When you communicate, how do you want to be heard?
Think on that while I introduce Meagan.
Meagan Dashcund grew up with a fair amount of privilege. She attended a Montessori school through third grade before attending public school, where she performed at the top of her grade. She transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy for high school, and on to Dickinson College, where she earned a BA in International Studies and Religion, a minor in Arabic, and a security studies certification with a focus on the Middle East. She studied abroad in Jordan, Palestine, and Israel.
“I always enjoyed learning about other cultures, and the idea of working in current events was important to me. The addition of religion provided me knowledge about human nature and was a nice supplement to my international studies and national security focus,” she said.
Now 25-years-old, Meagan is currently working in security at the National Academy of the Sciences, studying for her master’s degree in Applied Intelligence Studies. She is a fellow at the Turkish Heritage Organization, hosts and produces a podcast, and is in the process of building her own business. During the start of the COVID crisis, Meagan co-founded Al Fusaic, a website intended to advance awareness about the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Meagan sounds pretty cool, right? You’d almost envy her; privileged education, talented musician (did I mention 12 years of classical piano), and multilingual. But wait, it gets better.
Meagan was born in China and adopted at six months old by parents of Irish/Italian and Russian/Norwegian descent. Her parents strived to create an inclusive home life for their daughter by keeping her informed with open conversations about her adoption and ethnicity. They engaged her in Chinese culture by celebrating Chinese holidays, enrolling her in Chinese school, and attending events with other adopted kids from China.
Now, this is where it gets important to pay attention.
Being adopted was something Meagan never really struggled with, because she never viewed herself as being Asian. What affected her was the psychological impact of stereotypical comments and mistaken beliefs. The unconditional love and support she received from her parents - being seen and heard with dignity, respect, and impartiality - didn’t wash away the reality that she was given up by her birth parents simply because she was born without a penis, that being born for who she was wasn’t enough.
“The one child policy is hard for a kid to understand. I mean, understanding that you were given up because you’re a girl is kind of shitty. Because of this, I tried really hard to be a tomboy. I played a lot of football, was loud and acted tough. I tried very hard to break out of the box to be different from what people wanted or expected from me,” she said.
Public school was where Meagan first began to notice a cultural discrepancy. A small school with an even smaller Asian population, Meagan was one of four Asians, and the only Asian adoptee. Implications of words, unchecked labeling, and a culminating identity crisis came to a head during her teenage years.
“I didn’t want to relate as that Asian who checked stereotypical boxes; bad English, Asian fashion, quiet, demure, passive. It makes me very uncomfortable and angry, because it’s what I’ve been running away from my entire life,” she said, adding, “I’m not angry with the person, but at the typecasting from American society for how Asians are portrayed. Being Asian, a good student and playing classical piano for 12 years apparently was a criterion for people to say, Makes sense, you’re Asian. No one seemed to notice I was an athlete who played four different sports."
Rebelling against her own identity, Meagan immersed herself in non-Asian cultural groups.
“I tried to fit in with white America, but by the time I hit high school, I said I’m obviously not white, and that’s not going to change. I was still pushing away from the idea of being Asian, but wanted to be part of, and accepted by, a group. I identified pretty hard with African American culture. I listened to rap and joined Precision Step Team. I enjoyed joining in with a group that had a different stereotype,” she said.
Meagan hoped Phillips Exeter Academy would be a different experience, and she was correct. The educational experience and social aspect proved to be a positive win, however her struggle with her own identity intensified.
“Arriving on campus there was an uncomfortable moment where it hit me that I was no longer in my all-white town. There were too many Asians on campus and suddenly, I wasn’t really sure who I was supposed to be,” she said.
Absurd moments still happened, where Meagan felt shaped by the ethnicity she had yet to connect with.
“I took Chinese all four years. Every year, I’d walk into the classroom, and every year the professor would ask me why I wasn’t fluent. I would then explain - every year - that my parents are white and that I was adopted,” she said adding, “It was pretty annoying. It was like they were surprised, like why are you not what we expect?”
It was during college that Meagan realized that stereotypes weren’t a requisite for being human. She replaced Chinese with Arabic and experienced multicultural learning firsthand, traveling to Jordan, Palestine and Israel. Visiting these regions of the Middle East allowed her the opportunity to immerse herself in a diverse and dynamic culture, to meet others who dealt with adversity, and who were completely different from what standard Western media portrayed.
“The Middle East, as I see it, has always been described through an oil and terrorism lens. Experiencing things cross-culturally is vastly different; it seems so simple, like we should all know about stereotypes, but it’s a struggle as humans not to put people into boxes,” she said.
Here’s where Meagan felt it; a strong passion, a call to take initiative and create an avenue for open-minded conversations that advocate for a better understanding of culture, diversity, and the unique quality of being human. Meagan and her co-founded, Benjamin Lutz, launched a website built from their own cross-cultural experiences intended for educational and resource purposes to break down conventional walls and open the door for a higher understanding of the Middle East. The site’s name, Al Fusaic, a combination word in Arabic, translates in English to mosaic. Rich with information on the topics of history, feminism, conflict, literature, film, food, and much more, their mission statement is Changing perceptions and the way people engage with the middle east. Meagan maintains it could just as easily read Changing perceptions and the way people engage with each other.
“Benjamin and I co-founded Al Fusaic out of a desire to share our love for all things MENA. When we say mosaic thinking, we are trying to capture that beautiful moment of being confronted with the unknown and responding to it with love and care. We believe that one can only truly learn if the mind is open; and so, with mosaic thinking and a community of passionate, curious individuals, we hope to expand your perspective and perhaps change what the MENA region means to you,” she said.
When asked what advice she’d give to her younger self, Meagan replied, “So many times I felt I was in the wrong place doing the wrong thing. I compared myself to everyone around me and failed to measure up. I distanced myself and acted like I wasn’t anyone’s stereotype, when I should have embraced the things I like. Even now, with everything I have going on, I still struggle with my Asian heritage and have this lingering feeling that I don’t measure up to the imaginary Meagan in my mind. That said, the mistakes I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned define who I am today. I wouldn’t give my younger self a roadmap; I would simply say, You got this. I think that would mean a lot.”
Meagan wants other adopted Asian women to know that they don’t have to fit into a stereotypical box or have inner battles with who they are. Her quest is to transcend standardized thinking and dominant attitudes about the way society interacts with other countries by highlighting positives.
“A huge piece of me wants to go into government work. I’ve always kind of loved being a part of building and improving the structure. I want to contribute to the world and change the system so it doesn’t marginalize individuals and make them feel helpless or left out,” she said.
Meagan Dashcund truly isn’t what people expect; she’s better, trailblazing ideas on ways we can improve as a collective, transforming personal identity struggles into inclusivity and spreading messages of hope, love and diversity about the Middle East.
How can we self-reflect and begin to do the same? And when you communicate it, how do you want to be heard?
Meagan lives and works in Washington, DC. She is a graduate student at Georgetown University and holds a BA in International Studies and Religion, a Minor in Arabic, and a Security Studies certificate with a focus on the Middle East. In her spare time, she takes Arabic classes near Dupont Circle, and can be found running around the city with her husky-shepherd, Koda.