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Teen Scene

By Lori Draz and Safa Mbarki

Each month our young authors write, in their own voice, stories that will educate and inform fellow students and parents. If you are a teen who would like to write your story, contact The Journal. We’ll help you polish it up, so don’t worry, let’s just get to sharing.

This month’s author is 16-year-old Safa Mbarki, a junior at Middletown High School North and a talented writer and winner of the YMCA Martin Luther King essay contest. Communicating with others can often be challenging, but sometimes communicating with yourself can be equally difficult. Speaking in two languages is common among first generation immigrant families, but does adopting English as your primary language mean you have abandoned your heritage? Here is Safa’s story.

It’s a Friday. I have just come home from school and am looking forward to the rare luxury of free time. Finally, I can write something other than lab reports in strictly passive voice and rhetorical analyses. I am free. As I open my laptop, the shackles of rubrics and MLA format dissolve, and I can get to unleashing two weeks’ worth of pent-up thoughts and ideas. Up, up and away I go, typing whatever comes to mind, whatever feels right. However, as I write down the English words that come from my English train of thought, there is always a little Arabic word that weaves its way in— a simple preposition or conjunction that interrupts the flow of perfect English with something foreign. Immediately, I am taken aback. Why did my own language just seem foreign? After all, it is a part of me. Why am I writing in English over Arabic? Should I be writing in Arabic instead? Am I pretending to be someone I’m not? Am I neglecting who I truly am? All these thoughts rush through my head as the two parts of my cultural identity play tug-of-war, each side trying to win my favor.

I am a first generation immigrant. My mother and father moved from Tunisia to Canada and finally to America long before I was born. Still, my two siblings and I followed my parents’ main rule of the house: no speaking English in the home. As a child, this rule frustrated me. After all, why should I be limited to one language when I had the opportunity to know two? Moreover, since I spoke English every day at school, it was hard to switch out of English mode and into Arabic mode at home. This switch was complicated by the fact that there were many English words and expressions that I didn’t know the Arabic equivalent of. English became my default.

I felt it was unfair to be scolded at home for something that I felt I had no control over. It seemed like I was being punished or disapproved of for something that wasn’t even my fault. And the worst part was that I really did want to speak Arabic; it was just difficult for me to do so. Regardless of how I tried to explain my good intentions, my parents could never understand. I mean, how could they? They’d known Arabic all their lives. They didn’t know what it was like to have to juggle two identities almost every day. They only saw me speaking English over Arabic and didn’t seem to see my internal struggle.

As I get older and have learned more about the world, I recognize the importance of the no-speaking-English rule. It guaranteed that my siblings and I would not lose touch with our language and cultural roots. I know now how valuable language is and how easily it can be forgotten and become a hazy relic of the past. Now, I am extremely grateful for knowing Arabic. I actively try to speak it at home. In a way, I feel like I am making up for all the years I spent speaking mostly English, as if I could undo the past through mere willpower.

Trying to choose between speaking two languages made me contemplate my identity as a whole. Am I more American than Tunisian, or is it the other way around? Should I prefer one side over the other or should they be equal? I thought about it a lot, and it was part of my writing. I wondered if writing in English meant I was clinging to the American version of myself too much. I felt like I had to be more Tunisian to balance things out. Oddly enough, feeling that I wasn’t being Tunisian enough also made me feel like I wasn’t American enough either.

After letting these thoughts spiral in my head, it hit me that none of it really matters. There was no point in trying to label myself as just one thing when clearly I am not. I am a mix of different cultures, so why should I force myself to be just one? It would only end in more confusion and frustration. After agonizing over all the little details of me as a person, I have realized that it’s okay to not know who or what you are all the time. All that matters is that you stay true to yourself and do what feels right – so I’ll continue to write as I please, regardless of the language.

This basic understanding applies to everyone, not just those with dual cultures. For example, you may find yourself being two completely different people at home compared to at school, work or with your sports team. Maybe you find that you have to act more self-assured and confident than you normally feel to fulfill the role of a caregiver or older sibling. No matter what we deal with, all our different faces and personalities are a part of what makes our lives so interesting and enriching. Why would anyone want to be confined to acting just one way their whole lives? Humans are dynamic, fluid capable of so much more than the barriers that we force on ourselves. Be as complicated as you want, even if you don’t completely understand it.

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