Watching the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding when it came out in the theaters with my Lebanese best friend was the best free therapy I’ve ever received—no joke. We laughed and also cried tears of incredulity that a film could so perfectly capture our experience as first-generation Americans.
My parents emigrated to America from Cairo, Egypt in the 1970s, when they were in their mid-twenties. I am not blonde and thin and, yes, all I wanted for lunch growing up were Lunchables or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My mom couldn’t relate to the torture and grief I experienced when the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches came in pita bread.
“It’s the same. It’s better!” she said.
Now I’m finally at an age when I can appreciate all the lessons I learned from being an immigrant kid. Here are just five things I learned, especially from my mom.
Life isn’t fair.
Parents today live under the oppression of making life as fair as possible for their kids. That’s a lot of pressure! My sister and I remember how our friends who had sisters each received their own copy of a Disney movie every time one came out, while we had to share ours. When I asked my mom about this she said, “Life is unfair.” At times, she intentionally made things unfair so we would learn early on that sometimes you will get more and other times you will get less. The important thing is to be grateful nonetheless.
My mother is a master at bargaining and taught me how to do the same. It was hard to watch at times, but over time I’ve learned a lot. I may never achieve her level of excellence—a car salesman she bought a car from told her “I would like you to help me buy a car!”—but with her training, I have learned to get over the embarrassment of asking for a discount, and have saved a lot of money over the years as a result.
Laugh it off.
There is a lot in life that can bring you down. Someone once told me, “Your sense of humor has saved you a lot of suffering.” I sometimes hate when my mom says things like “Who cares? Move on,” in the face of setbacks. But I have to admit many times her no-nonsense, light-hearted attitude has given me the strength and security to move forward in difficult situations because I did not allow myself to over-indulge in unhelpful feelings of victimhood. Overall, I think this was a win in the girl power department.
Busyness is from the devil.
This is a famous phrase in the Arabic language. If you’re too busy in life, you aren’t relishing its beauty. It’s no secret many Americans suffer from anxiety, depression, and loneliness. My best childhood memories are being at leisure with my grandmother over a cup of coffee. I remember the insane pressure my friends felt being dragged from activity to activity and the frustration of their parents who were always in a rush driving them around. There’s a beauty in giving yourself permission to clear your schedule and not feel guilty about it for a second. We are not what we produce.
Middle-Eastern people can be fiercely loyal. My mother's loyalty could be carried to an unreasonable degree ("Mom, a girl pushed my cupcake out of my hand." "Well, push hers out of her hand tomorrow.") However, in her relentless desire to make me a resilient woman, there are times when I felt she wasn’t on my side. But, I’ve come to view these moments differently as an adult. For instance, I now view moments when she questioned my judgment as loving attempts to help me refine my thinking and see the truth.
Simone Weil wrote that “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Coming from an immigrant family who has been uprooted a number of times, I would say a sense of rootedness and stability is precisely what my family, and my mother specifically, gave me. My mother’s survivor attitude has shaped me to be the kind of person who can move beyond worrying about what others think of me and my own feelings of inadequacy and to do what I am called to do.