NPR's Malaka Gharib's Memoir: 'I Was Their American Dream'
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So what does it mean to live the American dream? Well, this is something NPR editor Malaka Gharib has been thinking about since she was a child.
MALAKA GHARIB, BYLINE: (Reading) When I was growing up, my mom would always say...
FLEURDELIZ SAN PEDRO: You have to be better than us.
MALAKA GHARIB: (Reading) She never explained what she meant by that. But I understood. I had to somehow rise above my parents' life in America. But how?
GREENE: Malaka was born and raised in California. Her mother immigrated from the Philippines, and her dad came from Egypt. They have since divorced, and her dad's back in Egypt now. When she was in high school in California, Malaka says that wherever she went, she always got the same question, what are you?
MALAKA GHARIB: (Reading) I found it really hard to answer. Well, I'm Egyptian Filipino. I grew up with my Filipino family here in Cerritos. I eat rice every day and I went to Catholic school, but my dad is a Muslim who lives in Egypt. I spend my summers with him. I can understand Tagalog and Arabic. So I guess, both? Well, I kind of feel more Filipino because that's who I spent more time with.
GREENE: Yeah. It's complicated. That is Malaka Gharib reading from her new book. It's a graphic memoir about her journey. It is called "I Was Their American Dream." And she joins me now in the studio. Hi, Malaka.
MALAKA GHARIB: Hello.
GREENE: So you are here with two special guests. Do you want to introduce them for us?
MALAKA GHARIB: Yes. (Laughter). My mom, Fleurdeliz San Pedro, here with me in the studio in Washington.
SAN PEDRO: Hello.
MALAKA GHARIB: And my dad, Maged Gharib, in Cairo, in his home.
MAGED GHARIB: Yes.
GREENE: Malaka, you grew up surrounded mostly by your mom's extended Filipino family. And you wrote about feeling like your family was different than sort of your vision of the typical American family that was in your head. Can you just tell me about a couple of the little details that made you feel different?
MALAKA GHARIB: Yeah. Definitely. It's a weird feeling to have, the way that you live with your family in your community and then turn the TV and it's, like, something totally different. So, like, I mean, on TV, people are always talking about, like, allowances and stuff. And so I, one time, asked, like, my mom, like, oh, like, can I, like, get, like, $5 if I wash the dishes? And she was like, no, we don't do that here.
MAGED GHARIB: (Laughter).
MALAKA GHARIB: That was one example. The other example was, like, I always wanted to eat frozen food, for some reason. Like, I thought that, like, Kids Cuisine (ph) was, like, the epitome of fine dining in American culture. And I remember, like, begging my mom, please, like, instead of eating, like, sinigang or, like, adobo for dinner, like, can we just please have the Kid Cuisine? 'Cause it comes with a dessert.
GREENE: You're talking about, like, frozen dinners and stuff?
MALAKA GHARIB: Yeah. The frozen Kids Cuisine, with dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets.
GREENE: (Laughter). Yeah. Mom, let me ask you, how did you feel about that? Did you ever worry that Malaka was not experiencing the American experience that was in her mind?
SAN PEDRO: Well, you know, kids growing up here, they have moms and dads. And Malaka went to private school. So I felt like she was not alienated but maybe being thought of in a different way because she was brought up by a single mom. So maybe part of the American dream was bringing her up together as a family. But I had to be Mom and Dad for her when she was growing up, and my extended family, who helped her.
GREENE: Well, we should say, though, that you, Malaka, you would see your dad during the summers when you would go to Egypt...
MALAKA GHARIB: Yeah.
GREENE: ...Which must have made you think about your culture even more. Was that tough to go back and forth between two different worlds?
MALAKA GHARIB: It was. Because, like, I think I wanted my dad to understand American subculture, and he just - like, by the time I was, like, 14 or 15, like, I remember trying to explain Blink 182 to my dad once. Like, I was, like, so into it. It's, like, the coolest band. And he was like, like OK, cool. (Laughter). And I was just like, no, it's, like, the coolest band, ever, Dad.
MAGED GHARIB: (Laughter).
MALAKA GHARIB: And I brought my skateboard to Egypt once. And, like, I was telling my dad I wanted to, like, skate around the streets. And he was like, are you sure about - you want to do that? And I did, and it was, like, the worst decision ever 'cause everybody was, like, looking at me and thought I was, like, super weird. And I never brought my skateboard back to Egypt again.
GREENE: (Laughter). Is that how you remember it, Mr. Gharib?
MAGED GHARIB: No, I don't remember that (laughter).
MAGED GHARIB: (Laughter).
MALAKA GHARIB: But, Daddy, didn't you ever think I seemed like an alien to you? Like, did you feel like I was weird?
MAGED GHARIB: (Laughter).
MALAKA GHARIB: No.
MAGED GHARIB: When you start wearing black, and black, and black and putting everything black, yes.
MALAKA GHARIB: That's exactly what I'm talking about.
MAGED GHARIB: (Laughter). And she brought her skating board with her, and of course this was, like, in Egypt. It was like, wow. And kids are looking at her like, what is this? She's coming out of the space...
MALAKA GHARIB: Out of space?
MAGED GHARIB: But...
MALAKA GHARIB: Oh, my God.
MAGED GHARIB: Out of...
MALAKA GHARIB: Outer space.
MAGED GHARIB: As a alien. Outer space.
GREENE: Malaka, I just think back to that question that you would be asked, what are you? And you were at a really diverse California high school. Like, did that help? Because it sounded like in the book, like, even though there was a lot of diversity in the school, like, things were really still complicated and difficult for you.
MALAKA GHARIB: I think it helped because, you know, when you're in a school as diverse as Cerritos High, you really need to know the nuances of culture between everybody. You had to know that there's a difference between people from Pakistan and people from India. You had to know the nuance between the Korean kids who came from Korea and the Korean kids who grew up in the States. But what made it hard was that at least all the, you know, Hispanic punk kids could hang out together, and all the Taiwanese "Magic: The Gathering" kids could hang out together. For somebody who's, like, half - Filipino Egyptian, like, I couldn't just, like, go to those groups.
GREENE: But you wrote about that you wanted to know white people.
MALAKA GHARIB: Yes.
GREENE: What was going on in your mind?
MALAKA GHARIB: I loved white people at the time. (Laughter). As a teenager, I thought they were so hot, and I was so obsessed with, like, these, like, heartthrobs that you could find in, like, teeny-bopper magazines. And I saw them glorified. I mean, I didn't know it at the time. But I saw them all over the media and, like, magazines and books and films. And I just thought that, like, I wanted to be like them 'cause I thought they were so cool. And my high school definitely didn't have any white people. So I think that's what made them more, like, special and rare.
GREENE: Was there some moment when you look back and you remember, like, OK, that was the moment when I just felt like I could be me, I could be my own heritage and just own it?
MALAKA GHARIB: I didn't actually feel that way until very recently in my adult life. It took me a long time to understand that I'm very proud of being Egyptian and Filipino. And I don't know why I have to continually suppress that to favor another ethnicity, to be part of the normal idea of what is normal American. I just was sick of it. I'm 33 now. And, like, I just grew up and said, no more.
GREENE: Well, there's a final scene in the book, and I will - total confession. Like, I got a few happy tears in my eyes for you because it was really powerful. But you're floating down the Nile River with your husband, Darren. And I thought maybe it would just be best if you just read that part.
MALAKA GHARIB: (Reading) I knew we'd be back here with our children. I probably won't be able to translate Arabic for them or understand the local customs. But they'll be able to feel the sun on their face and the wind in their hair, and they'll know someday, somehow, that all of this is a part of them, too.
GREENE: Malaka, thanks so much for coming and talking to us about your book and bringing your parents.
MALAKA GHARIB: Thank you so much.
SAN PEDRO: Thank you so much.
MALAKA GHARIB: Thanks, Daddy. Love you.
MAGED GHARIB: I love you too, Malaka.
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