September 17, 2012

How to be an American

I am an American. I was born and raised in the country, thus I can claim it as my nationality. In U.A.E., it's one of the first things people notice about me and the primary adjective they use to describe me. I speak American English and pretty much only pay attention to American media. Even living abroad, I find Americans to be the easiest friends and my second pick for friendship nationality is Canadian. (For example, I know a lot of Irish people here. While they're fun and I hang out with them sometimes, it's just easier to become bosom buddies with Americans. And sure, I dated an Arab, but he made fun of every Arab stereotype ever and wishes he wasn't one. And most of our issues stemmed from the fact that he wasn't culturally as American as I wanted, even though he tried his hardest.)

My parents were American. My mom was also born in the country, although she was raised by parents straight from Poland and grew up speaking Polish at home. My dad wasn't born in the country, he was born in Latvia. But he moved to America around college age, never left, and eventually took the citizenship test. He and my mom made a conscious decision to only speak English around my brother and I. I honestly know very little about Polish or Latvian culture and I know zero Polish or Latvian people besides my grandma. In terms of countries I want to visit, Poland and Latvia are very far down the list. My parents wanted us to be as American as possible and they did a damn good job of it.

First generation means first generation to live in the country, for the purposes of this entry. Thus I am 2.5 generation American. But in the U.A.E., there is no such thing as any generation Emirati. You either are or you aren't and thus it will be for your children. My ex was born in U.A.E., but he is and always will be Lebanese, as will his children. Even though he has lived here his entire life and will probably do so forever. He's been to Lebanon twice and people there immediately recognize his accent as Gulf. His brother was also born and raised in the U.A.E., but married a British woman. Let's pretend that they plan to live in the U.A.E. for their entire life. Thus, their son is theoretically in the same boat as I was in, with 2.5 generation in the U.A.E.

But he will never be an Emirati. It impossible for him to ever gain a passport from here. The labor laws state that locals get first priority for all jobs, but he will never get that benefit. He's young right now, but he's already bilingual. His media choices are probably influenced by my ex, so I would guess they include terrible American movies, American video games, British sitcoms, and random Arab pop culture. When he gets older, his classmates will influence him to enjoy things like American wrestling, Apple products and Canadian-American pop stars. He is whiter than most of his classmates will be, so he will hang out with the other white-ish ones. I would guess that he'll hang out with a lot of Lebanese people like his father and a lot of Western-Arab mixed people like him. He will be neither technically nor culturally, an Emirati. Technically, he will maybe be British? Culturally... it's hard to classify the mix.

Sometimes I get the opportunity to ask my classes how many of them are locals. The first thing that happens is some smart child has to translate "Emirati" into Arabic for the rest of the class because they don't understand the question. Then some kids will raise their hands. And then one kid will get yelled at for raising her hand because she's 2.5 generation and does not yet realize that she's not actually Emirati. But the Emiratis know and will quickly tell her to put her hand down. (All yelling is done in Arabic, but I get the gist.)

Nobody would ever tell me that I was not an American. And now, after being here, it is amazing how easily that status was obtained.


  1. As a fellow American, it seems odd to have nationality tied to ethnicity, but I realize that middle eastern countries are much different than western countries.

    But is your ex able to get a Lebanese passport if he can't get one from the UAE? I'd imagine that the Lebanese government has little to no interest in him if he's not ever planning to live there or do anything economically productive there. Then again, that is my American mindset speaking, and maybe his ethnicity is enough of an interest for them.

    1. He has a Lebanese passport, yes. It is an old version of it too, haha. Looks like a miniature book and has a hard cover and everything is in Arabic and French. He was interviewed every single time we went through an airport, (while I waited on the other side with my golden ticket of a passport.)

      Passports aren't just given because people are economically productive. Some countries value the bloodlines of their people above all else.

  2. These situations are always interesting to me, because when I'm in the US I'm from Hong Kong and when I'm in Hong Kong I'm from the US. Conundrum.

    (I don't mind being seen as being "from" either place, but to me, HK is home.)

  3. I haaaaate that problem. Same as Manda, basically. When I'm in NZ I'm from Taiwan and when I'm in Taiwan I'm a New Zealander. Taiwanese people often question if i'm half-white. Apparently that is supposed to be flattering. I cant, for the live of me, see how though. (My kids will be... hah). But shit, at least with Arabs "outsiders" like us think they're all Arab and we can't tell the difference, so I didn't known it would be as clearly and strictly defined as that!

    P.S. your captcha is REALLY HARD TO READ. REFRESH REFRESH...

  4. USA is such a free country that nationality has nothing to do with ethnicity - if you go to any other country there will be a problem.

    This one-sentence thing is tough. Ahem. Anyways, Manda and Amanda said it all. But I guess there's a slight advantage to being an Emirati - you'll always have a country. (That's related to my new blog entry.)

  5. Nationality is hard. I'm American and luckily I'm in a situation where I'm recognized as an American in the States. In Korea, though, things are getting fuzzier for me. It's strange. I speak in a way now that gives people the impression that I know everything that's going on or that I'm Korean (lulz). But I don't understand everything (example being I went to the bank and the teller started talking about different accounts and interest rates and remittance fees and such) and it's all a bit strange. I know my kids will be American, but I don't know what else they might be. I have students who are Korean and in middle school, but they can't even write in Korean because they've spent their lives in the States. Poor things.