An American Mother

October 8, 2009 by  


By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) Middle East Correspondent

kuwait01 My grandmother always referred to me as an ‘old soul’ when I was growing up. Even as a small child I often found myself contemplating on the bigger picture of life while other kids my age were wrapped up in their Barbies or Slinkys. I used to wonder where I would live, what I would do and who I would marry, very grand ideas for someone who could not even see over the counter at the local bakery shop! If someone had told me then that I would be spending the greater part of my life in the Middle East, a place I doubt I could have even found on a map back then, I doubt I would have believed them.

It’s now been almost fourteen years since I embarked upon the tiny Gulf state of Kuwait. During the first few years I grappled with a combination of feelings including homesickness and isolation. I struggled with my own language as speaking and writing my native English became increasingly harder. All of my in-laws, neighbors and newest friends spoke barely passable English. I had no choice but to speak in broken English while also using my hands to get my message across. As a result, my perfect enunciation and speech took a beating. It got so terrible that whenever I called my family back in the States, they had trouble understanding me. Fortunately, I immersed myself in English literature and even pop culture media and found my language again.

However, that was only a small victory in the battle of adjusting to a completely new society and way of life. The biggest challenge would be parenthood. As a mother to four children, I have consistently had to reinvent and recalibrate myself to meet the needs of my kids, which change as fast as the desert winds can blow. I grew up on the East Coast of America where snowstorms, trips to Wal-Mart, hot dogs and a slice of piping hot apple pie in the middle of the night were the very building blocks of my culture. Seemingly overnight I was thrust into a new culture that was as vibrant as a rainbow after a storm and richer than anything I had ever imagined. It also came packaged in a language I did not understand and cultural norms that were strange to me.

The experience I have had living in Kuwait has been amazing but it is still a sharp contrast to the one my children have enjoyed. Since they were born here and exposed to the traditions of Kuwait, as well as a handful from the wider expatriate community, they have adapted just as well as fish to water. My son rides his bike just about everywhere and relishes in kicking up the sand as he fishtails to a dramatic stop. My oldest daughter prefers wearing the Kuwaiti ‘dada’, or long robe, as she swears it is more comfortable than western blue jeans. And my toddler would not even dream of leaving the house unless her eyelids are adorned with black kohl liner.

As for me, I try to incorporate the best of two worlds (actually three since my husband hails from Pakistan) into their daily routines. I always try to have ‘bukhoor’, or incense, burning during part of the day and I rotate all of my meal planning around three different cultures so that my children experience American, Arabic and Southeast Asian cuisine. I have even slowly begun to master the art of henna application which is no easy feat considering I cannot even draw a straight line. Over time, I have seen my children blend into the Kuwaiti culture more so than the American one. My daughters always insist that their hands are adorned with henna and take great pride in wearing traditional dresses to family affairs. They don’t even notice when my eyes tear up over a scene in a movie featuring the suburbs of America or see me staring longingly at the weather channel reporting heavy snowfall in my home state of Connecticut. And while I definitely have strong nostalgic ties to my own childhood, I relish in presenting a whole new world to my children no matter how different it is from the one I used to know.

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