Photo credit: Rebecca Harlan
Until 2016, I didn’t think much about what it meant to be the child of immigrants in America.
In the news, people were saying that immigrants were coming into this country to steal jobs. That they were uneducated, poor, and desperate. Terrorists. Bad hombres.
I thought about my dad, an Egyptian and a devout Muslim. He wears denim shorts and cardigans, and his greatest joy is eating apple fritter donuts. I thought about my Filipino mom, a huge Bill Murray fan who subscribes to magazines like Vanity Fair
and The New Yorker.
It just didn’t add up. My immigrant parents didn’t fit the description. They were educated. Their families belonged to the middle class. And desperate? My mom never wanted to come to the States to begin with. Before she came here, she had a cushy job at a fancy hotel in Manila.
But it wasn't just my parents who were being misrepresented. It was also my whole world: me, my family, my upbringing.
I grew up in an Asian and Hispanic community in Southern California. When I went to high school in the early 2000s, our class president was Korean and my high school crush was Mexican-Portuguese.
It wasn’t a big deal to be half Filipino, half Egyptian. You could eat Spam and rice for lunch at school and no one would say your food was weird. I smelled like moth balls, just like all my other Asian friends, and visitors always knew they had to take their shoes off when they came over to my house.
Still, I was aware that my hometown was not like the rest of America. From what I saw on Dawson’s Creek, Total Request Live
, and all the TV commercials selling frozen Banquet dinners and Manwich meals, most of the country was white. The people in my town were not.
It made me a little sad, because I felt like they’d never know the real me.
Yet my younger self was able to construct a simple equation. To be American, you had to be white. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of my cultures; I just felt that I wasn’t really American.
At age 11, I remember looking in the mirror of my mom’s vanity, pretending to be a TV presenter and practicing my name, trying to Americanize it. “Hi, I’m Ma-locka Ghrib... No, Mulka Grib… No, Molica Garb,” I said, saying my name with different accents. I finally settled on: “Hi, I’m Malaka — like 'Monica’ — Gharib, like ‘Arab.’” It was a far cry from the Arabic pronunciation.
It wasn’t until I went to college in upstate New York that I finally interacted with white people on a regular basis. I wanted them to see that I was one of them — an American. I copied what they ate (pizza and bagels with the insides scooped out), what they wore (UGG boots and popped collars), and what they listened to (Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen).
I was embarrassed about how little I knew about American culture and the English language. I fumbled with idiomatic expressions. Instead of saying “turn off the light,” I’d say “close the light,” as my Filipino family did at home. I struggled with the pronunciation of common words, like “proven” (PRO-ven or PROO-ven?). And I was more clueless about pop culture than I’d thought — I had to Google the lyrics to “Brown-Eyed Girl,” a song that everyone was singing at the bars.
I rarely had the opportunity to share my cultural background with my white friends. We didn’t talk about stuff like that — it was mostly dick jokes, drama, and drinking. It made me a little sad, because I felt like they’d never know the real me. They’d never know how crazy our Filipino parties could get, with our cheeseball karaoke and crispy lechon
. They’d never know how beautiful the sound of the minarets are when they echo off the skyline in Cairo.
Life went on that way throughout college and into my career and adulthood. I kept a lot about myself in. And then 2016 rolled around.
The distorted, singular view of immigrants that I saw in the media made me feel like America was against us. Who we are. What we stand for. I remember thinking, “Dang, I thought we were cool!” I guess we weren’t. It made me livid.
In an effort to correct that narrative, I started doodling these little cartoons, which I posted on social media. I wanted people to see that there were many kinds of immigrants, from all kinds of backgrounds — starting with my parents. I drew a cartoon called “My Dad, the Muslim Egyptian Who America Fears
,” with a little drawing of him watering his plants, and one called “Life Before My Mom Came to America
,” with a drawing of my mom’s hot pink Batik prom dress.
I Was Their American Dream
is a graphic memoir telling my family’s story. I write about why my parents came to this country, their hopes and dreams, and the pressure I faced trying to live up to their ideals. It’s also about what it’s like to be a first-generation American: learning to code-switch between my family’s Filipino and Egyptian customs, adapting to white culture to fit in, and trying to hold on to my cultural values.
I realized that I had so much to say. I wanted my parents to understand how different their struggles were from mine. I wanted to tell all my white friends what I wished they knew about me. And I wanted other first-generation Americans to know that if they feel like they don’t belong, they’re not alone.
The process of telling my story made me finally understand something. I spent so much of my life trying to be
an American. But all I had to do was look in the mirror. I was the daughter of immigrants, I was born in this country, and grew up in a town of immigrants — wasn’t that part of the American experience too?
÷ ÷ ÷
is an artist, journalist, and writer based in Washington, DC. She is the founder of The Runcible Spoon
, a food zine, and the cofounder of the D.C. Art Book Fair. She lives in a row house with her husband Darren and her 9-year-old rice cooker. I Was Their American Dream
is her first book.