When You Are Asked “Where Are You From?” One Too Many Times

I sat earlier today getting my nails done in a nail shop in midtown for 10 dollars (message me and I’ll tell you where). I think the nail technician was Indian, but I’m honestly not sure. She could’ve been Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan for all I know. She was talking to her coworkers in her language and I was staring at her for some reason. Maybe it was the sense of connection I was jealous of, maybe I was trying to understand how it only cost 10 dollars in midtown to get my nails done, maybe I was wondering if she straightened her hair everyday, I don’t really know, my thoughts are everywhere some times. 

I am a Palestinian who was born and raised in Jordan.

I suppose I stared for too long because she leaned in and asked me, “Where are you from?” “Well, my mom is White, and my dad is Palestinian.” It only occurred to me as I was taking a shower later that day that I didn’t actually answer her. I told her where my parents were from, but not where I was from. I haven’t actually answered it in many years. The last time I answered it was in the 5th and 6th grade. Around that time, I had just come to America from Jordan and my identity was: I am a Palestinian who was born and raised in Jordan. I was proud of it. I was different than the rest but I reveled in that.

But then, my Palestinian identity was denied. By everyone. It wasn’t cool to be Palestinian in the 6th grade. I would argue with my 6th grade social studies teacher about Palestine being a legitimate country and he would tell me that it was Israel before then and so it didn’t really ‘belong’ to anyone. Later that year, we were asked to write one wish in our yearbook, and I wrote “I want Palestine to be free.” My teacher came back to me and asked me to change it as it was too controversial, and I nonchalantly said, “Sure,” and opted to not have a wish then to change it. My years in middle school and high school were filled with not so subtle comments that put blame on Palestine.  Much later, I realized I was in a Zionist school, but it was too late- I learned to not mention it. 

In the meantime, we would go to Jordan for the summers. And I would get told things like, “you’re so American,” “Are you American or Palestinian?” to test my loyalty, “You Americans are stupid,” “Be careful with being American, you’re already going too far in your morality,” and constantly dealt with people feeling the need to educate me with side eyes, whispered conversations, and direct comments. And I stuck on stronger. I wanted to be Palestinian. I wanted to be a part of that. I did everything I thought a good Arab/Palestinian would be, and it somehow wasn’t enough. It was like a white girl making Tabouleh. I was born in Jordan yet I was somehow trying so hard to fit in. 

Then came an odd pressure to simply and only be Arab. Why couldn’t I speak Arabic well enough? And did I forget where I came from? And why was I constantly showing off with my ‘fancy American accent, white skin, and gentle demeanor’? As though I had chosen to be American and inherently thought I was better. I completed highschool in Jordan, and on one incredibly hot day, I decided to take the cab rather than walk, and I engaged in a self-reflective conversation with the cab driver. We were talking about cab drivers who broke their fast in Ramadan due to the heat, and he suddenly turned to me and asked me if I was from Jordan. I explained that I had lived a couple years in America, to which he responded, “I caught you red-handed! You’re not from here! I recognized it from the pronouns you used!” As though I was hiding a terrible secret. 

For years I struggled with the, “Who am I?” question, because that’s really what the, “Where are you from?” question is trying to deduce.

Now, I’m told by fellow non-Arabs, “You’re not what I expected you to be. You’re not like other Arabs.” Or, “You really aren’t accepted by Arabs? But you are Arab,” by white family who don’t accept me as white either. The only place I ever felt completely accepted within my identity was Asia. I was odd to them, but I was expected to be odd. I knew I wouldn’t fit in, so I didn’t try and that felt good. I didn’t have to constantly question or defend my ethnic identity, I just was who I said I was.

For years I struggled with the, “Who am I?” question, because that’s really what the, “Where are you from?” question is trying to deduce. Are you a person with an Asian/Arab/white background? Are you more conservative or liberal? What are your political leanings? What stories have made up your life? And though those questions are so complex, people usually only accept simple answers: I am from this one country. As though a geographical location alone is what one’s identity is. 

In our society, it feels like we live by boxed identities. We must all live in boxes and so we box others and we box ourselves. Are you religious or spiritual? Are you Muslim, Christian or Jewish? Are you heterosexual or homosexual? Are you a femme lesbian or a butch lesbian? Are you pro life or pro choice? Are you “liberal” or are you really liberal? Are you White or Black? We need people to follow clear societal rules to have their identities validated. It’s where we find safety. If we decide we know who we are and we know who others are, only then can we move about with those expectations of others and ourselves. 

I’ve hated not being able to easily answer that question in less than a minute. But now, I feel free in the complexity of my answer. There’s freedom in not being able to be “from” a bordered region. We are all the complex combination of colors, of traits- some personality driven and some coping mechanisms- of political stories, of the pains of our ancestors, of the migration of spices and trading routes, of the strength of our tribes, and of who we surround ourselves with today. Hi, my name is Ayah, and I am a human who enjoys writing, deep conversations and providing therapy.

About the Author

Ayah Issa is a therapist who works with trauma, spirituality issues, identity issues, depression, anxiety, and relationship conflict. She received her social work degree from Columbia University School of Social Work with a concentration on international affairs and community work. She works through a trauma lens with an understanding of community, spirituality, intersectional identities and a holistic view of the self. She can be contacted at ayahissatherapy@gmail.com

You can find more cartoons by Lillie Marshall as shown in the feature image here.