Cultural Connections: One Egyptian’s Transition to Life in the US

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BY JULIA GASPAR-BATES — One of the fondest memories Egyptian Raina Elmalky has from home is the social gatherings with family and friends.  Born in the small town of Sirs el-Layan near the Nile, Raina recalls that friends and relatives would always stop by for meals and other celebrations.  “There were always members of the family at my house. We shared meals together because that is when you share stories about the day.”

That informal social life is one of the aspects of Egyptian culture that Raina misses.  “Egyptians help each other regardless of whether they know you.  If anyone needs anything they knock on the door and people welcome them and give them what they have.”

After finishing university, Elmalky worked as a pharmacist before moving to the U.S. 16-years-ago.  Her husband, Mohamed, had been living in the U.S. for several years and was visiting Egypt when they met through family.  Although Elmalky had traveled within the Middle East, moving to the U.S. was her first time outside the region. “I only knew about the U.S. from the movies and the news. Egyptian people like to know about different cultures. I was open to anything I would see.”

Transitioning to life in the U.S. was difficult at first because she missed her family. Despite feeling homesick, Elmalky has not found living in the U.S. to be a huge adjustment, although she was surprised by Americans’ perception of Egypt. “I was shocked because people thought I lived in the desert and rode camels. The camels are only around the pyramids for tourists. We have a modern society.”

One aspect that did take some getting used to is the American concept of time.

“Here everything is controlled. If you say you’ll come to visit at a certain time, you show up then. In Egypt when you say that, you don’t know what time people will come. In the beginning, I took an appointment [at the doctors] and I came one hour late. In Egypt you show up whenever you want, they know you’re coming today and they should expect you to come during the day. People understand and you don’t have to call to say you’ll be late.”

Elmalky also found the pace of life to be fast in the U.S. When she first arrived, she worked as an intern in a pharmacy and began to take the tests to obtain her pharmacist license in the U.S. However, after her son was born, she decided to stop working.  “In Egypt we finish work at 2:00 or 3:00pm and then we have lunch and start the social life. But here everyone is working until 9pm sometimes and are tired. Time goes very fast.”

Elmalky also finds that family is viewed differently in the U.S. “[In Egypt] your choices are controlled by your environment around you, especially your family, so you don’t want to disappoint them.  Families in Egypt take care of their children until they get married. If I do something that my family doesn’t approve, I bring shame to the family. In the U.S. the values are different, it’s personal freedom but in the Middle East people don’t put personal freedom first. You have freedom but it’s controlled. Family manners come first. It’s your job to take care of others.”

Elmalky has lived in Hyattsville since her arrival and enjoys life here. “You feel very safe in Hyattsville. When you go to the park you can know different people very fast. You never feel lonely here. I also really like the nature here. There are a lot of green areas. In Egypt we don’t have that because the population is too much and people replace the green areas with homes.”

Although she hopes to one day return to Egypt, Elmalky plans to wait until her children finish their education. “I like the education here. It’s one of the reasons I want my kids to stay here. In Egypt if you have good grades in high school, they direct you to where you will study at university, regardless of what you want. If you do not use your grades to get best college available to you, people will laugh at you and think you’re crazy. People have more choice here. They have choice in everything. If you have the intention to do something, you do it.”

Julia Gaspar-Bates is a cross-cultural trainer and consultant. “Cultural Connections” is devoted to bringing forth the voices of immigrants and other foreigners who have settled in Hyattsville.