Review by Farah Fawzi Ali
Review: I Was Their American Dream
I Was Their American Dream (published 2019 by Clarkson Potter, of Penguin Random House), is a debut graphic memoir written and illustrated by Malaka Gharib, an Egyptian Filipino American journalist and artist at NPR. Gharib shares her honest experiences of being caught between her Filipino and Egyptian identities while simultaneously reconciling with what it means to be a first-generation immigrant in the United States.
We are first introduced to Malaka through her family's immigration story to the United States. Though her parents each have their unique reasons to migrate, their stories echo commonalities felt and seen in the stories of Global South immigrants: the sacrifices and hardships of providing for families back home and of ensuring a better life for their children. Malaka illustrates her parents’ determination and perseverance to establish a fresh start on new terrain, eager to achieve the “American Dream” through her.
Malaka's understanding of the world expands through her interactions in high school, college, and post-college. Her high school experience in particular highlights growing up in the Y2K pre-smartphone era, when “poser” and “fake” were the most offensive of insults, slang like “azn” and “flip” were used, and the edgy kids were the punk-loving, skateboarding zinester cliques which Malaka was a part of. Through these contexts, she provides insight on being both ethnically ambiguous and whitewashed, striving to adapt to her surroundings to fit in but also wanting to be accepted as the ‘Falafel Surprise’ or ‘Zaatar-covered Onigiri’ that she considers herself to be.
Her experiences also recount a growing awareness of white culture glorification in the media and the older generation’s perception of white people, subsequently leading to the whitewashing of one's own heritage. Facing culture shock after transitioning from her ethnically-diverse high school to her white-majority college (and later, the adult working world), Malaka tries to emulate the norms of her white peers and is frustrated at having her heritage sidelined and reduced through an array of microaggressions, from “you talk so funny” to “I don’t see color.”
Vulnerable and raw, Malaka expresses what it is like to be torn between dualistic identities -- whether culturally with her Filipino and Egyptian heritage, religiously with her Catholic and Muslim upbringing, or even geographically between spending the academic year in Cerritos, California with her maternal family and summer holidays in Egypt with her paternal family. Importantly, she shows how dualistic identities can be balanced and reconciled. She paints what it is like to be part of a blended family, acknowledging and appreciating the beautiful moments spent with both sides and what she has learnt from all of them. As Malaka grows older, she reclaims her culture and reconciles her dilemmas, melding them in a way that comforts her. This is most evident in her marriage to Darren, which brings together her whole family, and incorporates texts and traditions from both religions and cultures.
This was probably the first graphic memoir I have ever read, and I absolutely loved it through and through. The memoir is engaging, with culturally welcoming interactive pages: the reader can try out a Monggo recipe, make a 8-fold zine, and play the games Malaka played during her summers in Egypt. After reading the whole thing, I wanted to read more stories in this visually light and humbling fashion. Gharib’s simple yet vibrant illustrations immerse you into her life and family history. Light, raw and humorous, it almost felt like I was invited to her house for a family gathering with enough falafel and lumpia to go around, as she and her relatives narrated funny anecdotes about each other.
As an Egyptian-Filipina myself, reading Gharib’s memoir was my “Mom look! That Disney princess looks just like me!” moment, as I finally saw our rare Egyptian-Filipino poketype being represented in an actual book. I resonated with her struggles to balance both cultures and the moments in which she felt out of touch with either. I felt humbled to see art featuring Egyptian and Filipino elements, especially her dad, who has such quintessential masri baba vibes, especially in the illustration of him watching TV with his feet crossed in his white fanellah eating KFC. I could see my own father in the exact same image.
However, it also became apparent to me that even within our niche Egyptian-Filipino identities, you can find completely different experiences because of where others were raised and the extent of exposure to, and retention of, each culture. Growing up in the Persian Gulf, I did not have to really deal with much of the whitewashing nor the religious dilemma that Gharib experienced in the US. Granted, there were instances where white culture and norms were put on a pedestal, but because of the stronger presence of POC culture here, these instances were not as present as in the US, where white people can actively assert themselves among minority groups.
I Was Their American Dream leaves me humbled and hopeful that we are heading towards a world that cultivates space and opportunities for underrepresented communities to share their narratives. Malaka's experiences gave me a sense of validation and acknowledgement that my own cultural experience is worthwhile and deserving of a platform to be heard too. Malaka’s memoir indicates that when we are overwhelmed by voices and representations that give no space for us to express our own, we tend to feel hesitant and even embarrassed to show our true self. Inevitably, we lose grip of our sense of identity and the cultural aspects that we deeply cherish. The themes she addresses allude to both the problem and solution of representation. We need to stray away from sidelining or “othering” other peoples experiences and create an understanding and empathetic environment for people to be themselves.
Farah Fawzi Ali (She/Her) is a Filipina-Egyptian researcher and writer based in the United Arab Emirates with a B.A. in Political Science from The American University in Cairo. Farah is mainly interested in cultural research, with focus on postcolonialism and history in the ASEAN and SWANA regions, interplay of media and visual arts with sociocultural realities, and environmental sustainability. She also writes book reviews and promotes thrifting practices online on her Instagram blog LearntHuman.