The Big Read: Miami Stories Blog
These Miami Stories are being collected by The Center for Literature and Theatre as part of The Big Read 2014. To learn more, and to submit your own story, visit our Big Read site.
Photo caption: Sharokina De Mirza and her mother
Growing up Assyrian-American in Miami
By Sharokina De Mirza
My story begins on a sultry day in August in the mid-1970s. I was born to Assyrian parents. In the 1970s there were no Assyrians residing here. (Even now I don’t know of any others.) If there were, there was no community or organization that would foster a gathering of Assyrians. Therefore, during most of my childhood, I grew up around other cultures and I tried desperately to convince others of the veracity of my own. My trials and tribulations with my identity surfaced when I was at school. My preschool teacher refused to pronounce my name and nicknamed me “Sherry.” I was regularly poked fun at, not just for my unusual name, but for the food I ate as well. My lunches were not your usual cold cut sandwiches on white bread, a few cookies and a bag of chips. No, I was sent to school with dolma. Imagine my anguish when I was asked to explain what I was eating. How do you tell your classmates you are eating grape leaves?
Not only did my name and food spark interest, but my language has raised a few eyebrows as well. My mom took my sister and me on a trip to the grocery store when we were about 3 and 5 years of age. We were being a bit rowdy and feeling overwhelmed by the sensory stimulation of cookies, cakes, sodas and chips. We began to fight with one another, so my mom, who was trying not to attract any attention, reprimanded us in Assyrian, a language very similar to Aramaic. Rather than telling me to stop fighting in English, she said “la bullshit!” You can imagine the stares and nasty looks we received that day.
As I grew older, I became fascinated with our origins. All I had learned from my world history courses was that the Assyrians were warriors who had established a great reign but due to their barbaric ways, were toppled in 612 B.C. I began to wonder, how was it that I was living every day with an identity that was not recognized? Usually when I was asked about my heritage or the derivation of my name, I would be delighted at the interest others were taking. But, I soon realized that each attempt at explaining the name, the history and the culture bumped into an overwhelming ignorance of our existence. Not only were others under the assumption that we did not exist, they also thought we were Arabs since “Assyrian” sounds very similar to “Syrian”. I could not even consult a current map and point to Assyria. Recently, I was approached by a college student asking where I am from. I chose to illustrate my heritage on a world map by pointing to the land once called Mesopotamia. The student replied, “Transylvania”?
Since minds had been so closed to our existence, I felt no other place but in academia would I find an audience. To my dismay, the reverse was true. My first experience occurred in religion class. I was one of 200 students and the professor was giving a lecture on Judaism. In the midst of his lecture, he began to speak about the Assyrians, “those barbaric people who wreaked havoc on their foes,” I was a freshman at the time and unaccustomed to voicing my discontent. I was writhing in my seat and I desperately wanted to share with my classmates that I was an Assyrian and I was nowhere near barbaric! How could he, as an academic, fall prey to a characterization that was only appropriate to an ancient era? Did he not know that Assyrians still existed and were peaceful people?
I do not have the pronounced features most Assyrians do and therefore, I have assimilated well with the rest of the community. Naturally, this has led to assumptions that I am Hispanic. On more than one occasion, I have been spoken Spanish to. After I turned 18, I decided to get a summer job at a clothing store at the mall. One time in particular, I was assisting a customer from Latin America. Having never taken Spanish before, I tried my best to assist this woman and unfortunately for me, her speed in speaking progressively hastened to the point that I had no idea what she was saying! In sheer desperation, I sought the help of a co-worker who spoke Spanish. When the transaction was complete, my co-worker pulled me aside and informed me that the customer was appalled that I was denouncing my heritage for having not assisted her further. “Denouncing my heritage?” I exclaimed! If only I had had the opportunity to enlighten her about my heritage. I have now come to retaliate, not with “sorry, I do not speak Spanish,” but by answering in Assyrian!
Quite often I am told that I need to take Spanish language classes on account that I look Hispanic. Or when I deny that I am Hispanic or speak Spanish for that matter, I am greeted with raised eyebrows. For example, my mom and I decided to watch an MDC sponsored film at the Koubek Center in Miami. While we were patiently waiting for the film to begin, an older lady seated in the row before us turned around to engage my mom in conversation in Spanish. My mom politely replied that she did not speak Spanish and the older lady’s companion retorted by saying, “And you live in Miami? How disgusting!” Without causing a scene, my mom replied that she did speak English and they could still have a conversation since this woman knew very well how to speak the language while simultaneously insulting us both for our lack of Spanish speaking skills.
How will my story end? Will I continue living on the hyphen misidentified and engaged in a cultural conflict? Or will tolerance and a better understanding of the Assyrian identity prevail? Bit khezakh – we shall see.