The first time I came to the United States was in 1967. My husband was working for Francis I DuPont in Beirut and was sent for a brokerage course on Wall Street. The minute he mentioned that, I told him that I was going too. How could I miss such an opportunity? But you have two small girls, three and under one, how would you manage? I’ll make it work, I said!!
Little did I know then that I would be immigrating to the United States, and that this New York, that I thought was my one and only chance to experience, would become a city that I loved and visited on numerous occasions.
We stayed in Westchester County, and I would take the girls out for a stroll to the town’s main street where there was a supermarket, a drugstore, a deli, a hairdresser and so on. At that time, and in Beirut, we went to our hairdressers regularly and were always “coiffed” and elegant. However, here I was in New York’s suburbs only to see so many women walking around in the street and at the supermarket with their hair in curlers, loosely wrapped with a net. It seemed that these hair curlers had just become available in America’s mass market, and were now being paraded around proudly by women wearing their rollers and pastel-colored, polyester outfits. A city-dwelling Parisian or Beiruti woman, chic no matter what her economic class, would have been mortified at the curlers, as well as the outfits!
Walking around in the clean, glistening supermarkets with their stocked-to-the-brim shelves was another experience. The array of fruits and vegetables was very limited and mundane: apples, oranges, a few bananas, hardly any lemons in sight, carrots and potatoes, leeks and rhubarb, some yellow squash, corn, iceberg lettuce and such. Nothing exciting! Moreover, there was no aroma enticing me. It was as if they were as artificial as the shelves on which they were displayed. In Beirut, blind eyed, I could tell the fruits and vegetables from their overpowering fragrance that wafted everywhere. Sun ripened as opposed to neon-ripened! Organic, not Monsanto! Huge difference!
. . . fast forward, fourteen years later, I am in Virginia, half an hour’s drive from Washington, DC. Do I see hair curlers anywhere? Nope! I do see a bit more of a variety in the fruits and vegetables, but nothing to write home about. However, and as if overnight – sometime in the early nineties, maybe? – the entire landscape around me began changing drastically!
The variety of fruits and vegetables was increasing by the week. I would be in the grocery store and an American shopper would invariably hold up a mango, an avocado, a pomegranate or a papaya: What is that? How do you eat it?
As I took my six-month old grandson out in his pram I would notice the empty computer boxes, old washing machines, tired sofas and small-screened old televisions lying on the sidewalks, waiting for the trash pick-up. Booming, Super Technology Highway and environs in Fairfax County was in a buying, updating and renovating mood! Out with the old, in with the new! Everything was being upgraded! Everyone was participating in replacing: Made in the USA with Made in China!
The older ranch-style houses in Vienna (and elsewhere) with their tiny windows, small rooms and one bathroom were beginning to be torn down and replaced with town houses and single-family homes, bigger windows, more light, spacious bedrooms and multiple bathrooms with showy Jacuzzis – but no practical bidets – abounded.
As the hair curlers, the pastel polyester coordinates, the subtle makeup, home-trimmed and painted finger nails, the trademark jeans, sneakers and sensible pumps and the short bobbed hairstyles made their exit, in came the more stylish imported fashions (although they arrived to the US many years after they had become “passé” in Lebanon and Europe), the long, cascading hair styles, the loud make-up, the salon manicures and pedicures and . . . the flip-flops (a style imported from Asia and the Middle East) to show those off!
Oh, my! Oh, my! America! How fast you revamped yourself!
Continuing this fast and furious makeover were the changing demographics as a few more successful black families moved into the once all-white neighborhoods, and many more immigrants from all over were now settling amongst the white population.
Discrimination, racism and bigotry – never having died out – were raising their ugly head!
. . . in my role as bank teller at the drive-thru window: White man drives up, sends his check in the canister. He doesn’t have enough funds in the account. Not wanting to shout out through the microphone, I sent the check back with a note asking him to come in and talk to a manager. He screamed angrily at me: Why don’t you go back where you came from? And why don’t you learn how to speak English? Well now! I wanted to scream back that I was here because of American foreign policy that continued to allow and legalize the occupation of my country of birth; that I couldn’t go back much as I wanted to; that I spoke better English than his bastardized American! Of course, I didn’t!
. . . chatting with my Indian, Philippina and Iranian coworkers we were talking about our home countries; the beautiful apartments we had dwelt in, the delicious food, the parties etc. etc. Hearing us, our Assistant Manager who was from the “y’all South” said: If it was so good where you came from why did you all come here then? She really believed that we lived in the slums, in the poverty and ugliness that she saw displayed on her ignorant brain-washing television.
. . . 9/11: My boss, the Doctor, and the Pharmaceutical Rep are having a conversation on how we should go and “nuke all those people in Iraq!” I said: Iraq has nothing to do with the terrorists of 9/11. “Yeah,” says the doctor. “Why don’t you go back to the village where you came from?” The “village” I came from was Beirut, at the time designated by the whole world as the “Paris” of the Middle East. And the good doctor was from a little backward dump in West Virginia, about which not I, but many Americans, made the crudest and most disparaging jokes!
There is no doubt that America has been convinced by its politicians and media that it is the most advanced, the most wonderful, the most perfect place on our planet and that everywhere else is inferior, including Europe and Canada, but not our twin, the UK! They are also oblivious to the evil, carnage and heinous acts that their government has caused – and is still causing – from Latin America, to Africa, to Asia and to the Middle East. This is not Patriotism. It is Ignorance Personified. Willful Blindness! Gravely dangerous to any semblance of a real Democracy!
The sad thing is that I have been in this USA for over thirty years and that I came here legally, that I am a law-abiding citizen who loves this country and most of its people. However, should I tell any American what I think of US politicians, government or system I am viewed with suspicion as if I, a mere immigrant, a “colored” woman from the backward Middle East, am not supposed to be anything but uncritical and grateful that I have been allowed to live here. Really?
Anyway, during those years from about the mid 80’s to the 90’s everything in the United States seemed to open up. The once dark-lit, meat and potato restaurants enlarged their windows, spread out to the pavements and began serving “ethnic” foods. Apartment buildings and condos sprouted up. Mosques were established alongside churches and synagogues. Private schools teaching multiple languages and baccalaureates became acceptable academies. Government offices put up signage in Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and other languages. European and Middle Eastern style cafes and bistros were now on every street corner. Colleges and Universities now offered ethnic clubs and courses. Immigrants, Blacks and Native Americans emerged out of their intimidated and subdued shells becoming more assertive and vocal. More and more foreign-made cars were on the roadways. More inter-racial and inter-religious marriages were occurring. More “colored” children were being birthed. Apartheid US had turned into a vibrant, multi-racial Salad Bowl!
America was undergoing a transformation that shook some white people to the core threatening their monopoly on privileges that they considered their God-given rights. The milder racism and bigotry that was once whispered was now becoming overt and rancorous, though enveloped in nuanced language that was ridiculously see-through!
Polish people, Catholics, Jews and Italians once considered inferior were being replaced in the racist world of some white people with Arabs, Latinos, Muslim and Sikh immigrants!
Laws are being drafted every day by racist white politicians and their few colored, opportunistic lackeys in government (some of them Lebanese, some Latinos, Blacks and Asians) that are excluding and criminalizing colored minorities, poor people, the working class, legal and FOB (Fresh Off The Boat) immigrants in all sorts of inane and unjust ways.
It might be a short-term win for the privileged few. It is, though, doomed to failure in the long-term, because racism and bigotry do not scare us anymore as they once did the lynched hapless black men, the reservation-corralled Native Americans, Japanese internment camps and on and on. To the contrary! The more racism and bigotry we see, the more these inspire us to become more active and vocal, to band our issues together and to demand our just, equal and full rights. We are doctors and engineers, teachers and entrepreneurs, CEOs and nurses, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and atheists, ethnically conscious and loyal Americans. We are black, white, Latino, Asian, LGBT, conservatives, progressives and activists. So, please, cut out the prissiness and your misplaced patriotism, for we are proud patriots and citizens too, whether you like that or not. We, Minorities, have decided that we are “tres chic” now!
Priggish hair curlers are way Out, America!
Versatile Flip-flops are In! Now slip yours on, white America, and get with it!
2 thoughts on “Curlers To Flip-flops!”
Thank you Hala for the vivid description of the transformation of America in your own eyes ! I have lived it too since I came to the United States about the same time. What I like about your article is that you chose to write in “Colours” not in “Black and White ” .
Enjoyed reading it ….
Flip flops? You must visit me in my new building soon! It’s a micro-cosmos of the entire world. Here, you find Muslim women swimming in the pool fully clothed!! Transformation of America, indeed!