I became an American when I was 5, I also got a middle name that day. It was an exciting day for my parents, I was told to be on my best behavior and their nervousness extended to me. I vaguely remember a kindly immigration judge looking at papers then asking me what my middle name was. I was used to the question in school and told him where I came from we didn’t have middle names. He asked if I wanted one and when I said yes, he asked what I wanted it to be. Little girls have their hidden fantasies and I told him I wanted it to be Ann after my favorite aunt. She was sweet and gentle with long straight black hair, pretty pale skin and she was mysteriously American, I wanted to be like her. That was a big day for me, I became an American girl with a middle name. Childishly I thought it had the power to make others think I belonged.
Things were never simple for my parents, I was born in Cairo during the Suez Crisis in '56. Because Cairo was being bombed, my grandmother sent mama and I to the villa in Assuit right after my birth. She also sent my aunt who was expecting, and my uncle to accompany us. My father and aunt’s husband stayed in Cairo to work. I don’t know how long my dad had been planning to get out of Egypt but he had seen the movie Pillow Talk and named me after Doris Day so I would have a popular American name. It turned out to be an unpopular name and I was teased as Doris Night, but he did his best.
Though my parents were well to do in the old country, we are Christian so he felt at risk. My father had a desire to go where he was free to have his beliefs and make his own life, and we would be safe. Originally they couldn’t find sponsors here so they were going to Brazil instead, then fortune smiled on them. I remember his constant pride in the US and throughout my life he told me how lucky I was to be an American. He’d talk about the past in Egypt when if you spoke against the government you could be picked up off the street, interrogated and put in prison. Of course when we came to the US that was illegal, but when people get old they live in the past, he died believing Americans still spoke proudly of those freedoms the way he still did. It would have made him sad, and very afraid, to know that it’s no longer that way. Unlike those born here, my fear goes back to a different reality and history, I’ll never feel safe with changes in the law. Being aware of all dangers is part of my inheritance.
As simple emigrating was for me, it was complex for my parents. I was 6 months old when my father came to the US to earn enough money to bring us over, money could not be taken out of Egypt so he had to start from scratch. In Cairo, mama and I lived with his family for a while, then we moved in with her mother. When I was 18 months old my father sent for us and my mom packed two suitcases and got on a plane with me. When I think how terrifying it must have been, I’m filled with compassion and sorrow for her. They lived in a number of small apartments and homes those first years. It must have been awful for a woman so well educated and well mannered to be treated like an idiot or an inferior simply because she had an accent or looked different. She never speaks of those years and I coax out bits of information here and there.
There was no Egyptian community then, there was only my father's sister and his domineering and boisterous brothers who were not at all sensitive, and their spouses. My father was charming but also domineering and my mother was very alone. She grew up with a cook, maid and nanny living with them and once in the US had to teach herself to shop, cook, clean and take care of a baby. She had no one she felt close to since all but one aunt was American or European and different from her. After moving out of San Francisco we lived in a small town in a little apartment for about 5 years. Next door was an elderly couple and they babysat me after school. My father opened a small antiques and jewelry store and worked nights as a bartender to make ends meet. Mama eventually learned to drive a car and got a job in a chemical company. Growing up I had a series of parakeets and small rodents to keep me company. In 2nd grade I made a friend, her mom didn’t have to work and I loved going to her house sometimes after school to play.
Cousin L and I in Hawaii
My wants growing up were simple, I wanted a sibling so I wouldn't be alone all the time and I wanted to live in a house where there was a yard. I secretly envied my cousins who were truly American and white. I desperately wanted the blond hair and blues eyes of the three female cousins my age so I’d look like my classmates. They fit in at their schools, but they loved me and on some weekends I had them to play with. I was the only non-white child in my school and my parents were too weird, spoke with accents and ate strange foods, other kids didn’t want to come play in our apartment. When I entered school I was teased about my accent and once I learned English I refused to speak Arabic and French anymore. I complained of my loneliness which became a great source of irritation for my parents. Since mama could have no more kids they tried to adopt but didn’t have a big enough apartment or the income to qualify. In looking back it was best they didn’t adopt because it was overwhelming for them as it was. They didn’t know how to raise a child and mama didn’t have anyone around perceptive enough to understand.
The first house and my bitchin' panne velvet shirt in high school.
When I was 13 they’d saved enough money to buy a house and I was thrilled to live in a house like other kids, for my birthday I received the puppy I’d been begging for. To this day it’s the best present I’ve ever received and I adored my dog Aton. For two years he was my constant companion and he brought me the acceptance I’d never been able to earn. I taught him many tricks and he was perfectly behaved except for one thing. He would jump the 6’ fence regularly and make his way to school to find me. He was so gentle the teachers got used to him, the office tired of calling my parents to come collect him, so he would “lay down and stay” outside each class until the end of the school day. Everyone at my high school, and all over town, loved Aton.
Yearbook photo of Aton and my girlfriend J waiting for me near the school cafeteria
My parents were busy chasing security and a return to financial success and I was left on my own all the time. I would wander the streets with Aton. At 15 a man I’d met told me he loved me and asked me to marry him, so I ran away from home to live in Florida, the month I turned 16 we married. I returned to California and over the years I began to find pockets of acceptance. I made friends and a life for myself. I lived in Idaho for a few years and again found some of the non-acceptance that you find when you don’t look like everyone else but people finally stopped asking what my nationality was and where I was from. The only true answer I can give is that I’m from California and my heritage is Egyptian. I grew up a California girl and a peace loving hippie.
I’m sad that the dialog has changed the US from a country that used to be proud to stand for freedom, equality and goodness and now it’s proud to stand for financial success, supremacy and power. It used to be that people were proud that sturdy immigrants came and made lives for themselves. It’s not easy to leave everything you know, and everyone you love, behind to come to a strange place filled with uncertainty. My children were born here and the bar was lower for them than it was for me, or immigrant children today. My kids will never understand how lucky they are. When you’re an immigrant others expect you to meet higher standards and behave better than those who have a birthright here, even though it’s harder to do. But because of that, my legs are stronger than my children’s; it takes a lot to knock me down.
I don’t know how many immigrants had a similar experience. Perhaps it’s different for those who have some community or family to support them. I only know what it was like for me. I’m grateful my childhood was lonely and we had it hard. Because there was no one to lean on, my parents had to be truly independent, and so have I. Words don't teach the way experiences do, there were things I learned from the way we lived that others didn’t. I’ve never paid interest on anything but a home and never considered a second mortgage on any of them. No car can be purchased with a loan, even a brand new one has to paid for in cash. If there’s not enough paycheck for going to a movie and the savings account, then you skip the luxury and save. Because having money in a crisis means you’re independent. Fear of financial insecurity is another inheritance that goes back to a different reality and history. Being aware of all dangers is part of my inheritance.
There are other freedoms too. I grew up in poverty and spent most of my life broke, so poor is not a scary unknown. I figured out how to survive 50 years ago and that hasn’t changed. Uncertainty is something I’m used to, neither government, or family, took care of me or did me favors, so I don’t expect it. I didn’t grow up with a sense of entitlement by birth, group, or color, so in these hard times I haven’t lost something I assumed I was entitled to. The lucky breaks I’ve had, I haven’t taken for granted. I’ve utilized them all I could, not expecting more to come my way. I have no need to be admired or accepted by everyone because that's something I never had. If someone thinks poorly of me based on what’s in their head, I move on to find those who think well of me. When I make a friend with high integrity who loves me, I know they love me for myself and I can depend on them. I love them for who they are, and only that, anything else about them are just trappings I have no use for. The people I love and can count on are my only treasures in life.
My girlfriend is also an immigrant and though she came at 15 her story is similar to my mom’s. Sometimes we all get together and visit and she understands what others can’t. The last time we were together my mom confessed she sometimes wished my father hadn’t brought us here. It was not something she ever had to say, I’ve always known her entire life here was a nightmare compared to the first 25 years of her life. I know she missed her mom, siblings, aunts and cousins half a world away. I know she regrets the choice and in trying to give me a better life, they brought me to what was possibly a worse one. I know she wished I could have had a childhood where I was accepted and belonged but she didn’t make things the way they are here and could not have known what it was like. I know she looks at her sisters and brothers children and sees what she thinks my life could have been like but that’s no guarantee. I’m not them, and I never was, I was always going to be me. I know no other life and though I have no tribe, I'm glad California is where I call home.
I’m not proud or ashamed to be an American, an immigrant, of Egyptian descent, a woman, or any other group I might be labeled and defined as part of. On any given day I’m either proud or ashamed of the way I act. If others wish to define me with those labels I can't change it.
Whatever you thought when you read the title is probably not what you found here. Like saying "my name is Doris," saying "I am an immigrant" says almost nothing about me.
My past shaped me but the things I think, feel and do are the things that define who I am now.