Celine Anderson | September 12 2016
A continuation of Part One: A Place Without Question
These pictures are from the early 70’s, a time sans social media, when photos were not necessarily taken with the intent of showing but remembering. I like to think of these as visual insurance of my family’s previous life.
C: Was being Coptic in the States different than Egypt?
P: My awareness of these issues was vague… As a Copt, you’re aware that you’re a minority–that most people are Muslim, and you’re not. In Egypt, there was a sense of community. We went to church on Christmas and Easter. When we fasted, there was no explanation needed because there’s a Coptic community.
Coming to the United States, I still fasted, and then I had to explain to everyone. It was constant. Nobody had heard of Coptic, and having to explain it felt like you were doing something odd or weird. That’s why the church became so important.
C: What church?
P: The Coptic Church that my parents helped to start in Boston. It grew from ten families that got together in a house, and a priest who came down from Canada once a month to do a service. My parents were one of the original ten families, and so were Phoebe and Nabil. The Coptic community grew in Boston. We were at the beginning of immigration. 1969 was really when it picked up from Egypt to the United States. A lot of them were Coptic, frustrated by the discrimination.
C: What about discrimination in the States?
P: I think my parents did experience discrimination, but I’m not sure they were always aware of it… The awareness does not necessarily come naturally. You have to know the signs and know the culture really well to be be able to perceive that discrimination.
C: Did you notice it?
P: In stores, the way someone responded or their facial expressions when they would hear my parents speaking in an accent. I’m not sure my parents were always aware of it… I think that could be a blessing in disguise. (Laughs).
One of the things they really enjoyed about the United States was religious freedom. Since the majority of people in the U.S. are Christian, my parents never felt like they were a religious minority. Being in a country where everyone was celebrating Christmas made them feel like part of the majority.
C: Did your responsibilities as a daughter change?
P: Yes. In the United States, being a nuclear family with both my parents working, it changed things. My mother would tell me, take this out of the fridge, heat this up. I would help get the basics of dinner ready when I was about nine years old, so when my mother came home, she could finish it up. My mother was still cooking mostly Egyptian food which was just more time consuming. So I kind of learned how to cook through instructions over the phone. I would help shovel snow with my dad, I would help clean up. It was only the three of us.
C: What were some of your first interactions with American culture?
P: It’s important to remember that I lived in two worlds. Outside of my house is America; inside of my house was Egypt. We spoke Arabic, we ate Egyptian food, and when we socialized, it was primarily with other Egyptians. So I was sort of living in Egypt when I was at home, and then outside I began to enter into American culture.
My introduction to art and culture of the United States came very slowly. Once my language improved I would stop at the library almost every single day. I read fairy tales. They all had happy endings. (Laughs). I read veraciously and then moved onto other books… Little Women, things like that. I would consider that my first entrance into American culture.
It was a long time before I entered into to other kinds of things. Probably in college when I came across those things… In all truthfulness learning more about art and music probably started in graduate school, and I still sit in conversations where people talk about music, film, significant American artists, and I don’t know who they are talking about. Ultimately I had to educate myself on a lot of things. Even with that I know there are gaps in things that would be very familiar to most Americans.
C: What about television?
P: That was a big introduction to the culture. It also helped me to learn the language. I started watching TV because I came home from school before my parents. I would watch I Love Lucy. I was able to laugh at that show. I did not understand American humor. I’m still not sure I understand it, but because of the physical humor, I was able to laugh. I’d watch Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, All in The Family, The Brady Bunch, The Waltons. I guess there’s a theme there, right? That was an introduction to the American family, at least as seen on TV.
That was also my introduction to race in America. In 1970’s, I was the only minority in fifth and sixth grade and one of maybe five in my high school. Stereotypes are something I had to learn. I didn’t know the stereotype about watermelon and Black people. I just thought, watermelon is good, we eat a lot of it in Egypt. My understanding came in large part through those TV shows.
C: So what about being the only minority in school?
P: I was an anomaly. Kids were not kind. I got asked ridiculous questions, Do you live in the pyramids? Do you own a camel? I might as well have been an alien. […] In junior high school, they tried to correct my accent, teach me how to say my R’s and my A’s and all that.
C: Did you go back?
P: We went back in 1976. That was the first trip. I was a freshman in high school.
C: How was that?
P: Not enough. I remember being seen differently by my cousins–having them ask me questions of what it’s like in America, being asked to say something in English and being perceived as a different person. That was hard. I wanted to go back as if I had never left, but that wasn’t possible. But seeing my family again, seeing my grandmother again, eating Egyptian food again: that was good. Feeling different was hard… Being treated as a guest. We were visitors, and that was hard.
C: What did you leave in Egypt?
P: (Sighs). Oh my god. Another life that I would have had. You leave another self behind when you immigrate. We each could have two suitcases. My parents had been married for ten years, built a life and a household, and we could each have two suitcases. I had to leave behind a teddy bear that I was attached to… I remember having to leave behind a backgammon set which I was able to retrieve the first time we went back. Those are the two things I specifically remember. Still, there’s a parallel life, a parallel person who’s living the life I would have had. I think that’s what I really left behind.
Celine Anderson is half African American, half Egyptian, and 100% everyone’s favorite NOC (Nerd of Color). She is entering her sophomore year at Swarthmore college. You can check out her instagram here.