Dear Citizens of the World, please stop asking my children where they come from.
My son’s name is Ali, but he can’t speak Arabic. He was born in Australia (but, yes, I was not). He can recite the Quran, yet also knows every part of Silento’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).” He is a ball of contradictions, and I am so proud of this. I don’t want to categorize my children, and I don’t want the world to keep putting them in a corner, either.
Way too often, well-meaning strangers ask my son, “Where are you from?” I call them “well-meaning” because I am trying to remain positive, but lately, I feel like banging my head against the wall.
What’s wrong with such a simple question? I hear you ask.
The problem is, whatever he answers is never sufficient.
If his reply is “Australia,” he gets a few raised eyebrows, because 1) I wear hijab, and 2) he has olive skin and dark hair. If his reply is “Lebanon” (despite the fact that we’ve never even visited this country—my birth country) he gets they question, “So when did you come to Australia?” His reply is always “Well, I was born here,” and so begins the vicious cycle of awkward, probing questions.
Just stop, people. Please stop.
Last week, I had an extremely awkward encounter. A mother I had never met approached me while we were at my children’s Athletics Day, and the following exchange occurred:
Her: Are you Hannah’s mum?
Me: Yes, hi! I’m Maysaa, and you are?
Her: But you wear a hijab! And Hannah is so smart and speaks English well.
(Proceed to pick up my jaw up off of the floor.)
Me: Yeah, she’s talented like that. She hasn’t caught hijabitis.
Of course, I walked off after that.
Why is my daughter bound by what her mother chooses to wear? I can’t understand how, even in 2015, our first impression based on appearance is a common factor in how we judge people. We all have stories, some more intricate than others, but nonetheless each is a worthy story. My children’s story happens to be slightly complicated to explain, and I don’t want my son to say:
“I am from Australia. I was born there and so was my dad. My mum wasn’t. She came here with her family when she was 3, so it’s practically like she was born here. In either case, would you like to see their citizenship papers? Oh, and thanks for the compliments regarding my really good use of English and correct grammar syntax. Being Muslim doesn’t stop the language part of my brain from working.”
The problem is, his friend Marcus was born in Ireland. His family is Irish, and they moved to Australia eight years ago. He never gets asked where he comes from. He never gets asked because, I suspect, his name and physical features are seen as “normal” in Australia. This all spells trouble for my son. One day, he will recognize this unfairness, and I wont be able to give him any logical answers.
For the time being, I will continue to explain the complexity of every human’s narrative to my kids. I will continue to focus on portraying life as a multidimensional journey. I will tell my children that they are worthy of respect based on their good deeds. I will teach them that they are from planet Earth and belong to Team Humanity.