Growing Up Beige

By Jennifer Hassan cross-posted with permission from Femsplain

The great thing about being both Irish and Turkish Cypriot is that my mixed heritage has provided me with a unique outlook on life. My philosophy being that hummus has the power to heal a broken heart and that Guinness most definitely prevents hay fever. In our family, goat’s cheese is cherished, vine leaves are seriously important and having freckles is a blessing. To us, Boyzone will always be the greatest boy band of all time, leprechauns totally exist and BBQs happen during all seasons — not just summer.

The not-so-great thing about being both Irish and Turkish is that people automatically assume that my mum is an alcoholic and that my dad owns a kebab shop. I’m constantly asked about my religious beliefs — if I’m Muslim or Christian and if I speak Turkish. People ask about my parents, how they met and if they’re still together.

Growing up, I spent most of my time bouncing between friend groups. I attended an all girls’ school, which was extremely clique-y. Skin tones stuck together and students formed groups with others who were just like them. They listened to the same music, had the same traditions, the same language. Unfortunately for me, nobody was just like me. I didn’t quite fit in with the Asian girls, or the black girls, or the white girls. I was too pale to be considered “mixed race,” but too foreign looking to be an English rose. I remained in an olive-skinned limbo with one other student. She was Greek Cypriot and refused to sit next to me during science class because “my people killed her people.” At just 11 years old, I had limited knowledge of the Cyprus dispute. I hadn’t been raised on stories of a divided island, of failed peace talks, of violence, of death. I’d been raised on Irish folk songs, good vibes, hearty Mediterranean dishes and stories about my granddad climbing trees in his village. I’d been raised on pure, interracial love.

“Hassan,” he mumbled. He eyed me up and down before triple checking my passport photo and analyzing its pages. Minutes later I was whisked off to a private room, without my colleagues or my passport. The first thing I noticed about the detention room was that everyone in there had olive skin. Even the walls were off white. Together, we were 50 shades of beige. Yet, this was no kinky love story. This was interrogation — this was insane.

They wanted my email addresses, my travel and employment history. They wanted to know who I had travelled with, how old my colleagues were, why I had Turkish stamps in my passport. I was alone and being intimidated by three men who repeatedly asked me if I spoke Hebrew “even a little bit.” They were playing mind games, hoping I’d slip up and reveal some sort of terrorist plot. They chuckled at names of family members I wrote down. Names that meant and still do mean everything to me. I was being made to feel guilty about my heritage and I hated it. For the first time in my life, I was embarrassed. I wished I was Casper white. Queen Elizabeth white. I wanted to trade shish kebab for cucumber sandwiches and wave both cultures goodbye. I was exhausted.

Eventually I was reunited with my colleagues back at the hotel where they had bubbly, advice and plenty of hugs waiting for me. Despite the drama, we clinked glasses and made a toast to the working week ahead. “Cheers” I said out loud, whilst silently making myself a promise, a secret vow. Never again would I be made to feel ashamed of where I come from. Never again would I allow anyone to use their tongue as a chainsaw to cut down the roots that hold my family tree so firmly in place. Never, ever again.