Looks Like He Listened

by Chris Assis

They just don’t get it; they don’t get that I didn’t choose to be different. Kids on the block can’t see past the outsider I am. My grilled cheese consisted of pita bread and hummus, my parents listened to Wada instead of the Stones. I felt rejected, so I rejected all cultural idiosyncrasies possible. It’s all about blending in, filling the space between the norms. Yet despite looking the part, white suburbia is damning. Dana and Greg, my older siblings, never went through the judgment I did; they lived in a different era. Meanwhile, they called my class the “9/11 generation.” Living fifteen minutes outside of New York City, along with the unfortunate timing of my upbringing, I had to undergo the pinnacle of Arab hysteria. I desperately want to hide, but my Middle Eastern tendencies petered through.

Though friends would come to my home and learn about my family, my background was generally a well-kept secret. I minimized racial profiling, filling in all the Scantron bubbles that I thought would merge me in the masses. I thought I was blessed with my Jersey accent and fairly white skin. It was easy to isolate myself, to deafen my ears to my culture. That is, of course, until the new addition of the Tisdale middle school career day. Career day is not about having a successful job that provides well, it’s about appealing to a kid’s sense of adventure. Nevertheless, it was never my dream to fit into the crowd of Mr. Donavan the mechanic or Mr. Tritt the firefighter but Fouad coming into class didn’t exactly bury my unwanted label. I just needed to get through the day.

“Hey Fouad, would you consider not speaking today?” I pleaded.

“You know this is for a mandatory grade, Chris,” my father said. “I’m not about to sacrifice your education because you’re embarrassed.”

That was it. There’s no stopping Fouad when he sets his mind to something. We don’t talk often, but persistence is a trait I know we share.

Fouad steps up to the tiny podium in the center of the stage, my mom by his side. He has trouble hearing, so my mom acted as his aid to questions. I catch his muffled voice as my head is pressed against my desk, trying to enter a trance away from this classroom. I play it cool, acting as if panic isn’t ravaging my stomach. The same panic that Fouad was about to expose my secret and send my social life into turmoil.

“Hi everyone, I’m Chris’s dad and the president of a civil engineering company.”

Fouad continued to explain his career, leaving no detail out from bridges to blueprints to hardhats. My second-hand embarrassment radically increased as I assumed the class’s boredom did.

His speech was brief, swift, quiet, and most importantly, it was over. His voice drifted to silence finally. I was positive the class would pity clap and move on. Suddenly, a jolt of students’ hands jammed the traffic flow of the classroom’s air. They were interested, not just about my dad’s job, but also about his heavy accent. My classmates didn’t stigmatize the clearly Middle Eastern drawl; they embraced it. If my dad couldn’t hear the question, my mom would talk to him in the more familiar Arabic language. To my surprise, no one was afraid or uncomfortable; they were intrigued. The students found the language beautiful, and the story of my parents’ journey to America inspiring. Meanwhile, I slowly regained blood flow from my outside trance. This had been my nightmare, but I was regaining lucid control.

Fouad restarted his story, but this time emphasized the cultural aspects. He was forced to dress up as a young girl and to hide in a well to survive the Armenian Genocide. After escaping to Syria, my dad entered the top one percent of students- those who were allowed to study abroad. From there, my dad studied at a multitude of international universities and landed a career in America, which is where he connected his two stories. Fascination emanated the room. I realized his bildungsroman: how he came from nothing, and how I am privileged beyond comparison.

I found myself gradually switching positions from the ashamed child to the captivated student. These were my parents, but I sat in awe alongside my classmates. I’ve heard their story a million times, but I never actually listened. I saw my dad in a new light: as a man who not only provided for his family, but also provided because he cares immensely. At the same time, my mom’s supportive attitude was evident throughout the room. She sat alongside him the entire time, following my dad to the States and silently suffering through assimilation. Even now, in the perfect instance to share a sacrificial story, my mom quietly operated the spotlight on the side. Regardless, I heard her voice. I envied this newly understood empathetic nature of my mom.

The questions about the food, about Syria, about the idioms of the language– how could these kids not know this? This was my life. That’s when it really hit me, I’m hiding my everything from an audience that wants to hear my story. During my father’s presentation, I omnisciently watched, expecting to see my life crumble in front of me. In reality, my dad’s exposure was my concrete layering of existence. I stood up alongside my family.

“Hey Chris, I didn’t know your parents were so different,” Brian Donavan said. That was a lie. They all knew I was different, but, what no one knew in that fourth grade classroom, is that being different is actually quite refreshing.