My parents immigrated to the United States from Egypt many years ago. There are many things about my background that I am proud of. For instance, Egyptians are well known for their hospitality and generosity. Tell a tante you like her earrings, and she will immediately take them off and give them to you. Plus the food, art, music, and classic movies are incredible!
On the other hand, like many children of immigrants, I’ve encountered a lot of challenges. I grew up in the ’90s-early 2000s suburbia, and I can probably write an entire novel about living that experience while trying to maintain traditional cultural values. All my stories can be reduced to the fact that I never felt like I truly belonged anywhere. I am too Middle Eastern for the United States and too westernized for Egypt. Forming an identity that meshes both worlds is both interesting and challenging. Adding Crohn’s disease into the mix makes it more so.
Middle Eastern people place an emphasis on what they deem to be the “successful” life: a good-quality education, a prestigious job (preferably a doctor, lawyer, or engineer), getting married, having multiple kids, and providing for the home. These are good things to have, but my culture views them as the only way to achieve social status.
While I didn’t have the intention to become one of those professions, I wanted to be someone who lived up to those standards. Crohn’s disease disrupted my plans multiple times. I was put on academic probation as an undergrad, missed work, and lost a decent job when I was hospitalized. I’m still struggling to find a stable job now, and I’m still single at 35.
I understand that I experienced and overcame a lot of obstacles since I was a teen and that my identity is more than what I’ve accomplished on the surface. Yet, I go through phases where I tell myself I’m not good enough because I haven’t achieved those expectations. It's getting better with therapy, and I continue to work on it.
One of the cultural aspects I value the most is the sense of community. Middle Easterners know to show up when loved ones are struggling. I have been hospitalized several times in my life, and each time, people from the community would visit in groups. I can recall some medical staffers were entertained by the livelihood. Their support was just as much for my family as it was for me.
Aunts and uncles spent time with my parents or helped me when my family went out. My friends would bring in enough food that would last for days and even offered some to staff to show appreciation. One hospital stay included friends visiting multiple times, and they ended up being my personal advocates. Like the inability to refuse Grandma’s food, I wasn’t allowed to refuse help. They would get me things that I didn’t ask for (but I’m never going to complain about extra warm blankets) and talked to the staff about my care. It’s been years since I’ve had to stay at a hospital, but I remember because of the community support how safe I felt during my most vulnerable moments.
Identity and culture will always be a challenge. I aim to implement deeper values such as generosity and community care, especially with the growing autoimmune and IBD communities online. I’m beginning to learn that “accomplishments” don’t describe who I am. How I use what I’ve experienced and the way I approach things to connect with others does.
Photo Credit: Jasmin Merdan / Moment via Getty Images
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