Philippe Nasr* is sitting on the low, caramel, leather couch in the bar section of Beirut*, his award-winning Lebanese fusion restaurant on 5th Avenue, New York City. He sips a “Phoenician Lemonade.” It’s a cocktail fragrant with orange blossom water and mint—a Lebanese flavor—but mixed with orange liqueur and citrus vodka: a distinctly modern twist.
“I was miserable. I was fourteen years old,” he says, his voice relaxed despite the din of the happy hour crowd. “And, you know, c’est la vie.” He’s talking about when he first moved from Lebanon to the United States. In the heat of the civil war, his parents sent him here alone, not telling him until after he arrived that he wasn’t going back to them any time soon. His father was killed in the war a year later. Philippe doesn’t say how. “But a couple of years after that . . . You transform, and you move forward.”
He takes another sip, calmly scanning the tall, broad, wood-paneled hall. Only his salt and pepper hair betrays the self-proclaimed workaholic’s inner stress and work ethic. “And also, you know, you can only be abused by your partner so many times ‘til you move on. And Lebanon is a very abusive partner. It’s a painful love affair.”
When I spent 4 months in a class writing a beat about the Lebanese population of New York City, scouring Linkedin, local Lebanese associations and clubs, and the local church for interviews and stories, I encountered this same contradiction, over and over again: an utter disenchantment with politics, international affairs, and any hope for a better future, followed by this deep, quiet, continued soft spot for the beauty of the home country. I did not create a concluding final report of the writing and research I accumulated, but the labor provided rich fodder for my growing flame: the study of Give. The Give–the elasticity, the bounce–of a dispersed culture making a life in new terrain, and the Give of a host community to make cultural room for an influx of immigrants.
In May, I went on the “Irish Outsiders” tour at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. It was one of my last days in New York City after graduation, and the museum had been on my “NYC Bucket” list for years. About 10 of us guests walked through the 153-year-old structure, hearing about the Moore family, an immigrant family “struggling with prejudice while celebrating their Irish identity”, and about “how immigrants from different backgrounds forge their own American identities.” Our kind-faced tour guide asked us again and again: “What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be an American insider?” At the last tour stop, she brought us into a gloriously air-conditioned room to digest what we had learned. She asked for our responses.
I had attended the tour alone, and was the youngest person attending by at least 30 years. I listened to the New Zealander tourists reflect on their outside perspective. I listened to the couple from the Bronx remember their past experiences. I listened to the girlfriend vacationers bring up the mosaic concept of cultural integration. I listened as we all lauded this great melting pot of different waves of people from all different years, and all different backgrounds.
And then I listened to the man who latched onto the melting pot versus mosaic concept. He argued that, with a mosaic, everyone wants to keep their own identity and not assimilate and join the rest. He talked about how he’d heard 5 people speaking Spanish instead of English on the sidewalk just that day. He talked about how in a melting pot, you melt–you Give. And it’s through this process of compromising that we come together in strength.
He had a point. When Americans refuse to operate in any world but our own, we collectively suffer from this unwillingness to Give. But I thought that need for compromise applied to him, too.
I spoke up, and respected his expression with a “Yes, and conversely . . .” does a melting pot mean that we all melt to the same, static, predetermined color, forever? If we were all once tiles on a mosaic, do we all transform ourselves to red–except of course, for the red tiles, who were red all along, and so don’t have to change?
I upset him, it seemed, because he wagged his finger in my face as he replied vehemently and extensively about how he worries people are talking about him when they speak in another language, and it affects his work in construction. I nodded. It was interesting. It was clear to me that this lashing out came from a place of hurt. I thought about asking him not to point his finger at me like that, but then the session ended. I smiled and nodded at him before following our tour guide outside while the rest of the pack lagged behind.
“Thank you,” she said to me gratefully, quietly before the rest of the group caught up with us. “You’d be surprised how much that comes up.”
My father spent the first 20 years of his life in Lebanon, and the latter 40 years in the United States. He’s a US citizen, but subtle mispronunciations and grammar mistakes betray his foreign origins. He’s sad that my brothers and I don’t fluently speak his first language. Even though all of our first words were “daou”, the Lebanese word for “light”, the rest got lost in the Disney, the Girl Scouts, the Super Smash Brothers of southern Californian suburbia. My parents calls us kids “our best compromise.”
“When people ask me, what are you, I say I’m a third Lebanese, two thirds American,” Phillippe tells me, yet again pushing the dish of hummus in my direction–a dish he made for me in the classic style, since it is, after all, “best in the Lebanese way”. He seems to navigate a balance that serves him (but might not work for others)–Giving a lot, Giving the most, to succeed in one of the most unsympathetic industries in New York. But this balance doesn’t seem to be at equilibrium, but rather in a continual, delicate shifting to keep afloat. What can be studied about this integration process, to serve communities and peoples in transition during the greatest refugee crisis of our time, today?
“Do you ever get homesick?” I ask him. He takes a disconcertingly long pause. Then:
“No. I get peace-sick. Yeah, I’m fed up with the world.” He finishes his drink, insists I try five more dishes, and wades away through the gushing crowd of young business women and men enjoying dinner after work. He doesn’t let me pay.
*Names and identifying information have been altered for subject’s privacy.