Opinion The Identity Issue

What it means to be a “chicken nugget”

Yes, you read that right!

By Rose Murad

Artwork by Bahraini artist Hala Al Abbasi.

This story is brought to you by Dr. Rocco’s Specialized Dental Center in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Those of you who are new to the term may have had to reread the title of this article a few times to determine if there was some sort of mistake. How can a person logically be a chicken nugget after all, right?

Well, I assure you it’s not a mistake.

Within the Arab Gulf States, there are alternative labels that have the same definition. “Chicken nuggets” and “the children of Mary” are the most common labels, especially in countries such as Bahrain.

The labels refer to individuals who appear to be Khaleeji (or from the Arab Gulf States), yet when asked if they prefer to speak in Arabic or English their answer would be the latter. Their lifestyle would also be heavily influenced by the West (particularly countries such as the US and the UK). Thus, this is how the label “chicken nuggets,” which means “brown” on the outside but “white” on the inside, came to be. In other words, these individuals look like Arabs, but their speech, way of thinking and behavior is Western or influenced by the West. Similarly, the “children of Mary” is a label and satirical comment used to refer to a person who predominantly or only speaks in English when their mother is an Arab, not a Westerner.

The labels —an invention of those who were more “typical Khaleejis”, and who were critical of the behavior of “chicken nuggets”/ the “children of Mary” — began to be imposed on the Millennial segment of the population with the characteristics noted above, but now also extends to include members of Generation Z who have these characteristics too. For the purposes of this article, I will use the label “chicken nuggets” to refer to this group of people.

Within these age groups, a notable identity has emerged. Individuals with the emerging identity are identified as Khaleejis on paper. However, the link to aspects of that Khaleeji identity appears to be disconnected.

But what makes a Khaleeji a Khaleeji anyways?

This brings us to an important question: What is a Khaleeji? What are the fundamental characteristics of a Khaleeji? At first, it will seem like a relatively simple question, until you actually try to conjure up a solid answer in your mind.

Some would argue that it is defined by your birthplace. So, if you are born in Kuwait, or any of the other Arab Gulf States, then you are a Khaleeji. Others would mention that it is also linked to your family’s surname. There are other details that a person could mention in their answer too, including the practice of certain traditions.

However, I can guarantee you one crucial detail that would be highlighted as a common factor among most minds these days: the ability to function comfortably as an Arabic speaker.

In addition to exhibiting Westernized behavior or ideology, “chicken nuggets” speak English more than they speak Arabic, with many speaking weak or broken Arabic when conversing in their native language. And as a person who is considered an embodiment of this label by many, I understand that there are severe drawbacks to experiencing such a language barrier, especially in your native country. I have personally been at the end of losing job opportunities in the past because my Arabic was not up to par at my age.

For a while, I struggled to pinpoint a solid explanation for my own linguistic weakness. Some have argued that it is because a rising number of students in the region are entering schools where English is given an equal, or an even higher position, within the curriculum compared to Arabic. Others blame it on the increased exposure to Western materials and sources of entertainment, including books, TV shows and films, which can also contribute to the development of Westernized behavior. Based on my own experience, I think it’s a bit of both.

But should we do something about the “chicken nuggets” phenomenon?

Yet, what does it all mean? Should we really be concerned about the seemingly increasing number of “chicken nuggets”?

Individuals in the Gulf pride themselves in their national and regional identities. We are also a collective society. So, when one of our own chooses to adopt foreign habits it raises alarm bells within the collective, and disapproval can ensue.

On the other hand, pride stops those identified as “chicken nuggets” from really connecting with their community due to the fear of messing up whenever they try to interact with their cultural and linguistic identity. As a result, a disconnection continues to grow both within the community itself and within those individuals.

I have felt this disconnection myself in the past. A few years ago, I started my first job in Abu Dhabi in an environment that I thought would help me improve my Arabic (as I would be digesting Arabic content on a daily basis). However, after a while, it did not seem like the working environment was really helping me improve my Arabic enough. I was even referred to a few tutors and language schools. But that’s where it got messy, as most of them said they couldn’t help me after seeing my entry exam results.  “You just lack the confidence” was what I heard over and over again.  It seemed that after years of maneuvering around conversations in my mother tongue, I had officially lost the confidence in identifying as an Arabic speaker at a time when I could finally utilize my voice!

After this realisation, I started to look at the picture from a different lens. I was not the first nor would I be the last to struggle with my identity as a Khaleeji due to my inability (and soon after, lack of confidence) to speak Arabic fluently. Yet, why is it that the language creates this cultural barrier within the community I was born into?

The concept was given more clarity when someone recommended that I read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. In the book, Anderson highlights that languages in Europe led to the creation of communities of equals. Similar to my case, I could not feel myself being perceived as an equal in my community due to my mismatched choreography with Arabic.

How we should move forward

There are many people dealing with this today, especially within the younger generations. We see Khaleejis (a seemingly notable but still unquantifiable amount, statistically speaking) who feel more comfortable expressing themselves in English instead of Arabic, and who relate more to Western rather than local culture, or prefer it. So how do we mend this division in the community? How can we ensure that we move forward connected, rather than separated?

It is a difficult situation as the Arabic language is an integral factor of our region’s cultural identity. There will also be a growing concern of how the traditional perception of our cultural identity would be diminished over time, and that could only further divide the existing separated forms of identity. However, if we could accept that identity is not a one-label-fit-all model, then we could slowly eliminate the division that is forming.

On a wider scale, elements of our traditional Khaleeji identity can be preserved through the enhanced exposure of culture and traditions to the youth in the form of awareness and promotional campaigns. This could be done in the form of cartoons, TV shows and special educational programs at schools and universities that present our culture and traditions in a fresh way.

Most importantly, we need to acknowledge that everyone needs their own time to connect with their cultural identity in ways that may differ from one person to the other, especially if they have been exposed to bilingual education, or have lived abroad for a significant part of their lives. Identity is not uniform and neither is the journey towards embracing it… and that’s something that I think we need to start acknowledging.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

Rose Murad is a researcher from Bahrain.