I remember feeling overwhelmed the first time I stepped foot in a Walmart.
I had heard of culture shock, but this was crazy! Floor to ceiling, shelves packed with consumer packaged goods as far as my eyes could see. I didn’t know where to focus or where to start. Bright colors, bold fonts, and racks and racks and racks of stuff filled this fluorescently-lit landscape. Welcome to the United States.
I wasn’t an alien visiting Planet Earth for the first time, but it almost felt that way. I was born in 1986. The daughter of North Africans, I spent most of my formative younger years in London, England. When my parents divorced and our family unit fell apart, my mum, sister, and I made the move to Geneva, Switzerland.
Things were different in Switzerland. In England, I attended a vibrant French school; I recall lots of families hanging out together. We had “cousins” who weren’t actually blood relatives and many friends from different cultures. In Switzerland, however, I entered high school — where I remember only four out of six hundred students were Muslim — and 9/11 changed everything about how I was perceived. (Sidenote: my Dad and Stepmum were actually on a flight to New York City on the morning of 9/11. Thankfully, they were safe.) Abruptly, kids and professors at school starting calling me a terrorist because my facial structure and complexion hinted that I — and my family — were Muslim. My face was a dead giveaway that I was an outsider; I didn’t match the stereotypical visions of blonde families skiing in the Alps. People made assumptions, told me I shouldn’t be here, asked why I was supporting what was going on in the Middle East. I didn’t understand — I’ve never been there! — I’m British, I’m Swiss, you know me. But no one seemed to listen.
I think back on a friend who stood up for me when I was being bullied in school. He was in my history class where we learning about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The blows to my religion and the assumptions about my beliefs flew from peers left and right; after trying to defend myself over and over again, I gave up. It was exhausting. I am not a terrorist, my family are not terrorists, and I don’t agree with these extremists. No matter what I said, the bullies were going to believe what they wanted to believe. This friend made a lasting impact on me because he stood up for me when kids and professors recklessly hurled attack after attack after attack. I remain extremely grateful for his kindness.
High school in Geneva was challenging, to say the least, but brighter days were ahead. As I came into my own, I climbed my next rung and started at a local university — that is, until a few fortuitous run-ins with a new town that would soon become home: Wilmington, North Carolina.
You might laugh, but the television show One Tree Hill was an inspiring factor for my heightened interest in Wilmington. For so long, entertainment has been an important part of my life, and I loved the music featured in the series. When I learned that a relative was living not far from Wilmington, I jumped at the chance to go visit, explore, and see where they filmed the show. Soon, family friends shared their experiences as alumni of UNC Wilmington (UNCW). I was ready for a fresh chapter and this beach community seemed to fit the bill.
Life in Wilmington seemed inviting and promising. I applied as a transfer student to UNCW and started counting the serendipitous data points in my life that had been pointing to North Carolina all along: my love for Krispy Kreme donuts, Nicholas Sparks novels, and One Tree Hill were just a few. When I was accepted to UNCW in 2015, I pounced at the opportunity to make my move.
I embarked on my new adventure with excitement and hope, but there was one thing I kept quiet: that I was Muslim. My high school experiences taught me to keep my guard up because people can be cruel. To this day, I keep much of my personal life private — it makes things easier when I don’t have to explain where I’m from or what I believe in. In Switzerland, those who taunted me suspected I was from North Africa and used their words to hurt me because of my religion. But in the United States, people suspect I’m from Central or South America. They hurl different disparaging remarks at me. As if being from either part of the world is a dishonorable thing.
It was Memorial Day 2020 when I decided to satisfy a craving I had for donuts: flavorful, sweet, doughy — maybe the perfect way to welcome summer. I drove the thirty minutes to a local seasonal beachside shop famous for their glazed donuts. It was a hot morning, the quintessential heat that East Coasters are all too familiar with: sticky, sweaty, and thick. The coronavirus pandemic in the United States was well into full-swing by then, and my fellow donut-enthusiasts and I stood socially distanced apart in line, masks on, patiently waiting for our taste of heaven.
In front of me stood a woman and her family. My head was buried in my phone. I’ll never know how long she was staring at me, but the next thing I knew, my mask was being ripped off by this stranger. The woman barked:
“You illegal, I hope you get coronavirus and die!”
Her two daughters and husband — memorably wearing a USMC hat — laughed. One of her daughters, young with blonde hair, tugged at her hand. They were maskless.
I blinked, confused. What was going on? Did I just miss something? I glanced around, trying to find my voice and gain context for why this woman just accosted me.
“Thank you!” I replied. What were these words coming out of mouth? What just happened?
The woman spun back around and returned her attention to her family. I remember her curly, yellow hair.
No one in line said a word.
I pulled my mask back over my mouth and nose. My mind was racing, my heart was pounding. I was dumbfounded — and I still wanted donuts.
And so I continued quietly waiting in line behind this woman who assaulted me, hoping she wouldn’t turn around again. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes passed in that brutal summer heat. I ordered a dozen glazed donuts. I left. I walked to the beach, found a place to sit, and savored the indulgent, sweet gooiness of my treat. I drove back home.
Looking back on it now, it’s crazy to me that I responded with a stunned “thank you!”. It’s crazy to me that she turned around like nothing happened. It’s crazy to me that no one in line said a word, that I just continued waiting in line like it was a completely normal thing to do after a stranger just a few feet away physically and verbally assaults you. It’s crazy to me that her children witnessed this, that that moment became an imprinted memory and potentially learned behavior.
If I had to do it all over again, I would have just left. Or maybe have asked the people around why they didn’t do or say anything. Why didn’t you?
After the incident, I didn’t want to go out for a while. But time is a good friend, and as the weeks passed, I regained the confidence to live my life. I’ve since gone back to the donut shop on my own to reclaim my sense of self, safety, and confidence.
When people close to me ask why I remain so private and guarded, I tell them that it is experiences like the donut shop line that have impacted my ability to openly, freely be my authentic self. Yes, I am wary of getting close to others. Since I’ve made the decision to deliberately be more private, I’ve been happier.
It is hard to be optimistic all the time, but I have fuel: I have a pair of beautiful, delightful cats who make me smile, named after two of my favorite literary heroines, Hermione and Mystique. I volunteer at a town resale shop that supports a local domestic violence shelter. I enjoy tearing through Michael Connelly crime novels and immersing myself in other page-turning stories. I have a rewarding graduate assistantship and am on track to complete my Master’s in Finance in May of next year.
Right now, my spirits are higher than they’ve been in a long time. I’m OK, but I’m tired.
What comes next?
I have no idea.
Lily's* story by Emily K. Schwartz
*Name changed to protect privacy