America is often depicted as a melting pot. As a harmonious mixture of ethnic traditions from around the world. According to this image, ethnic differences are blended into a homogeneous identity. Instead of blending, I congealed in the pot of cultural assimilation, asking myself how it was possible to blend smoothly when I came from a feared place. A place of calamity. A place where terrorism is born. Iraq. Throughout my life in America, I have resented that national label because of the stigma it carries in this country.
An icy aura emanated from the window as I stared at the foreign landscape shrouded in darkness. As the airplane drew closer to its destination, I felt excited that my ethnicity (like everyone else’s) would soon blend into the famed American melting pot. At nine years old, I had only been acquainted with Middle Eastern traditions, but my curiosity was unrestrained. I asked myself, Who are the Americans? Are they people who descended from the colonists? Are they people born in the United States? Are they people who live there? To me they were foreigners. Despite this, I desired assimilation.
One of the first questions I was asked when I landed was “Where are you from?” I answered the customs agent and was met with a surprising expression; his eyebrows raised to expose agitated pupils glaring at me. It was then that I knew something was wrong.
As I adapted to my new environment, I learned why I had received that negative reaction. To America, Iraq is a land populated by feral people who spread destruction, harm, and terrorism across the globe. After realizing this, my blissful optimism about my new home descended into trepidation that would plague me throughout adolescence. I couldn’t control this prejudice against my homeland. I felt frigidly insoluble in this melting pot, unable to bind with the other elements; ultimately, I found a solution in fabricating an identity for myself.
I seized the opportunity to reintroduce myself to America when my family relocated to Tempe six months after our arrival. The infamous question came up again; this time, however, “California” was my response. I avoided speaking in Arabic in front of anyone my age. If someone caught me speaking my native tongue, I would claim it was Armenian. This deception eased my assimilation and permitted me to make friends.
I tried to justify these actions. After all, I was a Catholic living in a Christian society; why shouldn’t I be accepted? My physical characteristics also helped me hide my nationality; my fair skin, green eyes, and brown-highlighted hair didn’t resemble a Middle-Easterner – especially one from Iraq. I shared my true nationality only with my teachers because I trusted that they wouldn’t judge me.
By the time I entered middle school, most of my classmates thought they knew where I was from, and they were fine with my fabricated identity. I was Middle Eastern, but I never specified which country. At least not until seventh grade.
My social studies class was large and full of my friends. We were learning about the influx of immigrants through Ellis Island, and we were assigned the task of identifying our own ethnic origins. I panicked. Earlier that week, my parents had met with the teacher and (presumably) told her where we came from; I didn’t want appear a liar, but I also didn’t want to disrupt my social standing. At home, I casually asked my parents where our family had originated, hoping that somehow in the previous three years, it would change. They replied “Iraq,” as if dumbfounded by my questioning. I pressed them for additional information and discovered that my great-grandfather was born in Turkey. Even though my parents classified this fact as extraneous, I felt a strange sense of freedom. I could hide the Iraq ethnicity behind the wall of Turkey.
I sat in social studies class, my eyes staring at the white board with the word Countries written across the top. My head was filled with questions: What will Tyler think? What will Eric think? Will they still like me? I began shivering nervously as my peers took turns announcing their family’s countries of origin. My turn came. I took a deep breath, looked the teacher in the eyes, and said, “Turkey,” then through the exponential beating of my heart I called out “Iraq.” It was written on the board for all to see. I immediately put my head down on the desk, assuming my classmates would be horrified. It was out there. I am an Iraqi. I tried my best to undermine this truth by telling people that I was mainly Turkish.
My parents did not know about my nationality crisis because I fully embraced my Middle Eastern culture at home, knowing full-well that I would not be judged. One day, I was at my cousin’s house and found a collage in her room titled “My Life.” The word Iraq was written in luminous blue bubble letters on the cardboard poster. For the remainder of the day, I asked myself how she was able to share this and why I could not. Was I oversensitive? Surely not, since many people fear prejudice. After some thought, I began to see the repercussions of my deception. My cousin was close to her friends and respected by her peers; in contrast, I maintained poor social connections due to the lies I spread about myself. I lied to hide the insecurities I should have embraced, which destroyed my authenticity as an individual.
It was different with my American-born cousins. They assimilated without effort. Initially, I envied their “American” lifestyle and perfect, unaccented English. But at what cost did assimilation have for them? They are not Iraqi. Our language did not roll off their tongues, and our centennial customs had no place in their routines; our identity had dissolved in their willingness to blend in the pot. Was this really what I wanted? To abandon my ethnicity to appease others? I realized that I had been so focused on assimilating that I dispossessed myself of my individuality.
I have since come to understand that America’s goal – a melding of the world’s races, cultures, and traditions to form a patriotic unit – should not be described as a melting pot. That model is static. It doesn’t properly convey diversity of the cultures and traditions that are all part of “American nationality.”
Others might liken America to a salad bowl, where the individual traditions (ingredients) can be distinguished but each one contributes to a whole when placed together. However, a salad can be easily separated; it is not a unified whole. The tastiest salads contain relatively few ingredients; too many can destroy the dish’s innate characteristics. This doesn’t follow the American principle that advocates for increased diversity.
I believe that cultural diversity in America is better described as a latte. Think about it: in a latte, each of the ingredients is vital to the taste of the drink. Ingredients like condensed milk may seem more essential, since they are used in the greatest quantity, but elements like vanilla extract, which have a minuscule concentration in comparison, are just as important in the overall flavor. Some American ethnicities have greater populations than others, but that does not mean the minority are any less important in defining the national identity. Additionally, a latte’s color gradient exemplifies the diversity of the American population, merging the dark base, beige center, and creamy surface in a heterogeneous fashion so that each element can be deciphered.
I congealed in the melting pot because I felt that my ethnicity would not fuse with the uniformity. But, as in the latte, where each layer expresses a different gradient, I could finally see that my new home was filled with people of varying ethnicities – some looked like me, others had the same religious beliefs, and many were Iraqi. I wasn’t alone.
National pride, not homogeneity, is what bonds members of a society. In the American latte, people should proudly stand for their nationalities and not fear prejudice; this is the land of the immigrants after all.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.