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Striving to Belong: Reflections on Growing up with a Dual Nationality

February 6, 2020
Cairo, Egypt courtesy of Flickr

This piece is not going to be all about the struggles of having an identity crisis resulting from growing up with two nationalities (although I’m not denying that it’s probably there, and I do feel it sometimes), but rather a reflection on how sometimes the world is a little different for us half breeds. 

A personal journey 

I am half Egyptian, half Greek having grown up in both countries at totally different points in my life – I was born and grew up in Athens, Greece until I was about 11, then I moved to Cairo and stayed here until I graduated from high school. Following high school, I decided I wanted to move back to Greece for university, which at that point in time seemed like the right decision as I had spent my adolescence missing my childhood home and building up an unexplained hatred towards the country that seemed to take me away from it – but two years in and I decided to move back to Cairo and finish my university degree here.

I had come to realize that Cairo became my home – a place that silently grew on me, a place that became familiar to me – and my love for this city, with its chaos and its culture, hit me suddenly like a ton of bricks. I began to miss my friends, my family, the smell of the bakery at the street market near where I lived, the sounds of endless honking acting as a backdrop to the layers of bickering, laughs, and small talk coming from various members of my family at my grandma’s house; it felt like a part of me was missing and I could neither find myself nor fill that void in Athens.

My childhood in Athens was quite pleasant; I lived near my friends and we would sometimes walk to each other’s houses, we would have sleepovers, I would go play at communal neighborhood parks – it was a rather western upbringing. Although my childhood memories seem slightly more distant now, they always seem to be bright and sunny. I remember moments mostly – like my grandfather singing to me while I was playing on the swings at the park, or going on treasure hunts at my friend’s house (which as a child seemed big, mysterious and almost castle-like). When thinking of these seemingly bright childhood memories in Greece, it is no wonder that moving to Cairo was met with a huge culture shock for my 11-year-old self.

Cairo was different – to say the least – it was big, noisy, messy and even a little foreign to 11-year-old me. It wasn’t my first time in the city of course, but I was here under an entirely different context now – this was no longer a short family visit, but my new life.

I realize now that spending my adolescence in Cairo played a big role in shaping who I am in a variety of ways. I had to deal with making new friends on two different occasions – when I first moved to Cairo and then again when I moved schools in Cairo – I believe this has led me to subconsciously adopt this idea that friends come in phases, and that with each different phase in my life, new friends come and go – I suppose this has allowed me to accept the idea that people come and go. I also had to deal with a slight language barrier – not in the sense that I didn’t understand the language, but in the sense that when I first moved to Cairo, I very much sounded like a foreigner speaking Arabic. To put it briefly, I was met with various situations to which I had to adapt and learn to fend for myself in ways that I do not believe would have been the case back in Athens. I had to adapt to a rather more conservative society and en entirely different way of living than I would have in Greece.

And so with all the lessons I now know it taught me, yes, it was my choice to move back to Cairo and yes, I actually enjoy living here and have grown to love this mess of a city with all my heart.

All said and done, at this point in my life I do honestly feel more rooted towards my Egyptian side than my Greek one – perhaps because I have now lived here longer, and have built a life here with my friends and family around me, as well as the fact that I feel as though I have lost some of the ‘Greek-ness’ in me. It may sound strange, but I sadly feel less Greek than I used to, and I feel as though it is mainly due to the fact that I don’t have much extended family there and most of my childhood friends have left the country as well. In that sense, I suppose I feel more rooted to a culture as a result of its people – more specifically those who surround me.  That’s not to say however, that I never feel like I somehow don’t fully belong to either culture.

Although this feeling of ‘not fully belonging’ is extremely rare, I can’t help but feel it linger at the back of my mind from time to time. 

Cairo, Egypt courtesy of Flickr

Too foreign for home, too foreign for here

There are rare fleeting moments when, even though I know a part of me is Egyptian and I feel just like everyone else around me, a joke, for example, that is tied into a cultural reference from my friends’ childhoods reminds me that I didn’t grow up in Egypt. There are many times when I would find myself sitting with a small group of people and there are nostalgic jokes from old films that I don’t quite get, childhood Spacetoon cartoons I can’t reminisce over, and sometimes even expressions that I would subconsciously stop myself from saying as they would sound ‘too foreign’ coming from me. 

On the other hand, I have also sometimes struggled with sounding ‘too foreign’. I’ve spoken Arabic my entire life, but I learnt how to read and write the language at a much later stage in my life than anyone else who grew up in Egypt – hence feeling rather self conscious at times when it comes to my Arabic language reading and writing – and at very few times, speaking – skills.

Although I am half Egyptian and half Greek, I actually consider my first language (or the one I feel most comfortable with) to be English, perhaps due to the fact that I had always attended English-speaking schools growing up and maybe also as a result of watching a lot of western television and reading mainly English books as a child.

I can express myself better in English, which is also why when I speak now – it is usually a mixture of Arabic and English that comes out. I understand that at times this mixture of languages may sound strange and that it could be met with some level of ‘friendly’ mockery by both friends and family. I only have issues with it however, when I feel as though it stops me from pushing myself towards something – specifically work-wise – because I may not believe that I can do it. 

I have and continue to work in both the acting and writing/copywriting fields, and have also worked in advertising. When it comes to any of the fields – most especially acting and advertising in Egypt – I quickly realized that I need to speak, read and write Arabic perfectly and I needed to have a certain level of confidence with the language that would allow me to push myself further in both fields. At this point in time, I feel a lot more confident than I used to when I had first graduated from university – where I was in a little bit of a bubble. However, there were times – of course – when that feeling of ‘not fully belonging’ would re-surface and I would catch myself thinking that I was too Greek for Egypt and too Egyptian for Greece – so where exactly is it that ‘I belong’?  

I suppose that this is a question that most Third Culture Kids (TCK) tend to ask themselves. Although, technically speaking, I am not a third culture kid as I have grown up in both my parents’ cultures (my father is Greek and my mother is Egyptian), but I feel as though I understand this strive to belong somewhere if you’ve grown up in various places. With globalization having spread a lot more in recent years, this TCK phenomena is actually more common now than it used to be – and I also personally know a number of people who have grown up with this phenomenon here in Egypt. It seems as though you are from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and it may certainly lead to questions of identity. At the end of the day, it’s how you choose to look at things.

Rather than trying to find an answer as to where I belong in this world, I feel as though I have just started to look at things differently. I do not think that I necessarily need to belong to one place or another, or to one culture or another – I am both Egyptian and Greek, and I love and embrace that. Both my cultural backgrounds are rich and beautiful and I fully appreciate what they have both offered me throughout the years and for shaping me into who I am today. 

*Featured image: Cairo, Egypt courtesy of Flickr

*The opinions and ideas expressed in this article do not reflect the views of Egyptian Streets’ editorial team. To submit an opinion article, please email [email protected].

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