When I meet people for the first time, I always wonder how long it will take to be asked the million dollar question- where are you from? As a first generation, American Egyptian, 80s baby born and raised in the Midwest, I’d always been accustomed to answering this question deftly. Because on the outside, with my colourful hijab, golden tan, and pharaonic looking eyes, I may look like a typical Egyptian, but as soon as I open my mouth and my Midwestern accent starts flowing out, people do a double take.
But when I moved abroad, answering this question without delivering such a long, convoluted answer has become a challenge. Because how do you concisely explain that you’re a first generation American with Egyptian roots married to an Egyptian who is a naturalized American, with two children (one born in America and one born in Dubai) who just moved to Cairo after living in the United Arab Emirates for 6 years?
So I offer up the name that is supposed to sum up my current status. I say I’m an expat.
Now according to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, an expatriate is a person who lives in a foreign country. That’s the official term for people like me who make the wild decision to leave everything and everyone that they’ve ever known and move abroad.
But the thing is, I take issue with the term expatriate. Expat. It sounds so negative. Because I’m not an ex- anything. I don’t feel less American. I’m no more or less patriotic than I was when I was living stateside. My birth certificate still says Cleveland, Ohio, I still file taxes every year, and I still love a good hot dog no matter how bad they are for you. Because you can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take America out of the girl.
Therefore, I firmly believe we as a society can do better than this cold, outdated, horrendously inaccurate name. How about “nomad” or “citizen of the world”? Or my personal favourite and throwback to my Potterhead roots, “seeker”? Because every one of us “expats” left our native countries to seek something: a new culture; a return to roots; a better opportunity; a closer relationship with family; a better education. Whatever the reason that drives us, we are searching for something we believe we can find in a nation other than our own. And we are willing to sacrifice every comfort and convenience of home in order to try to get it.
When my family and I glided through Detroit Metro Airport nearly 10 years ago bound for the Middle East, I had no idea that we would be stepping into a life experience so vast we can’t even define it with a proper term. For us, what began as a simple 2 year experiment to try living abroad in order to give our then-3 year old son a chance to learn Arabic and gain an Islamic upbringing quickly turned into 6 years in Dubai, a second child born in the Emirates, and second international move to Cairo, Egypt, where we’ve been living now for 3 years and counting.
Because living abroad changes you in a way you simply can’t fit in 500 words. You live and breathe the decision you made every moment of every day, as your life is suddenly infused with new sights, sounds, people and experiences. From waking up to the sound of street vendors calling out the day’s fresh produce to witnessing true divisions in social and economic classes literally on the same street. Because when flashy BMWs and luxe SUVs manoeuvre their way around donkey carts and street beggars, your worldview changes forever.
We are not the same people we were 10 years ago.
There are so many things I could share with you about my experiences living abroad. And you can bet I will in future posts. But today I’ll just say that living abroad has been simultaneously the most challenging experience and the most enriching experience of my life.
Shakespeare’s Juliet once famously asked, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I couldn’t agree more. Call me an expat, call me a dual national, call me an American or an Egyptian; whatever you call me, I am and will continue to be, seeking.
By Rania Emara