A Yemeni-American’s Life: The Struggle to Belong! [Archives:1998/16/Focus]

April 20 1998

Beshara Taher
As a Yemeni-American, I sometimes feel caught in between two countries, two cultures and two ways of life. It is difficult to adjust to either one fully and I find myself struggling to balance and adapt to the two very different cultures. Being a citizen of both the U.S. and Yemen actually gives me the chance to enjoy and experience the best and worst of both. There are many advantages as well as disadvantages to being Yemeni-American. I have experienced racism and prejudice in both countries.
Between my mother and father, I have received the best of both backgrounds. I grew up to have strong Yemeni and American values and to be a proud, independent and happy woman. As far my inherited traits are concerned, I also got the best of the Dutch and Yemeni features, including strong family values, a sense of sympathy for the poor, and my long, brown, curly hair.
I was raised in California with my mother and older sister. My father came back to Yemen when I was 5 years old, so I’ve made many trips back and forth since and have spent a good deal of time here. But basically, it was my mother and California that gave me my personality.
Americans are quite ignorant when it comes to Arabs. Many Americans don’t know that Yemen exists, let alone know where it is. Sometimes, people are amazed when they learn that I am from Yemen, the land of Queen Sheba.
At school, being teased about being Yemeni was quite common, but it never bothered me because I usually teased them back. I have always been very proud of my heritage and enjoyed being unique since there aren’t many Yemenis on the American West Coast.
I am always glad to say that I am Yemeni because it changes people’s ideas and stereotypes of Arabs. When many Americans think of Arabs, they generally think of terrorists, but when they meet me they see a different picture. They learn and understand more about Arabs once they open their minds and get past the stereotypes.
The people of Yemen and the US are complete opposites. Americans don’t generally care about you unless they know you. They don’t usually interact with strangers.
On the other hand, I have seen Yemenis to be most loving, generous and caring. They are always willing to help anyone in need, stranger or not. They always go out of their way to help.
There is a good side and a bad side to having family on both sides of the world. It means I am always far away from half of my close relatives, but I am never without them. American families are very small compared to the large Yemeni ones. Would you believe that I have close contact with almost every relative on my mother’s side, but I don’t even know the names of all the so many relatives on my father’s. There are so many people in his family that it is hard to keep track of their names and there are still many of his relatives that I haven’t met. I am sure, I will never be able to meet all my relatives from my father’s side.
My father has remarried and has 5 more children and I am not very fond of that part of the family. My youngest brother is very lovable. I don’t get along very well with my step-mother. We used to be close, but not any more.
Having lived here for a while, I think that Yemeni women, in general, never really get a chance to grow up and mature on their own. They are treated as children, and are expected to act that way. To me, these things are a source of frustration and I see Yemen wasting the energy, resources and abilities of the womenfolk.
My father’s side of the family is wonderful, I am very fond of them. They have always stuck by my side and treated me nicely. If I need anything, my aunts, uncles and cousins are always there for me. I feel very lucky to have them in my life.
My husband, an American, and I moved to Sanaa 6 months ago and he has become a Muslim since coming here. We have run into many problems due to the prejudice of many people thinking of him as only American. They stare at us strangely and wonder, “What is this Yemeni woman doing with this American?”
The most frustrating thing I have experienced so far is that I can do nothing on my own. It is impossible to get anything done without a man’s help. In the US, I grew up to be a very independent person, doing my things without the help of anyone. I took care of myself for many years, paid my bills and went where I wanted. Basically, I was the ruler of my life.
In Yemen, I need my father’s or my husband’s consent for a job, even though I’m a grown woman. Women play a very small role in Yemen, usually only as mothers or wives. Although, there are a few exceptions. I also have very few rights since women’s lives are ruled by men. That is one aspect that I have never been able to accept or adjust to.
I have found that Yemeni men can be extremely rude. When in public, they always stare at women, especially if they are not veiled. It doesn’t matter if my face is covered or not. Harassment is slightly less if my face is covered, but it is still too much. They call themselves Muslims, but the Quran says that men are not supposed to stare at women. Once is okay, but after that it is haram; wrong and shameful. If I speak English, men immediately attempt conversation with me. Many assume that because I am American, I am easy and they might get a chance with me. I get very offended by these misconceptions. One man asked me for my phone number and said he wanted to be my ‘friend’. Even after telling him I was married and asking him to leave me alone, he continued to try to converse with me. I finally lost my temper, yelled at him and told him to get lost. I told him that he was wrong to treat me that way.
Being raised in California, I grew up with all the modern conveniences. It is sometimes difficult to adjust to living without them. Life in Yemen can be a bit primitive sometimes, compared to California. If I could combine the best of both countries in one place, I would have paradise.
Making the transition from one society to another can be difficult and overwhelming at times. When I am in Yemen, I am constantly covered with my balto. There is no choice but to wear the damn thing, because if I don’t, I will invite much harassment from men. It sometimes feels like I am in jail, because it is so confining and restrictive. After getting used to it, I go back to the US and I feel strange not to be completely covered up. When I go to the States, I have to adjust to the style of clothing there and after getting back here I have to readjust to the Yemeni ways. Life is like that when you live between two cultures.
To sum my opinion about having two cultures, I will always be proud of my heritage and continue to be a strong and independent woman. I love both of my countries and wouldn’t trade either for anywhere else. Yemen will always be in my heart, but I want to spend the better part of my life in the good old USA.