“Mom, can I have fries with my shawarma?”
My American experience is unique. Born in Houston, my parents moved me to the Middle East when I was four years old. My dad’s job transferred him. The move changed our lives. It wasn’t just the food we ate, the roads we traveled or even the fact my mom could no longer drive those roads because women weren’t allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. That move opened my eyes to opportunities. My world literally became bigger.
Summer trips to Paris, Cairo and Hong Kong showed me the vast ways people lived. I saw incredible beauty, utter poverty and experienced intense hospitality. I learned languages, made friends, and expanded my taste palette. However, I always yearned for the end of the trips because that’s when we flew to the United States to visit family.
The moment our plane touched down on that American runway, my heart fluttered. I couldn’t wait until the seatbelt lights dimmed and the plane doors opened. Stepping off of that international jetliner and walking into an airport full of greasy fast food joints and newsstands with English magazines made my young soul leap.
A few years after we moved, my grandmother made me a quilt. She filled it with various patterns and colored threads. I slept with it just about every night until I entered high school. When life became rough, I turned to that quilt. It covered my shivering shoulders when a friend didn’t invite me to a party. It warmed my soul when I lost a track meet. It even reminded me of home. Even though I was raised in a foreign land, home would always be Texas. I was proud to be an American, but even more proud to be a Texan. It’s practically a requirement when you enter the world on Texas soil, and I fulfilled my duty faithfully.
That feeling was intensified the summer of 1990. That August 2nd, my world changed again. One man invaded a country on the side of the globe most of my American friends didn’t know existed. It meant many of our young heroes would soon visit my childhood home. It also meant I would be forced to leave it.
My mother, little sister and I were evacuated. My father had to stay. I was scared and confused. However, the air raid drills had prepared me as much as a rising fifth-grader could be prepared. When you learn to carry a gas mask to school, your world changes.
We moved back to Houston where my mother’s family resides. My mom quickly found me a school and the three of us settled into life without my dad. The phone calls helped. The letters gave us something to do. Being preoccupied with the older boy in class also took my mind off the news reports. That was until the turn of the New Year and the combat phase of the operation kicked in.
My teenaged uncle was shipped overseas to fight. My dad saw him once, grabbing a piece of a used scud missile as a reminder of the times he had lived through.
Months later, school ended and my mom, sister and I were allowed to return to our home abroad. I was grateful to see my dad, but my old world had become new. The guards were now armed with larger weapons and stood at more checkpoints. American soldiers navigated my downtown markets. It was fun to hear the pops of hip-hop and rock pumped on the speakers of Humvees as we made our way to the local ice cream shops and gold souks.
Every Thanksgiving and Christmas after that year, my mother invited soldiers and marines to our home for dinner. I helped cook, and loved hearing the PG version of the stories shared while the turkey and dirty rice were passed around the table. I was proud of those young strangers. I was proud to be an American, even though I didn’t fully understand why they were there with us.
It was back then, during my formative years, when I learned we truly do come in various shapes and sizes, believe in a multitude of things, and are even shaped by the different neighborhoods we come from and experiences we collect. However, you can count on one thing: when things get rough, the American thread in the quilt of our lives is revealed.
You hurt one of us, you face all of us.
Whether it was 9/11, the Charleston massacre, or Hurricane Andrew, Americans are strongest and the most beautiful when adversity pushes us to show that love inside.
Sometimes you have to leave the country to realize it. Sometimes you have to return home to appreciate it, but there’s never a better moment than waiting in the customs line at the airport and opening your passport to see “American” printed in the nationality box.
She’s not perfect. Oh, far from it.
Like my grandmother’s quilt, there are squares that need to be repaired. Some even need to be replaced, but at the end of the day, all of those pieces come together to form a beautiful blanket that covers me when I’m cold, reminds me of how far I’ve come, and gives me the strength to dare to change tomorrow.
I wrote this post in 2015. My husband, Rasheed, absolutely loved it. I never shared it with anyone else. This weekend felt like the perfect time to do so.