” “Martin,” “227,” “Everything is in the Family,” and “Living Single” held the same level of interest for me. Favorite TV shows include “Roseanne,” “Family Ties,” “Oh, How It Hurts to Grow Up,” and “Three Times Three.”
These are the types of comedies where the kids park their skateboards at the front entrance and then eat pizza at the table surrounded by the boxes. The adults strolled around with a carefree merriment that was noticeably absent from my more serious relatives.
I had a glimpse of a future where three kisses on the cheeks were replaced with high-fives and shouts of pleasure.
I have pleasant memories of these episodes, comedy on the surface but with uplifting messages that helped me through tough times. A little bitterness has crept into my feelings of affection in recent years, though, with the advent of series that portray immigrant characters with guile, charisma, and wit.
The few immigrant characters I saw on TV as a kid, especially those who actually sounded like they were from another country, served only one purpose: to set up the joke.
When I was a kid, I adored the book “Two Perfect Strangers,” which told the story of a naive sheepherder named Balki Bartokomous who moved to Chicago from the imaginary island of Mypos, where neither telephones nor indoor sewers were common.
He followed odd and humorous customs and spoke with an odd and exaggerated American accent. Don’t be so silly was one of his most well-known exclamations.
Since his pals couldn’t pronounce his real name, they referred to him as Fez because that’s the name of a hat worn by males in various Muslim nations (the show appeared in 1998, more than a decade after “Two Perfect Strangers”).
Even as I laughed, I recognised myself in the characters’ experiences of being labelled “other” and of being the target of the same types of inane jokes they cracked. As far as anyone could tell, being un-American was not a viable option.
Over time, one may say that the effort paid off. One word at a time, my American accent faded as I internalised the language on the screen. If you listened to me talk now, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell where I came from.
My mind is racing with the question, “What do we give up (increasingly inadvertently) in the goal of assimilation?” because I am currently going through the painful process of losing a previous version of myself.
The question is how we may both become lost in it and rediscover ourselves inside it. In what ways do we contribute as persons, as families, and as a nation? Who exactly is benefiting from our calamity?
Adaptability, fueled by a need to survive, has allowed me to forgive myself for many of my past missteps. But a fundamental aspect of who I am has transformed in an unreversible way. The outcome of the battle is unclear to me.