In my town, Maplewood, New Jersey, today is the first day of school. My father- a nostalgic man- had his four children take the same first day of school-picture every year. We stand in front of the driveway gate, backpack on, wearing an exasperated smile. As I- the youngest- am no longer at home, for the first time since my twenty-two-year-old brother went to preschool, neither my siblings nor I will be standing in front of the gate. My father- determined to take the picture- found a way for us to be present.
The Zakian family’s first day of school. Proof that we took up space in Maplewood New Jersey schools for twenty years. On my first day of college, my roommate took a picture of me in front of a Dickinson gate. I sent it to my family group chat, and traded with my friends.
This, to me, is how I grew up. With four siblings, my lovely friends, and a picture to mark each new year. When I talk about my hometown, I don’t describe the bakery and playgrounds, or the soccer field and elementary schools, I talk about my people and my dog.
When getting to know our exchange partners, they were immediately defensive of their own people. Insisting on the kindness and warmth of everyone from their hometowns. They corrected all stereotypical misconceptions with vigor. As much as their love was on display, there was also a sadness. The necessity of a defense, or more accurately, the reflex to defend, spoke volumes.
I think my hometown is great, and if someone went to insult it, I’d defend it, but I’d also just shrug it off. I know my town, I know it’s good, but I’m not put in situations where I have to defend it. A person from another town or country doesn’t point blank insult Maplewood without knowing anything about it.
The same can’t be said for our classmates in the UAE. Their defensive stance is a preemptive strike against stigma and criticism with which they attempt to protect the character and cultural identity of innocents. Assuring me that the people they know are kind and welcoming to foreigners, emphasizing the gap of truth enabled by generalizations and ignorance, it’s nothing personal, but that’s part of the problem. No, their shield doesn’t say anything about their experience with me, but it does point to volatile interactions and perceptions by others. While love for a home should inspire pride enough to defend it, a simple description is a luxury not everyone has. When I talk about my home town, I can speak without hesitation. I can bring up the people I love and even make fun of the place I grew up, because invariably, I have been met with positive feedback whenever painting the picture of my nice town in northern New Jersey- not everyone receives the right to an open conversation excluding derision and assumption.
I love my town, but when talking about it I can always talk about the people. Elsewhere, as I found during the breakout room discussions, in order to talk about the people, there is a need to clarify their character second, and to validate their existence first.