I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir by Malaka Gharib


“Malaka’s upbringing will look familiar to anyone who grew up in the pre-internet era, but her particular story is a heartfelt tribute to the American immigrants who have invested their future in the promise of the American dream. The daughter of parents with unfulfilled dreams themselves, Malaka navigates her childhood chasing her parents’ ideals, learning to code-switch between her family’s Filipino and Egyptian customs, adapting to white culture to fit in, crushing on skater boys, and trying to understand the tension between holding onto cultural values and trying to be an all-American kid.”

-Synopsis from Goodreads


I came across this book while browsing the digital e-books offered from my local public library, and immediately knew that I wanted to read it. I love graphic novels and am always drawn to stories about immigrants and the immigrant experience.

Malaka’s mother immigrated to the United States from the Philippines, and her father immigrated from Egypt, both in the 1980s. They met in Los Angeles and after Malaka was born, their family was, in her own words, “On their way to the American Dream.” But her parent’s conflicting personalities and dreams led to their divorce shortly afterward.

Eventually her father moved back to Egypt, which Malaka was grateful for; she didn’t believe he was happy in America, with all of the struggles both he and her mom were facing. By that time all of her Filipino family had also immigrated to the U.S. and they were all living within a five-mile radius of one another, so they became the primary influences in her life. She quickly learned all the ways her two cultures were different from each other, but also the similarities between them. The biggest differences were between her parent’s two religions. Her mother was Catholic and her father was Muslim and she tried to respect both faiths out of respect for her parents.

A couple of moments stood out to me in this book, which I will discuss below.

  • First, Malaka shares about how impactful her annual visits were with her father in Egypt. One year in particular, they decided to drive to the coast for a beach vacation. The entire time they were vacationing, they could hear bombs going off because Israel and Palestine were at war. Understandably she was conflicted about enjoying herself and her time with her family, knowing that a literal war was taking place so close by. She mentions other experiences in Egypt that were memorable for her but this was especially unique to say the least
  • Malaka attended an incredibly diverse high school in California, yet because she was both Filipino and Egyptian, she didn’t fit in perfectly with one specific group. However, the question “What are you?” was common among her classmates and she loved to answer that question and share about her parent’s heritage. As she got older, she realized how problematic that question is because it implies otherness (more on that below)
  • When Malaka started applying to colleges, she sought out New York because she was obsessed with the show Felicity. (This was very relatable!) But Malaka’s family thought it would be valuable for other reasons: attending what they considered to be a white school meant that she would learn to dress and act like white people, which her parents believed would benefit her in the real world.

After graduating college, Malaka has a full-circle moment when she starts her new job in Washington, D.C. There she is pigeon-holed into the category of “diverse” employees. She experiences microaggressions (the same ones she experienced at school but didn’t realize at the time), such as being told that she spoke funny, that she didn’t “look Asian” or that she “seemed really White.” As an adult, Malaka finds herself going back and forth between wanting to truly embrace her family’s traditions, from both sides, but also recognizing that she is American and won’t have the full Filipino or Egyptian experiences that her parents had.

I learned so much about both Filipino and Egyptian culture through Malaka’s experiences. At the same time, I felt like I could relate to her because she had a very typical American teenager lifestyle, too.

I would recommend this graphic novel to anyone, especially readers who enjoy reading coming-of-age stories with diverse characters, and stories that are about the immigrant experience.

2 thoughts on “I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir by Malaka Gharib

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