What's On TV

How getting satellite TV helped a writer embrace her family's culture.

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I watched an obscene amount of television as a child. It's literally impossible to overstate the magnitude of my consumption — cumulative years of my life have been spent slack-jawed in front of glowing boxes both big and small. There is nary a '90s show that I haven't seen: The Secret World of Alex Mack, Seinfeld, Animaniacs, the entire TGIF lineup. I'd gorge on it all. My parents, in their immigrant innocence, just didn't bother much with enforced hour-limits or PG-ratings approvals. So long as I got good grades, I was free to rot my brain in any manner I saw fit.

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My sister and I held dominion over the TV in our family room. When our parents entered the space, it was understood that the kids would retain ownership of the controller, of deciding what to watch. In exchange, we knew to not interrupt my father as he and his friends smoked shisha in the garage. We didn't dare walk through the living room while my mother knelt down on her prayer rug — doing so would sever her direct line to Mecca. Sure, we crossed these invisible borders occasionally, but precautions were always taken: one of us stood as lookout while the other rummaged through my mom's dresser drawers of old photos, searching for clues to her and my father's life in Egypt, before we ever came into the picture.

To look at our house, you'd never know such boundaries existed: ours was the cacophony of objects and scents and language that occurs when you stuff two worlds into one home. The exterior looked like every other house in our suburb of Cincinnati, but inside it was chaos. Oriental ottomans stacked with Amelia Bedelia books stained with greasy fingertips. I was sharply embarrassed by our disorder; the sparkling sterility of my classmates' homes always reflected our foreigner's ineptitude back at me.

To look at our house, you'd never know such boundaries existed: ours was the cacophony of objects and scents and language that occurs when you stuff two worlds into one home.

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In the eye of our hurricane was our stupidly large TV. Everything stemmed out in relation to that garish piece of furniture: empty Lean Cuisine containers, hairbrushes, and math work sheets. My sister and I spent years doing our homework in front of the TV, studying the Seavers and the Winslows as if they were our next-door neighbors. We studied those people too, but in some shaken way the families on the screen felt more trustworthy than the ones down the street. It was TV families who gave us access to their most private moments, who showed us how a "normal" parent responds to first dates and caffeine pills and Thanksgiving meltdowns. They were all encrypted manuals. Somewhere in them was the raw information on how a person should be.

Though the kids ruled the remote control, we weren't always watching alone. My parents searched inside the TV like that, too, to some extent. In summer, we'd all watch The Wonder Years on Nick at Nite, my mom teary-eyed at Kevin's coming of age. She'd been only a little older than him when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, and here, finally, was something she understood: Kevin Arnold, the epitome of American boyhood, had experienced the space mission in much the same way she had across the world in Alexandria, Egypt. Our 54-channel cable package was our most useful tool in making sense of the America that seemed to exist everywhere but inside our home.

Our 54-channel cable package was our most useful tool in making sense of the America that seemed to exist everywhere but inside our home.

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And then, in 1999, when I was 12 years old, my parents did something that upended our entire dynamic: they switched to satellite. I'd left for school at eight as usual, my brain sedated by a morning serving of Bobby's World reruns, and returned home to find the saucer sticky on our slanted, suburban roof. Turns out, an auntie had told my parents that if they switched to Dish Network they could get A.R.T. (Arab Radio and Television Network) beamed into our family room at any hour of the day. A bit of Egypt in Ohio.

This was bad. Switching from cable to satellite disrupted the rhythm of my tiny life. Gone were my scores of memorized channels — along with the hard-earned knowledge of which shows to alternate between during commercial breaks. Lost was my sovereignty over our home's only reliable television. Previously uninterested in even entering our wood-paneled family room, my parents were now blending into the furniture. My mom loved the soap operas that aired during the month of Ramadan. They were terrible, overacted messes, but they gave people something to talk about at iftar, the breaking of the fast.

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I had never seen my parents like this before, so immersed and fluent in what was airing on our screen. My mom would watch those soap operas while clinging to the phone, occasionally letting out a squeal to her best friend in Philadelphia — a fellow MD she'd grown up with in Alexandria. She seemed to plump into a teenage girl in those moments, which irritated me. Perhaps it was the rattling effect of seeing my mother as something other than caretaker, perhaps it was that I was missing the episode of Fresh Prince of Bel Air where Tom Jones surprises Carlton, an episode that I'd seen at least 13 times.

But eventually my anger at their invasion withered into resignation (like it always does). I don't remember how it happened, but pretty soon I was just as invested in the Ramadan soap operas as my mom. Both my sister and I became the ones who gasped in horror as Ahmed professed his love for Leila who loved Amr whose wife Yasmine was dying. Lured in by the warm familiarity of the television, I was fascinated, rather than demoralized, by the culture that I thought prevented us from achieving true "Americanness." These shows transformed our family room into a two-way tunnel, transporting information about where we stood and the roads that had gotten my parents here.

These shows transformed our family room into a two-way tunnel, transporting information about where we stood and the roads that had gotten my parents here.

At first with timidity and then with a ravenous hunger that surprised me, I began to ask questions about Egypt, about where we came from. Whatever was on the screen — whether Arabic or American — became my jumping-off point. Was there prom in Egypt too? Did you make breakfast in bed on Mother's Day? Did you have a Mother's Day?

Before that, some foggy anxiety had stopped me from asking the questions on my own. And like so many immigrant parents, mine never really offered up the answers. But still it confuses me. Why had I always been so hesitant to show interest in the country I only narrowly missed calling home? Maybe it was that I was so preoccupied with blending in to my own surroundings. Or maybe to ask would have been to admit ignorance about the very thing that defined me to the outside world.

However slowly, I began to uncover an almost desperate desire to belong to the place my parents would always consider home, in the broader sense at least. The Arabic TV shows didn't grant me that coveted sense of belonging — I don't think I'll ever feel fully "Egyptian," whatever that means — but they tricked me into embracing our cultural chaos. They turned our family room into a site of exchange. There, we could interpret and reinterpret our different but entwined existences, rot our brains, and wonder about each other in peace.

Sarah Gouda is a writer living in Chicago.

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