In I Was Their American Dream, cartoonist Malaka Gharib displays an infectious enthusiasm for openness as she relates her experience as the child of immigrants, a Filipino mother and Egyptian father, and the intricacies of finding her own place in America in context of her heritage and the sometimes bizarre, hostile tones that mainstream American culture can direct towards her because of it.
Her parents present two polar opposite views of going to America. Her mother’s vision is mostly repulsion, convinced that her status will shrink and more will be required of her to survive. Her father’s is almost a fetish, born from his preoccupation with America as it appeared in the movies he saw, which is much like falling prey to propaganda. The truth is somewhere in between, and it’s revealed in Gharib’s own life experience.
Her parents never quite achieved the American Dream as they envisioned it — a lot of it had to do with echoing the goals of white culture — and when they separated, Gharib’s experience seemed to move further away from the path that would help her achieve her parents’ version of it. But the separation also led to a rich exposure to diversity that a lot of people never experience — summers in Egypt, world travels with her mother, immersion into Filipino culture, and a multicultural school life.
But Gharib struggles with her cultural identity, eager to embrace both her Egyptian side and her Filipino side, but forming a fascination with the dominant white culture as she experiences it through the media. White-washed, her classmates called her, and that just one word in an entire language she learns devoted to describing where a person exists in ethnic and cultural terms. The existence of such a vocabulary highlighted the confusing role ethnicity takes throughout American culture.
Once Gharib heads to college and becomes immersed in white culture for the first time, she discovers her own difference in a way she never before experienced, becoming more aware of the huge cultural divides in America, as well as the realities of white culture that never came through on the TV shows she saw. Whites simultaneously fetishized and berated her brown skin, and brown skin on another person turned out not to be a guarantee of commonality for Gharib to bond with a person.
I Was Their American Dream is the story of navigating these twisting roads built from attitudes toward race in America that Gharib tells here. But it’s not just through social experience that she does so. She goes to great pains to catalog the cultural minutiae of different parts of her life at different times, as well as the people she meets through her life, in order to examine how cultural identity, family identity, individualism, peer culture, and the wider culture of a country conspire to create the person you are, and also how difficult it can be to everyone to find their own way, let alone understand the path of others.
Gharib’s story is that of being let loose in a world with these parameters that her parents perhaps never imagined, and though it has every right to be preachy, heavy, and sometimes even despairing, Gharib lends more helpful emotions to her message. Her cartooning gives her biography a charming edge that feels like honest sharing with a happy smile, and that is matched by her openness. Gharib seems genuinely devoted to the idea of figuring this stuff out the best she can, of looking at the negative in a positive way that moves things forward and brings people to some kind of understanding, and of bringing an energy and humor to a dynamic that so often falls victim to hostility. It’s a complete and insightful work, one that doesn’t have Gharib posing as an expert on the subject matter, but as a fellow traveler telling us what she’s discovered, and where she hopes to go with it, in the hopes that there is more she can understand.