DINA SANDAKLI JONES
Dina Sandakli Jones
LEBANON & BRAZIL
When did your family immigrate to the US and where exactly did they move? What made them come?
My dad immigrated to Worcester, MA around 1974. About 15 years later he married my mom in Lebanon and brought her over. He moved to America after living in France for two years because a friend of his told him “why are you living in France? You should move to America.” So he did.
What is the first language you learned? Do you speak any other languages?
I didn’t really have a first language. I spoke broken Arabic and broken English when I first started learning to talk. Then five years later when my Brazilian grandmother came to live with us she started speaking to us in Portuguese and I learned Portuguese. In college and after I graduated I lived in Spain and learned Spanish.
What language do you primarily speak when with your family?
With my parents we speak a mix of Arabic and English. With my grandmother it’s a mix of Portuguese and Arabic.
Have you ever visited or been back to your family's native country? If so, how often do you visit and for how long? What is that experience like? Do you have relatives there?
Growing up we visited family in Lebanon during the summers. As kids my mom took us for a month or two at a time. Mostly her side of the family lives there. It was a magical place where we got away with much more than we could’ve in the States. We stayed with aunts and uncles and grandparents so my moms rules had less power. What we ate, what we listened to, and how we dressed was at the discretion of our cousins. I have a lot of memories of the landscape- the mountains and the beach- and the freedom that came with it. As we got older we went less often but we still keep in touch with family that lives there.
Describe your experience growing up in America as someone who is so closely tied to another culture. How did you feel? What things were easy? What did you find difficult?
As a child, my experience growing up in America was so secluded from American culture I didn't even realize it at the time. It wasn’t until I grew older and went to a public American high school that I realized how fearful my parents were of assimilating into American culture. Coming from a family that held their Lebanese, Brazilian, and Muslim identities all so closely makes it hard for me to isolate any part of my identity and analyze it independently.
If I lumped all my experiences together, I’d say it was a mixture of frustration and pride. I mostly felt frustration at trying to dress the way I wanted to and not being allowed to. It seemed like the concept of shameful and acceptable were on opposite sides of the spectrum, but there wasn't much in between. For example, I wore a headscarf for 15 years of my life because that is how I saw people dressed around my in my community. While I was young and only surrounded by my community and people that dressed like me, I held such pride in my headscarf. It felt liberating and unique to be doing I wanted to do, and I was able to express my cultural and religious freedom through it. But once I started wanting to dress differently and stop wearing it, it was deemed shameful and unacceptable to my religion and culture.
On the other hand, there was a very thin line between what was religious and what was cultural- which is why I lump them together when I talk about them. What the community found acceptable and what god deemed acceptable frequently overlapped. This is why my experience as a first generation American is heavily influenced by both.
What type of food do you eat at home? What are some of your favorite dishes?
Growing up if my grandmother was cooking it was either Brazilian, Lebanese, or Italian food. My grandmother is first generation Brazilian; her family is originally Italian that fled to Brazil during one of the World Wars (can't remember which one). She then married a Lebanese man and lived in Lebanon for 50 years before moving to the US to live with my family. Everything she cooked was divine. Some of my favorites are Italian gnocchi, her Lebanese grape leaves and her Brazilian brigadeiro and bolo gelado.
If my mom was cooking it was usually a simple Lebanese dish. My favorite is when she made lentils. It's so simple but I love it and still make it today. Since they both worked full time, the majority of the time it was Honey Nut Cheerios and cheese sandwiches (slices of American cheese rolled in a Lebanese Pita in the microwave for 30 sec intervals). The good stuff, like a full Lebanese brunch, was on the weekends (fried eggs, foul, hummus, fresh veggies, lebneh).
Describe your experience making friends as a kid growing up in the UNITED STATES.
Growing up, I was allowed to talk to and make friends with people in my Muslim community. Everyone I went to school with was also first generation American. It was such a tight knit community that it felt like a big family and the friendships developed like we were all cousins. When I branched out of my community and went to a public high school, the friendships I made were very cordial but also very surface level. I wasn't allowed to hang out with the American friends after school so I never made much of an effort. Later, when I went to college, I realized I could make friends with anyone. That made it easy. I had many different groups of friends. I'm lucky to still keep in contact with many of them.
Do you consider yourself as more of an American or that of your parents' native country?
Both, there's no place I'm not a blend of all my identity. This wasn't the case growing up, but that's how I feel now. Most people who know me know all the different parts of me. Sure, there may be some people I speak to in different languages but I always feel the entire mix of cultures within me no matter where I am or who I'm with.
Are you proud to be American?
I don't feel pride towards any specific country, necessarily. Perhaps it's because growing up I've seen the divisions that blind pride can create from behind the lens of so many different cultures. I'd say I appreciate being American and all it offers. I'm thankful for the good that its brought me and my family. But that is also how I feel about every culture that influenced me- grateful for all the good bits (food, language), not interested in the shitty bits (racism, bigotry, patriarchy). So using the phrase "proud to be American" would be a bit inaccurate. My pride lies more in myself and all the parts that created me, than in any one country.
Do you plan to pass along aspects of your parents native culture to your children (if you choose to have them)? What parts of the culture do you want to keep if any? If yes, how important is that to you, and how do you plan on doing so?
I want to pass along as many of the languages and as much of the good food as I can. I plan on speaking Arabic to the kids as much as possible and sending them to visit my family and Lebanon. There are also many natural herbal remedies that I've learned from my mom and grandmother that I will teach my kids. I think above all else, I just want to teach my kids to be kind, loving people- which I really can't attribute to any one culture.
Are there aspects of your culture that you don't enjoy, parts that you know you don't want to pass on?
Patriarchy and the sexism that it teaches , Shame around the body and how to dress , Racism
To be honest, everything I don't want to pass on is mainly a product of negative human behavior and less because of a culture. I think America, Brazil and Lebanon all share parts of the above cultural aspects that I don't wish to pass on.
What's one thing you wish people knew about your culture?
I wish people knew how incredibly diverse both the Lebanese and Brazilian cultures are- in the way people look, eat, dress, speak, and live. As strong as the cultures may seem from the outside, once you explore the land you see how traditions and norms can change from street to street. I wish people knew how beautiful the Lebanese landscape is. Such a tiny country but so full of natural beauty with the Mediterranean Sea on it's left and mountains in the north and south.
Are there any specific thoughts / inspiration behind the way you took your photos and what you took photos of?
I found it difficult to think of how I would represent my first generation experience in pictures. I feel like all my current experiences in my life are influenced by my cultural upbringing, so many of the photos ended up being what is going on in my life right now. The past few months my husband and I bought a house and have been renovating it. We've first had to strip it bare from the old tile, carpet, cabinets, and then rebuild it, repaint it, and redo flooring. It's been a labor of love that sometimes feels never ending.
I think documenting some of the process made me think about how my identity is also ever- evolving and growing. There are parts of my identity that no longer serve me that I work on letting go of, and other parts I work on building. Along with that I'm growing a baby girl inside of me and feel like my identity is now more intertwined with my physical body than ever before. Taking pictures of myself felt like I was also documenting my baby's cultural experiences before she's even born. Kind of inception-like. There were also other moments where I took pictures of what felt like a direct correlation to my cultural upbringing- like the pictures of food and ingredients.