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Aram Mrjoian is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books and the assistant managing editor at TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, Kenyon Review online, Longreads, Joyland, Colorado Review, Tahoma Literary Review, The Masters Review, and many other publications. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University and is pursuing his PhD in fiction at Florida State University. Find his work at arammrjoian.com

Weighing the Costs — and Occasional Benefits — of Ethnic Ambiguity

Illustration by Katie Kosma

Aram Mrjoian | Longreads | September 2018 | 16 minutes (3,949 words)

 

At the beginning of 7th grade, sitting toward the back of a column of brown laminate desks, I was first told I had an emerging unibrow. Michigan still radiated of summer. The September air hugged my skin. I was lanky and undefined, a soon-to-be teenager who’d bought into the culture of extreme sports, so I wore oversized cargo shorts and a baggy t-shirt that hung down to my knees. At the time, skaters like me were prone to wearing clothes that didn’t fit well, as if swimming around in an extra large negated the fragility of our young bodies.

Our German class, an introductory course more focused on the country’s culture than language acquisition, was mostly filled with young men. It had the reputation for being a blow-off, less intellectually strenuous than Spanish or French. Originally from Deutschland, Mr. E liked to play old clips of Michael Schumacher celebrating Formula One racing victories in glamorous locales — Monaco or Barcelona. This pastime lent itself to the underlying masculinity of the classroom.

One morning, while we were supposed to read a conversation from the textbook aloud with a partner, the boy sitting in front of me pivoted around in his desk. “You have to shave that or something,” he goaded, pointing toward my forehead. I spent the next five minutes trying to convince him he was mistaken. We ignored the scripted dialogue in front of us. He didn’t let it go. From then on the shrinking gap between my eyebrows became a daily topic of conversation. He brought other kids in our area of the classroom in on the joke. I worried that if I removed the fuzz I would only set myself up for more ridicule.

A week or so into that school year, the Twin Towers fell. I was in math class, algebra, which was taught by a skeletal man with a thick mustache and ponytail. He wore corduroy pants most days, a mug of burnt-smelling coffee glued to his right hand. He was the type to squat down next to the desk and talk to students face to face. We knew something was wrong when he turned on the television while we scribbled proofs in our workbooks. The class watched the news in stunned silence. By lunchtime, we were sent home. A few days later, my neighbor in German class gave me a new nickname: “Arama bin Laden.”

By the end of the semester, I started plucking the mess of black hairs bridging the space above my nose. I couldn’t tolerate the worms wriggling toward each other across my face, hinting that I was different. I bleached my hair. I found numerous ways to blend in, but nothing could change the five foreign syllables of my full name, the simple alteration of the first that transformed me into a terrorist.

I did have something of an out, need be. My parents, with remarkable foresight, had given me the middle name Joseph so that I could go by AJ. It was a failsafe designed precisely for such circumstances. A last resort for retroactive assimilation. However, I never used my initials. It always felt unnatural to me, having been called by my given name since I was born. Seventh grade was the first time I realized my name could be used against me. I learned that to be an unknown was to be other, that to be difficult to pronounce was to be threatening, and that to be ethnically ambiguous was to be somehow less American.

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