BEL AIR—Freedom and opportunity led my parents to America. Once they arrived, they built an American Dream upon a foundation of their native cultural beliefs and ideals, loads of love, and a sense of liberal freedom. My mother valued the freedom she never experienced in Lebanon. And yet, she remained tied to her cultural secrets. She firmly believed the feminist movement took advantage of its American surroundings.
Regardless, she exposed me to both what she loved and hated, gracefully accepting opposing views without conflict. She believed in the sanctity of marriage, honoring her husband as the head of the household. She was a strong but submissive partner. She was very lucky to end up with my dad, someone that cherished her and looked out for her best interest.
I am not sure if culture is more an involuntary inheritance or something we choose to follow. Surely, it’s more difficult to rid yourself of ideas, concepts, and cultural practices that were ingrained during your formative years.
Personally, I had a massive issue with my mother favoring men over women. Though she vehemently denied it, she seemed to believe men were better, stronger, and more deserving. No matter how much I was opposed to this notion, I eventually adopted it. I often see men as the more competent individual, the ones to rely on, the ones that are stronger and make better decisions.
However, I’ve often wondered if this is due to my strong male role models and not my culture.
Even though there were no plans to relocate to the Middle East, my mother was vocal about her concern that I would suffer an opressed existence. She feared for my dependence upon males, this being the reason for the acceleration of my education at every available opportunity.
My mother went through quite the ordeal finding a school that would permit me to begin first grade at four. It was an immense inconvenience and the school was more than an hour away. My aunts asked my mother, “Can’t you wait one more year until she’s five?” My uncle would jokingly tell her, “Don’t worry, no one will arrange her marriage before then.”
People would tease, but I knew it was a serious concern for her. She didn’t want me to grow up without options and her concerns manifested overcompensation.
As a child I had nonstop activity. I had no time for the telly or video games. I don’t remember a time where I didn’t have a scheduled lesson, function, event, or class. My activities included Irish Dancing, Karate, Volleyball, Tennis, American Dancing, Gymnastics, Figure Skating, and even Archery!
By day I attended school, by night I practiced and rehearsed. My parents stayed just as active, taking turns being around us while all-the-while working on their multitude of entrepreneurial endeavors.
At sixteen, I completed my high school requirements, plus two years of college. My grandparents rewarded me by giving the gift of a summer abroad, but my mother beat them to it, signing me up for massage therapy and beauty school. There was no discussion. It was simply expected.
I wasn’t a smart kid. In fact, I struggled. I was educationally embarrassed and felt stupid in school. My favorite memories of childhood were of social activities and sports. My academic success was only because I refused to disappoint my mother. The basis of all this, which was no secret, was that I wouldn’t be like my female relatives in Lebanon, under the control of a man’s word absent a voice of my own.
My feelings of inadequacy carried-over to family functions, at which the predominant languages were Arabic and broken English. The husbands, wives, and guests of my mother’s siblings were American. Walking in the door, the first thing my relatives would notice is the females’ weight and choice of clothing. The boys were rarely criticized. I felt thankful that some of the guests didn’t know Arabic so they couldn’t understand how my aunts and grandparents were critiquing their looks. There was an unspoken way of treating men better. You never talked about it. You just did it.
Boys were allowed to play while females cooked, cleaned, and served the men. You normally started doing this when you were around five. Before that, you were either in your mother’s arm while she did it, or you were in a stroller or the playroom while the cousins took care of you.
Our holiday gatherings were typically filled with 80-100 guests. They had one or two paid helpers and the rest were girls serving the boys.
My father disapproved in a wink, nudge sort of way. Occasionally, someone didnt know the secret that I was too good for working, at which point, I’d be recruited and willingly go, only to be pulled aside and told to go watch the telly or play with the boys. Meanwhile, all of my female cousins were made to clean, cook, and help. Even my mother helped when I didn’t. Of course, this is probably why I’m useless in the kitchen as an adult.
I loved dressing up in very girlie girl things. When I was about seven, I went through a phase where I didnt want to be girlie. Even though I was too young to fully process what was happening, I knew the status of “girl” was something I didn’t want to identify with. If being a girl meant i had to be a slave without an opinion, I didn’t want to be one. I remember trying to dress like my brother in jeans and t-shirts.
My mother was worried because she thought my lesbian aunt who stayed with us was making me a lesbian. My dad told my mother to let me be, but she didnt like it.
Even though my mother was the smartest, strongest and most contributing of her siblings, her parents put all their effort into educating their one son, my uncle. My grandparents paid for him to go to Berkeley, and then Harvard Law, after which he landed an amazing job with the FBI.
They paid for his first house when he got married, using money my parents gave them to help.
My uncle lived just blocks from my grandparents. In their later years, when they needed assistance, my mother and aunt would drive 1-2 hours to help. Meanwhile, their privileged son wouldn’t travel five minutes to visit.
Both my grandparents suffered premature deaths. And though my parents offered financial, emotional, and physical help in building their fortune, when they died, they left the majority of the estate to their son, leaving but a very small portion to my mother and her sisters.
It was nothing short of irony that my brother, who lived ten minutes from the hospital, came to see my mother only four times for very short visits during the final nine weeks she fought for her life. I lived 1-2 hours away from the hospital, never missing a day and often sleeping by her side through the night. At the time of her death, my father and her had it in their will to leave everything to my undeserving brother, mostly because it was an accepted part of our culture that the eldest boy took over when the parents died.
Since early on, I was determined to get my mother to admit she preferred my brother over me. She never did until a few days before she died. It wasn’t at all satisfying, but heart-wrenching to see her finally admit it.
In fact, that was the only moment I wanted to be wrong about my life-long theory. I wanted her to think that her son loved her as much as she loved him and that it wasn’t more than me.
I was always daddy’s girl, but we especially bonded during the difficult episodes of whether my gender signified my level of importance and worth. Through this time I learned most about who I was. His willingness to take the time to listen to my senseless babble and take interest in things as simple as the nail color I picked boosted my confidence and overshadowed the message that girls always take the backseat.
My dad’s support during this time gave me the grounding I needed to be secure enough to explore my identity, to be a proud and powerful individual while respecting my cultural values. I tend to agree that boys are better in some ways, but girls hold the power.