There is a story I like to tell people when they ask about my identity, or how I was raised culturally and linguistically. The story does not come from my memory, but rather a thirty-second snippet of a home video filmed by my dad:
I stand in front of the camera, relishing in the glory of being somewhere between two and three years old. In my hands is a plastic white tub of labneh, a creamy spread that is part cheese, part yogurt, but definitively Middle Eastern. The lid is off; I seize the opportunity to dip my whole hand into the tub. I pull my hand out, covered in delicious dairy goodness. I funnel the scoop of labneh into my mouth.
My dad asks, in English, “What are you doing sweetheart!?” I shrug my shoulders at him, make big eyes that ask, What do you mean? There is labneh all over the lower half of my face at this point. Some on my clothes too, as I absentmindedly pull on the edges of my Lion King pullover.
He tries again, doing his best to elicit a response for the camera. “Sweetheart, what are you eating?”
“Queso!” I squeal in delighted Spanish.
I refuse to answer him in English, and I am unaware that this food of my ancestral heritage has an Arabic name.
* * *
Neither of my parents speak much Arabic. They know the obligatory one-or-two word phrases that one says to relatives at weddings and funerals. And of course they know the names of Lebanese food. But I guess my mother let her Spanish slip when teaching me about labneh, and I somehow learned to refer to it as queso.
Both of my parents are the products of Lebanese parents and grandparents. My dad’s side settled in Michigan, my mom’s side in Caracas, Venezuela. In her twenties, my mother came to the only place where she had relatives in the United States to study English, and of course it was Dearborn, a city well-known in America for its concentrated Arab population. My parents met and the rest is history.
Mom spoke almost exclusively in Spanish to my siblings and me as children, although dad only speaks English. I remember feeling more comfortable with my Spanish until I started preschool.
My maternal grandmother moved into the house with us when I started elementary school, and though Arabic is her first language, she speaks a fluent yet oddly inflected Spanish from the decades she spent raising her family in Caracas. We would speak in Spanish to her while she cooked up dishes that trace back to her family’s village in the south of Lebanon. She was always kindly commanding us in Spanish to eat more, while in the same breath calling to us in Arabic.
“Come, sito, come.”
Eat, grandmother, eat. This is a custom in Arab families, for an elder to call a younger one by their relationship to them. Grandmother calls her grandchildren “grandmother,” and in this way they repeat and learn to call her grandmother.
* * *
Here’s an attempt at a simple answer to the questions, What are you? or Where is your family from?:
I grew up in a suburban neighborhood that was in many ways cookie-cutter “American,” with a father that was Michigan born-and-bred yet raised in the most Arab-dense city of all fifty states in the union, and a mother that identified more with being Venezuelan than anything else. One of my grandmothers tended to us while adjusting her hijab and telling us stories about Caracas. My other grandmother would take us out for lunch at Coney Island, sipping Coca Cola, then downing two cups of weak filter coffee, and ending the meal with a big slice of apple pie.
This all felt like the natural order of things. I did not find it strange or terribly confusing. I only started feeling confused as I got older and was given standardized tests at schools that asked me to select which one was my race: Caucasian? Latina? Occasionally, Middle Eastern? was thrown into the mix of options I could select from. I rotated between them, sometimes choosing randomly, sometimes going by my mood that day.
My peers started asking me more about my identity as we got older. We wanted to place each other. There weren’t many Arab kids at my school and so I ended up being thrown into the clique with all the Indian and other-South Asian kids. This too came to feel like the natural order of things.
* * *
I decided to learn Arabic when I arrived at university, 18 years old and eager to pour myself into studies. The script looked beautiful and maybe it would allow me to communicate with my sito in her mother tongue one day.
Wouldn’t that be wonderful? I told myself as I skimmed through the course books in a state of overwhelm. The lines began on the right side of the page and looped gracefully to the left. We started on what looked like the back cover to me, the pages fanning out to the left and the spine of the book on the right. Everything was upside down.
I found my way somehow, with many diligent instructors and scholarships to study the language intensively abroad. By the time I was proficient enough to really communicate, my sito had passed away. But she saw me start, and that makes me happy. I would sit across from her at the kitchen table, trying out new phrases I had learned at school while home for winter vacation. She would smile at me, let out a little laugh sometimes. Then we would return our attention to the task of snapping green beans to make lubiya.
* * *
Labneh is still one of my favorite things to eat. I just don’t call it queso anymore.