ISMAIL: Traversing culture and identity – Yale Daily News

Yaseen Ismail 12:07 am, Feb 03, 2023

We do not choose the environment and circumstances we are born in, nor do we choose how society reacts to them. Growing up as a second-generation Egyptian in England with only my immediate family, my home always felt somewhat like an island, distinct from the world around me as I struggled to relate to my peers. Despite my efforts to connect with others, there always felt a sense of untraversable distance standing between us that couldn’t quite be captured in words, just an overarching sense of “other-ness.” The mere knowledge that my culture, home and family life was different from all those around me who’d shared a different experience I wasn’t a part of. Ultimately, any effort to assimilate to those around me only left me feeling more isolated and different.
Yet, when I visited Egypt, this distance only grew. While I had never seen so many people who looked similar to me, the culture and environment was so different from the society that I was raised in. And my broken Arabic stood in the way of truly being able to connect with others; I could barely string together a coherent sentence.
However, it was only once I moved to America to begin my journey at Yale that I truly began to realize the effects of the cultural ambiguity I was raised in and how this ambiguity shaped my life in profound ways. While I thought Yale would be a place of diversity, acceptance and inclusion where I could share my cultural differences, the all-too-educated Yalies could not stop interrogating me about the reign of Queen Elizabeth and Britain’s colonial history. They assumed that it was connected to my ancestry, that I was involved or was even properly educated on it. 
Once I return to England, I will once again become an Egyptian-Arab, although now with a year of Americanization thrown into the mix. It seems wherever I go, my differences always shine brightest. Oddly, I have never felt more British, compared to when I arrived in America. Britishness quickly became my shining character trait.
Coupled with some racial ambiguity, my light skin yet dark curly hair always allowed me to be placed in any box at people’s whims, often at my expense, whether it be White, African, Arab, brown or Muslim. Experiences like this have only further reinforced a confused and inconvenient sense of identity.
To truly relate to my environment is something I will likely never experience. Nor will my children.
But to be diverse in one’s heritage and culture comes with its benefits. Being born between cultures allows us to see the world from different, unique perspectives. To be exposed to both Egyptian and British cultures simultaneously has given me an intrinsic appreciation for different customs, cuisines and cultural practices. 
My father’s North African cooking, the taste of baklava, and the pertinent sense of community found in eastern cultures, makes me ready to experience any new cultural experiences from across the world.
It provides the chance to pick freely from the customs and traditions that I admire around me without feeling tied down to one set of traditions.
Perhaps best of all is the gift of community that growing up with different cultures brings. To know that wherever I travel, there will be groups of people that share my experience, cultural background, struggles and joys. This makes the world an easier place to traverse and instantaneously builds connections with groups of people that would otherwise take months to build.
Culture and identity. These are difficult words to navigate. Though we may not choose the environment that we are born in, it is up to us to choose now to navigate it and see the blessings in every circumstance.
YASEEN ISMAIL is visiting Yale as a researcher from the University of Bath. Contact him at, or


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