When you don’t speak the language of your homeland, it hurts.
I have to start off with that because it’s the most important thing to understand.
I was born in Tunisia, a small Arab country in North Africa. I left when I was a baby and raised in NYC with my Cuban mother. My mother shared her voice with me – English for our adopted land and Spanish for home.
While she never did deny me knowledge of my other heritage, she didn’t exactly promote it either. As a result, I never learned Arabic or French – both official languages in Tunisia. To be honest, for most of my life I didn’t know what I was missing until I went back home.
Summer 2018, after 26 years I returned to Tunisia for the first time. I was an infant when I left, so in reality, it was my first time. First time spending time with my dad, first time meeting my siblings and many cousins.
It was also the first time I looked like my family members. In fact, it’s the first time I felt I belonged. My entire life I had people questioning my ethnicity. I was never “Latina enough” because I didn’t look Latina. No one would ever guess I was Cuban, but the Arab features are what people would accept.
I had the completely opposite experience in Cuba, where I could speak the language but I didn’t look Cuban. I was constantly defending my identity in Cuba, and it was only until I spoke that I gained approval.
Walking through the streets of Tunisia no one looked at me weird, like a tourist or like I didn’t belong. Instead, I looked just like them. I was from here, after all. I am Tunisian. Well, that confidence in belonging soon wavered.
IT’S ONE THING TO WALK THE WALK, BUT I COULD NOT TALK THE TALK…
I couldn’t join in conversations with my cousins. I was in their home, and they don’t speak English. It was more awkward than realizing you’re in the wrong class halfway through and then have to try and walk out without drawing any attention. I started to feel more out of place than I ever have in my life.
It struck me so hard, that I had a panic attack on my second day.
I couldn’t even last a week! So many thoughts were racing in my head. I felt stupid, incompetent, angry, and I didn’t know how I would last the remaining trip. I needed someone to blame and my mother was the easiest target. I felt it was her responsibility as a mother, to educate her child on her heritage, especially when I was too young to make choices of my own. My mother, of course, didn’t feel the same. She felt no responsibility to engage or educate me in a culture that was not her own. We still agree to disagree, but at the moment it was the culmination of 27 years of searching – which ended with me blocking her for the duration of the trip.
While not my proudest moment, I definitely needed the time to process this on my own. I’ve overcome a lot of BS in my short life, but this situation was the hardest for me. You see, I have always been proud of my voice. The ability (or balls) to say what I want or how I feel. But here, I had no voice. Even worse, I was with family, and yet I was a stranger. My sisters speak English, but, not everything can be translated.
And my sisters tried. I’m forever grateful for the effort my sisters made to make me feel comfortable and would try and translate while using it as an opportunity to practice English. They did very well, but again things get lost in translation. Cultural jokes were completely lost – and forget about music or movie references.
I started to feel really isolated. It’s not like people were avoiding me. I was like the prodigal daughter who returned, I was the opposite of alone. I was being shown around the neighborhood by my father. He was so happy I was home. Family, friends, & neighbors all wished me a warm welcome – so I was told, I had no clue what they were saying.
No one doubted I was Tunisian, they knew simply by looking at me.
We went to a restaurant and I had to use the bathroom. There were some employees in there that began to talk to me. *cue internal panic* What did I do? I started speaking in sign language, maybe they would get the point, and they did. They smiled and waved bye to me (and before anyone gets on my case, I speak basic ASL, I wasn’t just being an asshole).
I thought to myself this was the trick. I would still fit in, and no one would know I’m a disgrace if they didn’t hear me speak. Except I didn’t count on one of those ladies being our server, and almost dropping a plate when she heard me speak English with my father. I was found out, and I felt even worse than before.
I started to wonder if I could really consider myself Tunisian.
I was born in this beautiful country that I’m considered a citizen of, but I wondered if that was enough. Does language make you more or less from a place?
I went on this trip for more answers about my identity, but a week in I had more questions and I felt more disconnected. It was painful to know I had this welcoming family, who waited just as long to be reunited and I couldn’t have a conversation.
But then I noticed that they didn’t seem to care that I didn’t speak the language, what’s important is that I was there. If I was sitting alone, someone pulled me next to them. Okay so we couldn’t have a real conversation, but that’s what body language, hand signs, and talking very slowly are for.
Like my cousin Chourak, who made sure I was always included with the group of cousins. She knows a handful of words in English, but that didn’t stop her from having conversations with me. With gestures, her French and my Spanish, and when in doubt, google translate.
She also showed me that language is only a barrier if you let it be.
I started to bond more with my family. I was also grateful for technology (and T-Mobile’s unlimited international data plan) which obviously made this process easier.
I also realized language is a two-way street. Not only was I wanting to learn Arabic, but my family wanted to learn more English. This shifted my experience completely. I went from shutting down because I didn’t understand, to spending time learning with my family.
While it still hurts my heart that I can’t join in the family group chat, I know language isn’t the only connection to one’s culture. I’m not less Tunisian because I can’t speak Arabic. I am who I am, and no one can take that away. I wouldn’t be less Cuban if I didn’t speak Spanish either. That’s the beauty about identity, only you can define what it means to you.