Hyphenated Identity

The simplicity of the phrase “I am Iranian-American” completely contradicts the complexity behind it.

I grew up in the Bay Area and am still a resident of this pretty diverse hub on the west coast. From what I have put together from stories my mom told me about my childhood, I have come up with my own story, my own identity.

I spoke Farsi (the language Iranians/Persians speak, different from Arabic but still similar) as my first language. When I went to pre-school, I was younger than the other kids in my class and couldn’t speak much English, so I relied on other little kids to help me through the day. At the same time, these kids also took me under their own little wings. I learned English quickly and soon became bilingual. I spoke Farsi at home with my mom and grandma, and then I spoke English at school.

Up until kindergarten, I traveled to Iran every year because it was easy to take a month off pre-school education. We traveled as a family during the springtime because it was the best month to go to Iran – the flowers were blooming and the air was fresh.

As I entered elementary school, my English skills outweighed my Farsi skills, and I soon could only understand Farsi when spoken to. At the same time, I would slowly desire to assimilate into the “normal” white food culture. I loved the Iranian food my mom packed for me for lunch, but eating it while all the other kids were eating pasta, casserole, and soup stirred unwanted gazes and glares. I didn’t want the other kids to think that my food smelled, and even though I was proud of it and stood up for it to other kids because it tasted so damn good, I brought my own culture’s food less and less in order to fit in.

Around third grade, a few things happened in my 9-year-old life. I started taking Farsi lessens at our public library, learning how to read and write with a couple other kids. It was difficult to go to this class once a week but I did it for around a year and a half. Keeping up with my Farsi homework always annoyed me, and I resented having to learn this language even though my mom always said that I would regret it if I didn’t learn it now… something that I find 100% true now.

The other thing that happened was High School Musical. As a child, I grew up on Disney cartoons and princess movies. My favorite princess was probably Ariel, but I always loved the film Aladdin because it was practically about me (even though the actuality was it was probably set in modern day Iraq). It was about people who looked like me. Jasmine was the princess I knew I could be because she looked like me. When High School Musical came out, I had a live-action Disney character that shared similar features to my own: Gabriella. Dark hair, dark eyes, tan skin. I felt saved. On the same note, in third grade I also felt really isolated by multiple people in my extremely tiny class, and a lot of the girls who were mean to me shared similar features to the “whiter” Disney characters like Cinderella, Aurora, and…Sharpay Evans from HSM. My love for characters like Gabriella and Jasmine matched my resentment for Cinderellas and Sharpays. The ease I have admitting this right now is because I’m 18 and realize I was being a bit extreme for a little kid, but I think my love and hate was very valid and very much associated with my racial and ethnic identity – as a minority.

Entering fifth grade and later middle school, I became obsessed with reading and writing admittedly shitty stories that took inspiration from my growing imagination. Characters like Hermione Granger and Bella Swan shared a feature I had: darker hair. That was a check in my book. I could relate to them. In the stories I created, the main female character almost always looked like me. I wanted to be represented and I made sure I was.

At the same time, basically after I quit Farsi class, my resentment for Iran grew. We only traveled twice more before my mom got sick, and both times I didn’t want to go. There was no internet access and basically nothing for me to do there. The flight was long and I just didn’t enjoy going. The last time I went before my mom got sick was the summer in between 6th and 7th grade, and I was going through my own middle school phase of moodiness and questionable behavior. I didn’t care about my identity as an Iranian-American; it wasn’t as important as other things.

In my late middle school era, I was friends with a girl who was half Iranian, and we became best friends. Besides how well our personalities meshed together, it was so nice to have someone to talk to because she understood some Iranian family quirks that I experienced. I felt like my identity was validated because there was someone my age like me.

As I entered high school, my Iranian-American identity was simultaneously something always on the back of my mind and something I clung to because it made me different from my peers. I did my “country” project in 9th grade history class on Iran, for example. I started becoming more comfortable bringing Iranian food to school (usually from restaurants because my mom was to sick to cook or already passed away) in 10th-11th grade. I also think gaining a very great group of friends in high school allowed me to open up and be myself, and being myself included the Iranian-American me.

Throughout almost all the years of my life, I went to a Chaharshanbe Soori celebration in Berkeley right before Persian New Year. It was probably the only part of the holiday I liked besides the food because it was when people jumped over little fires and “left behind” the bad parts of life in the old year, welcoming and celebrating the new year to come. This holiday was always super cool to my friends, no matter what age, and it instilled some pride in me, that my identity was cool.

We missed Chaharshanbe Soori the year after my mom’s death (11th grade) because of too much schoolwork, and I honestly don’t remember if we went in 10th grade. Those years were mostly a blur, but Chaharshanbe Soori was definitely a memory and celebration that always made me feel close to my culture. In a way, when my mom died I lost the connection I had to my Iranian identity. She was a constant speaker of Farsi in the house and always pushed me to connect with my ethnic identity. In elementary school, she sometimes gave presentations to my classes during Persian New Year, like the Chinese moms did during Chinese New Year. She always encouraged me to share who I was and where I came from.

When I lost my mom, I lost a lot of who I was. Since 11th grade, I have gone to Iran twice – once before senior year, and this past winter break. The first trip without her ended abruptly, and I felt like my time in Iran wasn’t done. It was cut short. The second trip, the one I recently came back from, didn’t feel this way. It felt complete and whole, and I am really excited to go back – whenever that will be.

Iran is a really triggering experience for me because everywhere reminds me of my mom. Simple taxi drives are weird without her in the backseat.

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This one coffee shop in Frankfurt airport will always remind me of my mom because I have pictures of her in it from the last trip she went on.

I have so many pictures of her from Iran.

Something I’m grateful for is staying in a different place when we visit now, because staying in the same place that I was in with my mom would be so triggering and so so overwhelming. The trip is already overwhelming, but it reminds me of who she was, and who I am.

We would go to the bazaar and look at jewelry together, complain about the heat, eat lots of cream puffs and drink tea. I miss her so much and Iran reminds me of her because that’s who she was. She was a beautiful, intelligent Iranian woman who makes me proud to be Iranian, to carry her as a part of my identity.

Similarly, the past trip we had reminded me that Iran is home, because Iran is family. Simply sitting at the dinner table in my great aunt’s house reminded me how many loving people I am surrounded by and have on my side. Cousins and second cousins and aunts and great aunts. My grandma on my dad’s side made many trips to America before and after my mom’s passing, so she was more or less a part of our America-located family. Actually visiting Iran is different because I’m literally placed in a city that contains so many family members. It’s overwhelming.

My family threw me a little birthday party this past trip  because I would be in college during my actual birthday. It was super small, and I actually almost napped before they surprised me with the birthday cake. When I walked out into the living room I had to tell myself not to cry. It is such a crazy, emotional experience to lack family most of your life and then be emerged in it all at once. Holidays don’t really mean much to me because they are just normal meals and days with my immediate family (Armita and my dad). I don’t go to my grandma’s house for Thanksgiving or visit my aunt’s for Christmas because the majority of my family lives in a different country. Visiting Iran reminds me of how much I miss out on while living in America, but it also allows me to be super grateful and happy to be spending time with family while I’m there because it is not something I can take advantage of often.

From the end of senior year until now, a second-semester freshmen at UC Berkeley, I have become more comfortable with the pride I have in being Iranian-American. I shared Chaharshanbe Soori with some of my closest friends at the end of senior year, and it made me feel so validated and alive as an Iranian-American teen. I have friends who love me for who I am. I wrote an article for the Iranian literary magazine on campus, Perspective (pg. 12). I plan on taking Farsi in my sophomore year to brush up on the language that has always been a part of my life one way or another. In general, I want to take advantage of the resources my education allows me to have by taking as many Iran-centric classes as possible. I want to learn about who I am and I’m so happy I have the opportunity to do so.

Lastly, I plan on immortalizing who I am on my skin sometime in the next couple months. I want to get نور چشم من  (pronounced “Nur-e cheshm-e man”) tattooed on my arm, which means “the light of my eye” in Farsi. Under it, I want to put my mom’s “dates” – 8.18.61-5.26.14. I have memories of my mom calling me this phrase as a kid, and I think it is the perfect homage to her.

A simultaneous reminder of who I am and who I will always have with me.

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