The only means for talking about our mixed heritage was the ‘adorable’ contrast between ‘the girls,’ as we were called: one light, one dark; same parents, different skin.
Not long after my paternal grandmother turned eighty, she gifted my sister and me with two Spanish shawls. She’d bought them as a young mother in Brooklyn when my grandfather ran the family bakery on Atlantic Avenue, and decades later, here they were at her home in Los Angeles. The size of tablecloths, they had been packed away carefully, the silk of each was in perfect condition, heavy with embroidery that was lustrous and intact. One shawl was cream-colored, with clusters of pink roses; the other, black, with a graceful network of entwined buds of coral and pale green; both were trimmed with luxuriant silk fringe. I’d long coveted the Spanish shawls I’d seen in vintage shops and could never afford. “Take one,” my grandmother said, “and give the other to your sister.”
But how to decide between them? I loved them equally, knew I’d be happy with either, and guessed my sister would feel the same. Born of the same parents, we have always been a study in opposites, especially our coloring—I’m light-skinned, with straight, dark blonde hair, and blue eyes, while my sister has an olive complexion, black curly hair, and deep brown eyes. Though this now strikes me as a case of overthinking, at the time, I worried that whichever shawl I chose would seem like a comment on our differences.
My sister and I were born twenty-three months apart into an ethnically mixed family. My father was the oldest of four boys in a culturally Muslim Syrian and Turkish family. My mother, born and raised in New York to Jewish parents, is of Eastern European Ashkenazi heritage. She was sixteen when she met my father at a summer art camp in Woodstock, while he, at twenty-seven, was an army vet studying art on the GI Bill. They made a striking pair, both olive-skinned, dark-haired, hazel-eyed, second-generation Americans who broke from the cultural attitudes and traditions of their immigrant parents. Drawn by a mutual love of jazz and contemporary art, they would marry two years later—but age and cultural differences between them would take a toll, and within a decade their marriage would end.
My sister and I are a mix of traits from both parents’ sides. My sister favors our Syrian paternal grandfather’s family, she has his Levantine features and darker complexion, as well as hints of our mother’s Ashkenazi heritage. I take after our father’s mother, who was Turkish, inheriting her Circassian complexion and Aquiline features, along with traces of my fair-skinned, ginger-haired Jewish grandfather. As children, my sister and I were often dressed alike, and side-by-side in matching dresses made for heightened contrast. From the time we were small, everyone, it seemed—family and friends and strangers alike—took delight in pointing out our differences. Were we really sisters? Did we have the same parents? How was it we were so unalike?
The contrast became something fundamental about my sister and myself, informing how the family, and the world saw us. Yet when it came to the complexities of our family’s blended ethnicities, relatives on both sides remained silent.
Our parents, second-generation Americans, sought to forge identities apart from traditional influences of their first-generation parents. For our Jewish grandparents, both New Yorkers since childhood, acculturation was fluid in a way it was not for our Muslim grandparents, who’d come to the US as adults. Growing up, my sister and I were shaped by this cultural spectrum, navigating an often intricate and contradictory blend of attitudes and customs in ways our parents never seemed to. We grew up hearing Arabic in one household, Yiddish in another.
From the time we were small, everyone took delight in pointing out our differences. Were we really sisters? Did we have the same parents?
I learned to navigate the different spaces as best I could: with my Jewish family, I would tout my achievements, knowing they expected me to do so, while I was careful not to boast to my Arab family for fear of drawing too much attention. And while my Jewish grandparents hoped my sister and I would carry on cultural traditions, my Arab grandparents saw their American-born grandchildren as a new page in the family story, expecting us to move beyond old-country ideas and customs.
To us, our family seemed unclassifiable. Terms that might have helped us explain our identity, like multicultural, did not exist in our family lexicon. As sisters, we may have lacked the language for what we were, but we understood we were different—not just from each other, but from our respective families, and from our parents, whose monocultural experience was as unknowable to us as our bicultural experience was to them. And all the while, our outward traits announced to the world what my sister and I couldn’t fully name.
On our parents’ part, the reluctance to talk about cultural differences was related to the desire to look beyond ethnicity, which they saw as irrelevant in their marriage. For my Jewish grandparents, who struggled with their daughter’s marriage to a non-Jewish man, the inclination was perhaps to ignore the blended background my sister and I shared. For my Arab grandparents, we were American-born descendants who furthered a sense of belonging in this country, so why bring up the past? The only means that remained for talking about our mixed heritage was the “adorable” contrast between the girls, as we were called: one light, one dark; same parents, different skin.
With beach towels, a portable radio, and baby oil, my sister and I are in bathing suits on aluminum lounge chairs under the hot Los Angeles sun. Fifteen minutes pass, and my sister nudges away the edge of her suit bottom to confirm a tan line. A tan takes me a summer to achieve; more often, I just burn. That night, my sister winds her dark hair around a coffee can to straighten it, while I twist mine up in rags hoping the curls will take by morning.
In college, away from family, our differences become a kind of parlor game. Incredulous boys lean close at parties and ask to see our IDs, unable to believe we are sisters. We try to point out the similarities that do exist, but in the end, we dig out our driver’s licenses, knowing the satisfaction of proving them wrong. The episodes become predictable, but my sister and I don’t ever discuss how we feel being questioned about our differences and our heritage. And when I encounter those questions on my own, away from her—most often from boys I dated—an old guilt resurfaces. What are you, Dutch? The explanation is always more complicated than the one they’re after.
For a time, our father owned a single-engine Cessna, and after our parents’ divorce he sometimes flew us to Santa Barbara or Lake Powell. In those days, he was known to quip, No trips to Tijuana. They’d never let your sister back over the border. We were still young then, and like so many adult matters beyond our ken, we didn’t know what to make of these “jokes.”
Terms that might have helped us explain our identity, like multicultural, did not exist in our family lexicon.
But what to make of them now? We were insulated, certainly, from the harsh realities of displacement and migration, and the terror many other children felt—and still feel—at this nation’s border. My sister, who was no more than five when those remarks were made and now has only a vague recollection of them, now finds them hurtful. Our father’s attempt at humor speaks to painful distance, a mischaracterization of her brownness—which was, after all, the same as his own—yet my father treasured my sister, his youngest who so closely resembled him. For me, jokes like this always raised the question of culpability. The outward differences between us meant that I could “pass” and my sister could not.
My father saw the world, as many in his family did, in stratified terms: by class, by gender, by generation. Look closer at our paternal side, Syrian and Turkish, and there is a range of skin colors, from my pale Turkish grandmother—who inherited her own father’s European looks—to my tall, strong-featured, brown-skinned grandfather. Their four sons ranged from pale olive to brown, with features that carried varying degrees of western European influence passed down on their maternal side.
In her book Same Family, Different Colors, Lori Tharp defines the term colorism, first used by Alice Walker in 1983, as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” In our family, there were no derisive nicknames, no preferential treatment based on skin color. But by continually drawing attention to our differences, a distinction was still made. Without meaning to, the family placed my sister and me in contrasting terms in a country and a culture where colorism is real and deep-rooted. Though we were loved equally and never disparaged, pointing out the difference in skin color created a dissonance that was felt most starkly by my sister.
For both of us, not having the right terms to explain our identity resulted in frequent over-explanations, rambling descriptions of our mixed heritage. I never heard myself described as bicultural until I met the man I would marry. Embarrassingly, by then I knew the term well, but I had never thought to apply it to myself.
My sister and I would eventually come to self-identify in different ways. She recalls that sometime in her thirties, our Jewish grandfather explained the principle of matrilineal descent—meaning that according to Jewish law, children born of a Jewish mother are Jewish—and this clarity put an end to her confusion.
For me, the term culturally mixed feels like the best way to explain how I grew up, and means occupying a third, sometimes ambiguous sphere that manages to hold all the conflicts and the complementary facets of my heritage. It means not identifying as solely Jewish, or Arab, but as both. It’s continued with my marriage to a Chinese American man, and with our daughter, who is adopted from China. This third way is the only one I can embrace without conflict, even as it adds yet another layer of complexity that, in a sisterly echo, further differentiates me from my husband and daughter. At restaurants and at TSA checkpoints, when I hear, “Are you all together?” the question carries a familiar ring.
When I began to think about writing this essay, I raised the topic with my sister. “What did you think about all those comments the family used to make, about how different we looked?”
She considered the question. “I don’t remember much from that time, but I remember getting used to it.” By it, she meant the constant questions about her identity. In middle school, if she was teased or criticized, she recalled, “I felt like it was because I was the one who was different.”
Yet these feelings of exclusion eventually led her to see herself in a different way. “I thought about how our mom and dad both had dark hair and dark eyes, like me, and that you didn’t. And those comments people would make about us seemed even more confusing, because I realized you were the one who was different.”
The outward differences between us meant that I could “pass” and my sister could not.
She was right. There had always been a confusing and insidious white standard informing the notion of difference between us, one that stemmed from the default standard of whiteness in the family, in the schoolyard, in the colonized countries of my Arab grandparents’ birth, and in the antisemitism my Jewish grandparents fought against. The burden of that standard was inadvertently passed to my sister, even though I was the one who stood out in our family.
Today, she still gets questions. “So, where are you from?” people ask, sometimes guessing that she is Spanish, or Italian. “People never guess correctly,” she said. “But they try anyway.”
On the day I delivered the shawls to my sister, I’d resolved that she should be the one to choose. In her living room, I unwrapped the shawls and showed them to her. We draped them across the couch, admiring their dense embroidery and pristine condition, one light, one dark. My sister is an expert on textiles and needlework, and she took in the workmanship, studying each with characteristic thoughtfulness. I stood by, uncertain, regretting how I’d again focused on our differences when considering the shawls, as though they stood for some perceived separation between us.
Reaching to the cream-colored one, my sister turned an edge over, examined the stitching, then the long silk fringe on the black. “Is there one you want?” she asked.
There wasn’t, I told her.
Eventually, we hit upon what now seems an obvious course, dividing the shawls by their likeness to our respective hair colors. With immense relief, I gathered up the cream shawl, aware for the first time of its weight, and wrapped it around me, grateful to finally own something I’d long wished for. My sister draped the black shawl across her shoulders, and with its delicate coral flowers and green vines, it was clearly the right choice for her, striking in a way I could never have pulled off. We were both astounded to have come into such rare objects, stored away for decades without our knowing, and struck by how lucky we were to have come into such an inheritance.
Fiction and essays in the O. Henry Prize Stories 2018, The Southern Review,ZYZZYVA (Notable, Best American Essays 2016), Alaska Quarterly Review, StoryQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, The Rumpus, The Millions, Nimrod International, and others. Prose editor at the museum of americana, staff contributor @LitStack. Follow her on Twitter at @lauren_alwan www.laurenalwan.com