Malaka Gharib: “To belong, you need to feel at home with yourself first”
The author on being 100% Filipino, 100% Egyptian and 100% American
Image: Ben de la Cruz
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week, I’m speaking to journalist, author and award-winning cartoonist Malaka Gharib, who is of Egyptian and Filipino heritage. Malaka’s graphic memoir, I Was Their American Dream, charts her experience growing up with dual heritages in America, exploring the hopes her family had for her and the pressure to realise them. Here, Malaka speaks about exploring identity over time and her American “pissing contest.”
How do you define your ethnicity?
I say that I’m Filipino-Egyptian-American. Recently, I’ve started to realise that half doesn’t do justice to how I see myself. I am 100% Filipino, 100% Egyptian and 100% American.
I’m speaking Tagalog at home, but speaking Arabic at a reunion with my Egyptian family, making Egyptian jokes. That all exists in one person; I’m all of those things, not half or a little bit.
Has your sense of identity been consistent for you?
My identity has shifted a lot. I didn’t think about myself in the context of being a second generation American. I didn’t contextualise my parents’ immigrant stories into my own personal narrative until I was much older. That helped add a new sense of nuance into my identity.
As a first or second generation person in the West, you take on a lot of responsibilities unknowingly, trying to be successful or make your family’s struggle worth it. My mom works in an airport, and while she loves her job, I’d like an easier job for her. My dad moved back to Egypt after 17 years of living in the States because he couldn’t find a job. I’ve always felt a pressure to be this perfect person for my parents, a model of success and responsibility.
How do you connect to your culture?
When I think about culture, the first thing we think about is food. While working on I Was Their American Dream, one of my editors challenged me to think about my culture beyond food. It’s also about values, cultural traditions and practices.
I think a lot about how I constantly code switch between cultures; Egyptians have a way of constantly ribbing you, whereas Filipino humour is more slapstick and wordplay. It’s just different.
Did you speak about mixedness with your family?
I had a lot of mixed cousins, but we didn’t talk about race. We didn’t want to talk about the real stuff in our home life. We were Americans, and we wanted to overcompensate our Americanness.
When I was young, I would try my damnedest to pretend like my Filipino and Egyptian sides didn’t exist, which is hilarious because I grew up in a town where most people were Asian. Everyone was pretending that they didn’t go home and eat rice and take their shoes off before entering the house. It was like this pissing contest to who could be the most American. It was so dumb.
I wish we’d just spoken about our culture sooner – I think we would have been a lot more healthy and confident adults. Now, I’m very proud.
People say they hate the question “what are you,” but growing up in a town where everybody is a minority, it’s an important question to discern who’s Malaysian rather Filipino or Bangladeshi, not Pakistani. Those distinctions matter to a lot of people.
Have you sought out mixed communities in your life?
I used to think that if I had only just been around other Filipino Egyptians then I’d feel at home. That's wrong, because you only need to feel at home with yourself. At the end of the day, being around that community isn't necessarily going to make you feel like you belong. What's going to make you feel like you belong is finding yourself in the communities where you are. Everyone’s experience is so different.
Has it been cathartic to explore your identity in your work?
Writing a memoir was a way to figure out some basic questions about myself. In I Was Their American Dream, my central question was, ‘how do I identify?’ I decided that I can call myself American, but not before having done some serious soul searching and justifying why I believe that statement.
How do you think the conversation around mixedness needs to change?
We’re starting to get to that narrative in American society that you can be all the things at the same time. It surprised me and made me sad to see that people were saying Naomi Osaka wasn’t fully Japanese or asking how she could wear a kimono.
I’m floored by this generation’s confidence. As a young person, I was really self-conscious about not being Filipino enough because I didn't look Filipino, or Egyptian enough because I didn't look Egyptian. Yet Naomi Osaka identifies as Japanese no matter what she looks like, she doesn’t care. She’s Japanese full stop, period. She has this confidence about her ethnicity that makes me feel proud that we've finally landed in this place where you can be all the things and that's fine.
I think more mixed people need to tell their stories. We’re doing a good job of getting POC voices out there, but the mixed experience is still misunderstood even amongst people of colour.
What’s the best thing about being mixed for you?
I find mixed people to be probably the most beautiful people on the planet! I also understand Tagalog, Arabic, English and I speak some Spanish – that's four languages right there. We’re impressive. We are basically the smartest people on the planet.
We’re also super adaptable. You can be in situations with any kind of person and be friends with almost anyone. The theme of my next book is how you can connect with people with so little – you don’t need language or culture or religion. I attribute that to my multi-ethnic identity.
Can you sum up your mixed experience in one word?
Real. The parts of me I was hiding for a long time are now things I don’t want to cover up.
Next week, I’ll be talking to TikTok creator Pele Newell. Subscribe to get Mixed Messages in your inbox on Monday.
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Mixed Messages is a weekly exploration of the mixed-race experience, from me, Isabella Silvers. My mom is Punjabi (by way of East Africa) and my dad is white British, but finding my place between these two cultures hasn’t always been easy. That’s why I started Mixed Messages, where each week I’ll speak to a prominent mixed voice to delve into what it really feels like to be mixed.