OUR EYES MET IN THE rearview mirror and he looked at me appraisingly.
“You look Middle Eastern.”
This would have been odd coming from anyone else, but my Lyft driver who’d just picked me up from a watch party for the 2018 midterm elections—with his keffiyeh scarf draped over the passenger seat headrest and his Arabic pop music thumping through the speakers—knew he’d spotted a familiar.
“I’m half Palestinian,” I replied.
He exclaimed, “I knew it!” I wonder how he knew.
Where his eyes are henna colored, mine are forest green. Where his skin is honeyed like amber resin, I put the “palest” in Palestinian. Where his hair is black, mine is threaded with gold. The Palestinian half of my family are Arab Christians, so I wore no hijab. There was no external sign to give me away.
I leaned forward to better talk to him from the backseat of the car. “It’s only other Middle Eastern people who notice,” I added with a laugh, figuring there must be something in my bone structure that signaled my ethnicity. My angular nose, thick eyebrows, large swath of eyelid, or my long, oval face.
“Family always knows,” he said with a definitive air.
I nodded, not knowing how to respond. Our ideas of family are so different; whole worlds apart.
If you asked him, he might tell you he’d consider anyone Palestinian to be his family, blood relation or not. Perhaps he believes all Palestinians are bound by blood, either by DNA or blood shed through shared experiences with violence and survival. This surely involves chosen family to a degree, though my own definition of family places chosen family, Palestinian or not, above all blood relations. Then again, if your blood relatives had treated you as poorly as mine have treated me, you’d understand. Their poor treatment of me—the beating, the neglect, the lying, the stealing; constant damage to my mind, body, and sense of security in the world—is why I haven’t spoken to them in years, willingly estranging myself from their ties.
But that hasn’t kept me from looking.
If you Google “culture orphan” or “cultural orphan,” you’ll find scant few resources.
A defunct blog from 2005. A Singaporean scholar on the southeast Asian diaspora. A song by an indie techno band named Low Entropy from their album Confrontation. A scholarly article on Jadine, the mixed race protagonist of Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby. A YouTube video of a young student giving a presentation on her Filipino parents who moved to Thailand and sent her to an international school with an American curriculum where she made friends who were Indian, Pakistani, and Nigerian—all of which left her confused as to which culture she was expected to claim as her own. A post written by a man who’s part Pennsylvania Dutch, part Chicano, and part Black, but who feels rejected from all three communities.
I found a handful of definitions, none of which speak to the sense of being a culture orphan I feel.
Kuo Pao Kun described being a cultural orphan as “A sense of loss and alienation and a kind of anxiety in the search for self. On visiting the cultural homeland of our forebears, we might feel a certain kind of consolation but we are unable to identify with it as our cultural home.” But I can identify my cultural home—it’s Ramallah in the West Bank. And if I were able to visit, I imagine it’d feel like a—homecoming, though I’ve never been.
I dream of dropping to my knees on that hallowed ground and running my fingers through the dirt and sand.
Self-described culture activist, Stephen Jenkinson, said “Orphans are not people who have no parents: they are people who don’t know their parents, who cannot go to them. Ours is a culture built upon the ruthless foundation of mass migration, but it is more so now a culture of people unable to say who their people are. In that way we are, relentlessly, orphans.” But I do know who my parents and my people are—they’re redneck Southerners and Palestinians, though I was only raised with the Southern side.
Bonnie Coffey, whose father was orphaned and never knew his heritage, said, “I found myself realizing that I was a cultural orphana person without an identified heritage that I could claim.” But I can identify my heritage, I just didn’t grow up with half of it.
I search, but do not find. Seek, but do not know.
My Lyft driver told me about his family and asked about mine. His name is Mohammed. He’s Muslim, from Hebron in the West Bank, and moved to Columbus, Ohio, three years ago from there. He’s the only one in his family in Ohio and misses them dearly. I tell him my Palestinian family is Christian and from Ramallah in the West Bank. I tell him I moved to Columbus three years ago from my hometown in Birmingham, Alabama, where there’s a sizable community of immigrants from Ramallah, including my grandparents.
Remembering I’d mentioned I was half Palestinian, he asked which half. When I told him it was the paternal side, I quickly noted my father was dead. I wasn’t ready to enumerate the ways he’d failed his people, both as a member of his culture and as a father to a child. Mohammed gave a brief condolence and changed the subject.
As he pulled up in front of my house and I gathered my things to leave, he said, “We’re family now. Whatever you need, I got you. We’re family.”
Having grown up in a family as dysfunctional as mine, it’s difficult for me to imagine how normal, healthy families interact and rely on each other. Though a surge of warmth and unexpected tears pricked at the corners of my eyes at his words, I couldn’t actually think of a need that would require me to call on him. I’ve been forced to take care of myself for so long. I feel such a shame at needing others that many times if I can’t do something myself, it just doesn’t get done.
Waving as he drove away in search of his next Lyft rider, it felt like I’d run into a long lost cousin. A strange emotion since Mohammed was the first Palestinian person I recalled ever meeting outside my family, whom I’d hardly spoken to in the past decade.
As I entered my house, I realized our meeting on that night in particular was auspicious. It was election night and Rashida Tlaib had just won her U.S. House of Representatives race in Michigan. She would be the first Palestinian-American elected to Congress.
Until I saw her smiling on TV, talking about how her family in the West Bank stayed up well into the night watching election results roll in, it hadn’t occurred to me, considering the amount of white, Christian privilege I enjoy, that people like me, with my genetic makeup, were rare enough in the U.S. to have “firsts.” Even being as disconnected from my roots as I am, Rashida’s win was recognition and representation I didn’t know I needed. It was, in a way, validation that people like me matter. And by extension, I matter too.
I told Mohammed my father was dead because that was easier to explain than the whole truth: that he’d been a drug addict for all of his adult life and had died of an overdose. That my mother divorced him when I was three because he wouldn’t stop using. That he alternated beating me and ignoring me until I was twelve. By then I refused to go near him.
My parents tested my limits—my mother pushed me to see him every other weekend so she wouldn’t be breaking the divorce agreement and my father pushed me to visit him more because he knew taking me away from my mother made her miserable with worry. I took to screaming and flailing and crying with such ferocity that I wore him down. He decided it wasn’t worth it to drag this belligerent child to his apartment. Once my father declared I didn’t have to see him anymore and he wouldn’t report my mother to the courts, I only saw him twice more in my life, both times in passing.
After all that, contact with my Palestinian family was severed—and all cultural ties with it.
How strange a feeling to have blood connection to a people you know so little about. I keep searching for a term that feels like mine. I look for belonging in family, in culture, in the dictionary, and it eludes me every time.
Another term Google revealed was “third culture kid.” As a blog post on Merriam-Webster’s website defines it, that’s “a child who grows up in a culture different from the one in which his or her parents grew up.” More formally, D.C. Pollock and R.E. Van Reken—two academics, judging by the formatting of their names—defined third culture kids as “people raised in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of the country named on their passport (where they are legally considered native) for a significant part of their early development years.”
Some people refer to cultural orphans or third culture kids as people who were adopted and have no idea as to what their heritage is. Or people who were raised abroad. Or people whose parents were one ethnicity, but they lived in a different country from their heritage, so the child felt like one culture at home and another out in the world. Or people who lived their adolescence in a country they’re not a native of.
None of that applies to me. I was raised in the U.S., the country on my passport and where I’m considered native. My parents are of different ethnicities, but we were born and raised in the U.S. I was raised in one of my cultures—Southern—but not the other—Palestinian. I know what my cultures are. I just have limited access to the Palestinian culture that I have a right to by blood but not by life circumstances. It’s not even entirely true that I grew up in a culture different from my parents because I grew up in the culture of one of my parents.
What’s the word for that? Where are the academics who study such dislocation?
I find myself grasping for the edges of the cultural orphan umbrella. The desire to be able to give my experience a label is a human one. It’s difficult to form a community without a descriptor, a name, a common experience, a shared purpose. With a label I could use Google to find communities online or start my own. I could meet other people like me and we could form our own chosen family together.
I imagine many biracial people and international and transracial adoptees have dwelled on these questions and lack of belonging too. When Noah Cho writes about the controversy of putting Kraft singles on his ramen in turns delighting and appalling his Korean and half Korean friends. When Nina Coomes writes about being hafu, “[referring] to individuals who have one Japanese parent and one foreign parent.” In reading their essays and memoirs, I see they’re each searching for their own kind of belonging.
Not being half Japanese, “hafu” doesn’t work for me. Considering that my mother and my Palestinian family are white, “biracial” doesn’t work for me either. I might be biracial in theory, though I’ve never been discriminated against for my skin color and don’t want to adopt a label that might make those who carry it uncomfortable with my usage of it.
I’m still searching for belonging too.
To participate in a culture, you must receive some sort of invitation. Had I been raised around my Palestinian family or if we were still in contact, my place in the family unit would serve as this invitation. As it stands, though half my DNA says I should be a part of a Palestinian community, I don’t have access to one. I would have to justify my reason for seeking entry if I were to find one outside my family since I wouldn’t be granted access by default.
That night after the Lyft ride, I checked Facebook and had a friend request from Mohammed. I accepted. Like he said, we’re family now.
As I looked through his profile, I realized I couldn’t read any of it because it was all in Arabic, which I’d never learned. Another slap to my credibility. Though he spoke English fluently, nothing on his profile, including comments on his posts, was anything I could read without help from Facebook’s translation tool.
When I got out of Mohammed’s car, he said “we’re family now,” which meant I can call on him for whatever I might need, like a real family. But having not had a family I could rely on, I find it nearly impossible to imagine myself actually doing so. It’s hard to know what he had in mind. A home I could go to for Muslim holidays? Someone to call up for the best falafel recipe? Arabic lessons?
Looking at Mohammed’s Facebook, I felt like a poseur. Like I was just a plain Southern girl pretending to don the trappings of a marginalized identity to feel “exotic.” I felt like saying I’m half Palestinian, even though it’s true, is like those white people who say “everybody comes from Africa, so we’re all Africans.”
I’m an outsider. Mohammed belongs.
And yet I know it takes more than knowing Arabic. There are plenty of people who speak and write Arabic who aren’t Palestinian. And my own grandmother, my teta, Palestinian through and through, was functionally illiterate. She could speak Arabic, but once when I asked her to write out the Arabic alphabet for me, I learned she only knew the first half. She wouldn’t have been able to read Mohammed’s profile either.
I want to message Mohammed and ask him questions about how he walks through the world as a Palestinian, confident in his identity and culture. I think of how Mohammed would react to such a request. He’d look through my profile on Facebook and see everything was in English, nothing in Arabic. He’d notice I have scant few Muslim or Middle Eastern friends. He might take a closer look at my pictures, staring into my face, and convince himself that whatever he saw there that night he drove me home was a shadow or a trick of the light. What kind of person asks a member of their same ethnicity how to be a part of a culture when you’re supposed to just know by nature of being born into it?
Or he might not. My better self wants to believe that he takes such pride in where he comes from that he’d be happy to be peppered with questions and to help me be a better member of our community. Since my family didn’t teach me how to be Palestinian, maybe he could.
After years of abuse and decades of estrangement, I have no desire to be a part of my Palestinian family, though I would like to be part of the larger Palestinian culture. It’s my birthright and my family has taken too much from me already for me to let them take this away too. Palestinians are a chosen families I want to be chosen by. Ain’t I an Arab too?
Google tells me there are 26.3 miles between Hebron and Ramallah, and the distance is bisected by Jerusalem. At its far reaches, the city of Columbus is just shy of that distance anyway you measure—north to south, east to west, and the crossways—so the furthest away our homes in the city could possibly be is, at most, as far away as our ancestral homes are.
When Mohammed recognized me in the rearview mirror, in less than ideal lighting, and called me who I am—who we are—he showed me that the half of me that’s Palestinian is still visible to those who know what to look for. No matter how distant, I can’t run from who I am. And after decades of trying to escape parts of myself, as though I could dissect the parts of me that don’t make sense to acknowledge and toss them out piecemeal, I’m ready to embrace myself fully. I want to be recognized and seen for who and what and all I am.
Maybe Mohammed and I were always meant to find each other, coming closer and closer until fate would have it that our paths would cross. Maybe that’s what family means: drawing together even as you’re pushed apart. Connecting across time, across history, across generations, across the miles and miles of desert and ocean and cities, old and new.
Perhaps, even, connecting across a Facebook message, an invitation to coffee, watching the results of Rashida’s next election. A family created by choosing one another.
Mandy Shunnarah is an Alabama-born writer who now calls Columbus, Ohio, home. Her essays, poetry, and short stories have been published in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Entropy, and more. She’s working on a book about her half-Southern, half-Palestinian family. You can learn more about all her writing endeavors at mandyshunnarah.com.