Mand introduction to James was far from a meet-cute. We were teenagers, working at a Bankstown shopping center. He was prone to mansplaining (I didn’t know what that was back then, but I did know it annoyed me) and arrived late to work every day.
I was a terrible salesperson, prone to telling customers where they could find things cheaper. But I was the darling of our employers because I turned up on time and had a predilection for cleaning the store.
It was February 2005 and the neighborhood was still reeling from the racial vilification that had plagued its community in the aftermath of the Skaf gang rapes, 9/11 and the Bali bombings.
He’d just moved to Sydney’s multicultural south-west from the more culturally homogenous southern highlands to live with his grandparents. I had lived in “the area” my entire life. Each of us was the most foreign thing the other had ever encountered.
I was a Lebanese girl who had gone to an all-Lebanese school – and was still in a state of culture shock a year out from high school. Although my friendship circle now included some Asian friends I made at my first job, James was different: he wasn’t just white, he was a boy. And I didn’t know how to behave around boys, because the Lebanese boys who’d known me my whole life saw me as “marriage material”, to be kept safe on the shelf while they sowed wild oats.
My jokes about being invisible started to fall flat when it became apparent that James could definitely see. What we lacked in meet-cute we made up for in slow-burning chemistry. Within weeks, we were chatting on MSN messenger and texting about footy scores. Within months it was clear to everyone who knew us there was nothing remotely mild about our flirtations. But we were in denial.
Until we were not. The moment I knew I was in love with him was a mundane, midweek group dinner for his birthday.
It was a clear and warm November night and we were standing under a tree across the road from the Italian restaurant. I hugged him goodnight and I felt it: this weird jolt that powered through my entire being. We’d hugged before of course – when we caught up outside work or said goodbye at parties – but that night it felt completely different. It was the first time I didn’t want to let go.
That hug launched a thousand fights with my parents. It launched a hundred warnings from my cousins and my friends. Good Lebanese girls were supposed to marry good Lebanese boys and deviating from the narrative was out of the question.
They told me I was throwing away my entire identity. Was that worth it for this boy who I’d only known a few months?
Two weeks after the hug, a horde of Anglo Australian young men descended on Cronulla beach in the hate rally we’ve come to know as the Cronulla riots.
Ensconced in the safety of my western Sydney home, devastated that I had seemingly lost my place in my father’s heart but desperate to be able to have a “normal” relationship, I fielded phone calls from friends. What was happening on the beach was another opportunity to warn me against an interracial relationship. James made me feel the kind of value all teenage girls should feel with their first love, but our pairing was still so much in its infancy it hardly warranted the attention.
All my life I had been rule-abiding, obedient, likely to bend at someone else’s will.
But this time, I didn’t waver. I stayed steadfast. And I’m incredibly grateful for that strength of character well over a decade later, because it enabled my parents to see me as an adult for the first time and paved the way for a greater self-confidence.
Since then, James and I have married and traveled the world. We have made memories with three gorgeous kids (plus a lizard and a dog).