During a recent visit to a pastry shop in Dearborn, Michigan, three flashy boys stood in front of me as I impatiently waited in line to order some Lebanese Kunafa.I couldn’t help ignore their attempts to live up to the 50 cent image that was overshadowed by their heavy Middle-Eastern accent.
The picture became even more humorous when they uttered a couple of Arabic swear words… Yemeni style.
When I revisit that seemingly pointless observation, I can imagine an elderly Yemeni man scolding one of these boys to pull up his pants and to walk like a man.I also imagine a Yemeni woman seeing these youth as Westernized fools who don’t know what being Muslim or Yemeni is all about.That may be true, but these accusations (which you may be familiar with if you are of Yemeni roots and living abroad) are based on the false assumption that youth blindly seek to follow that which is Western. Such accusations completely miss out on the conscious attempts youth engage in to shape their identities.
Who am I?
Am I Yemeni, Muslim, or both? Is that cool? Can I go through the day without being disrespected or marginalized for being different?Will they respect me if I change the way I dress?Will my circle of friends be larger if I change the way I think?Will I be able to get better jobs if I look like them?Will those comments and looks stop if I look less Yemeni, Muslim or both?
Will people accept me?
Some may consider these questions as narcissistic, self-centered, and idiotic.But in reality, most of us are trying to figure out who we are and how we can fit in seamlessly, without being classified as “the other”.
The expressions of these struggles are manifested in the way youth choose to assimilate, either by getting drunk on the weekend to enforce the idea that they ‘fit in’, or by dressing a certain way to gain the attention and respect of their peers.We have all known (or at least heard of) a Mohammad who has become a Moe, or the quiet Saeed who used to come to school in slacks and the tucked in shirt, but is now Sam the gangsta.
Unfortunately this very real struggle that youth engage in to construct their identities is belittled by some elders who don’t understand and appreciate the importance of the shaping and transitioning of identities.These parents and community members don’t realize that outside of the home youth face a daily battle when their cultural expectations collide with that of their Western environment.
Considering the collectivist nature of Yemeni society, some parents assume that the focus should be on inherited social constructions and the family rather than the immediate context and individuality of the child.And so girls are reared to cook and clean while boys are reared to earn and defend – all for the sake of the collective.
Such an approach facilitates the ignorance of root problems and permits a black and white analysis.And so the focus of some parents rests on dichotomies: girls are pious if they wear the hijab and shameless if they don’t.Boys are honourable if they marry a Yemeni girl and a burden if they bring a girlfriend home. As though a scarf on the head is conducive to piety and a cultural homogenous marriage is conducive to happiness.Basically: Yemeni culture is good, American culture is bad. And of course, the definition of being Yemeni can only be defined by the experiences of these elders and not that of the youth.
Perhaps I have been harsh on parents.And perhaps such a parenting style is based on genuine attempts to hold a family together within an unfamiliar environment.But sadly, this approach has only led to the breakdown of families.It has become common news to hear about the pious daughter who comes home with the protection of the cops so she can gather her belongings and move in with her boyfriend, and the honorable boy who is married to his cousin, reveals he has a child with another woman.
So who is to blame for the outcomes of identity struggles that are not addressed early on: A struggling youth attempting to make sense of her identity and lacking the support from friends and family?How about the Western values that push youth to rebel? Or the Yemeni traditions, that restrain the expression of youth?Or could we daringly point fingers to a parenting style that is built on quicksand?