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Arab American kids, then and now
Michelle Nasrine Kemp
by Michelle Nasrine Kemp
July 2nd, 2014 (1 Comment)
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When I think of my kids growing up, with all the new advances in technology, and how different it was when I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, I feel bad for them. Sure, they have so many great things like iPads and Xbox games. And they don’t have to deal with the pain of rewinding VCR tapes or waiting for slow dial-up internet connections. I’m not really talking about those types of common things. I’m talking about what it was like growing up in my world versus theirs. Not only did I spend hours making mix tapes like my other childhood friends, I also had a unique childhood that only children of immigrants will understand.

When I was growing up, my parents lived within walking distance of ten different sets of relatives. Every day at our house, people were coming and going. We had a lot of people around, and there was never a dull moment!   Also, we would visit a lot of relatives during the week. I don’t know how everyone had the time to sit and talk over coffee back then.

I moved away from my hometown when I started my own family, and if my kids want to see the nearest grandparent, we have to travel 25 minutes by car. They aren’t surrounded by hundreds of relatives on any given day. If it wasn’t for social networking, no one in my large family would even see my kids for years. Thank goodness for Facebook!

My kids won’t ever know what it was like to have dinner over an auntie’s house on some random Tuesday. She would have a dozen plates of food and snacks out to eat and a dozen relatives to greet. They will never know what it’s like to walk in to the smell of Arabic coffee filling the house and a barrage of cousins to play hide and seek with.

If I didn’t want to play outside, I’d have to prepare to be bombarded with cigar smoke from the other room and watch the adults in the family play cards for hours. I still can remember the laughter, the smells of arak, coffee and cigar smoke all mixed together and hovering in the air. And the music! There was always someone there that knew how to sing and play the oud.

My kids will never hear stories of their parents’ childhood in the old country and how hard it was to live there. And, of course, there are all the stories of how my elders came to this country with no money in their pockets. I don’t have any stories of hardship really, unless you count living in a trailer park for a few years in the 70s a hardship.

One more thing that makes our upbringings different is that my children will never know how to communicate with people who only speak Arabic. I used to have to force myself to decipher the words in order understand my aunt and teita.   Sometimes drawing pictures was the only way. I got really good at charades too!

This kind of frustration can sometimes be seen when my son tries to help my mom on the computer. He wishes she understood technology more. One time he asked her to look something up on the internet, and she was clueless, staring blankly at the screen. Then she said, “Why don’t I just Google it?”

When they go to school, they will never know the joy of teaching your fellow classmates how to curse in another language. I went to a Catholic school. But for some reason, saying bad words in another language didn’t feel like I was committing a sin. Then I taught some friends what I was saying. Soon enough, I had the whole second grade speaking in a way that would make a sailor blush. It sounded harmless in Arabic and it was glorious to have a secret language that the nuns couldn’t interpret. If they asked me where I heard this language, I would innocently tell them, "From my grandmother." Teita cussed so much in Arabic that it would even make Eminem say, “Damn!”

Also, my kids won't be exposed to people with accents. I was always picked for roles in theater class that required having an accent. I was a professional. In high school, my class was putting together a Saturday Night Live-type project. We had short news stories, commercials and other parodies filmed on video. Since it was the 80’s, I was working with a small group, helping to create a commercial parody. I was dressed like Muammar al-Gaddafi in my dad’s old military suit. We called it “Gaddafi’s Corner” and made it like a commercial for a convenience store that sold guns, ammo and hostages.

Today, this would not be acceptable for a school project, but back then we got an “A+”! I still remember some of the lines that I said in a thick Arabic accent. “Come on down to Gaddafi’s Corner… we got all your rebel war needs! Hostages... buy one, get two free! Ak-47’s are half-off!” Looking back on it, I cringe, but it was all meant to be in fun. Now, since there have been so many violent attacks in school, there is no way this type of activity would be permitted. I mean, we even had real unloaded rifles as props in our show!!

I feel bad that my kids won’t get to have similar experiences growing up as me but they will surely have great childhood memories of their own. I’m sure one day I’ll hear about all sorts of stories about what they liked and disliked growing up. But one thing is for sure: memories are to be always cherished, and those are the times that shape who we are as individuals.

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* Michelle Nasrine Kemp is a wife, mother of 2, advertising sales rep, and writer living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Comments (1)
  1. Hi Michelle Nasrin, I enjoyed reading your post. I’m also an Arab who lived in the US and I appreciate all the things that you mentioned. My advice is to have your kids create a family tree which can be used to learn about your side of the family and where it came from. I also hope that you can get the chance to take your kids on a visit to your family’s village/town. It is our responsibility to keep our kids connected to their roots and perhaps helping them learn about our culture and language.

    Best of luck, and keep on writing. You do have a way of keeping the reader interested in what you have to say.


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