Minority Amongst Minorities

Suleeman Mohamed | Contributing Writer

Five years ago when my family decided to move from the small middle class suburbs back to the inner city neighborhood in Battle Creek, I was excited. No longer would I be the lone minority in a sea of white. No longer would I be the poorest amongst a sea of gold. No longer would I be different.

Little did I know that I changed during the years I spent in the suburbs. The transition to life in the city was difficult because I left the suburbs a completely different person. I lost my culture, my language, and my personality.

Life in the suburbs took away my culture. Everyday in the suburbs was like a solo space mission on a hostile alien planet. The locals were quite odd, and day to day life was difficult. Eventually I learned to adapt, which allowed me to survive.

Photo courtesy of Suleeman Mohamed
Photo courtesy of Suleeman Mohamed

After returning home all the skills and mannerisms of the local suburb residents were no longer necessary, but I had stayed in the environment long enough that it had changed my everyday life.  For example, in the Somali culture, family is above all aspects of life. One is expected to die for his or her family members and respond to their needs at a moment’s notice.

Growing up in the suburbs, I noticed how the other students put themselves over their families so I began to do the same. I became the center of my world and the needs of others were completely shut out. My mother was upset when she noticed this change among my siblings and I. She tried to teach us that individualism was taboo in Somali society.  Unfortunately, the suburb culture spoke louder than my mother.

When I returned to Saint Paul, I was confused by some of the members of my community, and they were confused about me. To me they were men and women who stayed at home too much. To them I was a vanilla dipped deviant who was aloof to the needs of my family.

Often I would hear about the lack of affection and attention I paid to my family through the lectures of elders who resided curbside by the Somali coffee shop in my area. “I will wait for this generation to die out; then I will become the norm,” was a thought that often crossed my mind. I always took those old kooks for granted. I never heeded the lessons in their stories or realized the importance of inheriting my culture. That is something I truly regret.

Daily life in the suburbs took away my language. Growing up, I was never too fluent in Somali, and while we were living in the suburbs we spoke English in the house because my mother was learning English. In Saint Paul, I would speak Somali outside, talking with various shopkeepers and waiters whenever I went out. In the suburbs, the closest Somalis outside of family were many towns over. So I was put up for adoption by my mother tongue and left to speak English with “Blake” instead of Somali with “Abdi.”

When I returned to Saint Paul, the Somali language sounded different.  It was harsh, jagged, and resembled the sound of a dying car engine. The worst part was I could no longer speak to the shopkeeper or waiter. A mental citadel was present and prevented me from speaking my language. Every Somali word that tried to crawl out of my mouth was shot down and left for dead on the lifeless desert that was post-suburban Suleeman.

Without the Somali language I was “miskiin,” meaning “weak” or “poor,” and every conversation exposed this “weakness” to my Somali peers.  I got the occasional, “You’re not Somali If you don’t know the language” or “Look at what our youths have become, whitewashed and cultureless.”

The most memorable being an elder making a big scene in front of a large group in a coffee shop saying, “You’re not Somali. You’re not white. You’re nothing, and until you can speak like one of us you will always be nothing.” His words didn’t burn like the exposure of my “weakness” to the piercing eyes of the crowd. I didn’t see that man in my area anymore, but I still hid from the piercing eyes.

Life in the suburbs changed my personality. Growing up in Saint Paul, I was always a “tough kid,” and I never backed down from a fight no matter how big or strong the opponent. I remember the first day of fifth grade when I moved to the suburbs. Before recess, I was already in trouble for threatening to beat up two kids and cursing two others. To me these suburb kids were soft and easy to push around. Tao them, I was a nuisance.

While I was in the suburbs, I was involved in two fights. Both of them were started by another student calling me racist things. Because I was a “tough kid,” I won both fights, but those fights changed me. There was something about watching those kids cry and wet themselves that struck me deep in the fiber of my being. After those fights, I no longer had the urge to speak with my hands, and the careless fire in my heart died. I was no longer a nuisance and began to see others who spoke with their hands as a nuisance.

When I moved back to Saint Paul, I was seen as a soft kid, while I saw everyone as a nuisance. The first few days in Saint Paul, I watched grown men follow the same mentalities as a child, and I decided I did not want a slice of that cake. My Saint Paul peers saw me as soft when I moved back, but that was okay.

Five years ago my family moved back to the inner city neighborhood in Battle Creek from the suburbs. I was happy to be back in familiar territory. The transition to life in the city was difficult, because I left the suburbs a completely different person. I lost my culture, my language, and my personality. Without my culture or language, I was not Somali, but I was not white either. I was a hybrid that stuck out like a lone marshmallow floating in a cup of hot cocoa. I was a minority amongst minorities, and that was okay.