American outside, Iranian inside
March 10, 2000
There is a shuttle van which takes me from work to my car . One day
the shuttle driver suggested that I bring some music to share with him
and the other riders. I obliged, but I cheated a little. Instead of the
classical music I promised, I brought Faramarz Aslani's newest collection.
The music seemed "innocuous" at first as the sound of the Spanish
guitar filled the interior of the van, but when Mr. Aslani began singing,
I noticed sounds of shifting in the van and felt a hand on my shoulder,
"Hey, what are you doing with Persian music?"
I turned my body around to see the person I had suspected of being Iranian
for a while. I smiled and said, "I'm Iranian, and this is one of my
She first smiled, then chuckled, and then incredulously shook her head.
"I would have never thought...," and her voice trailed off.
"That I'm Iranian?"
"Yeah! I would have taken you for a Spanish, or Italian, but NOT
"Spanish?" I threw my head back and laughed. "I guess
I do look a bit International."
I glanced at the driver who is an American Indian from the Sioux tribe
and saw him snickering. I slapped his arm playfully and said, "What
are you smiling at?"
He shrugged and said, "I thought that you two had already met and
knew you were from the same country."
The next 20 or 30 minutes in traffic was spent answering the same questions
of where do you live, who do you know, how long have you been here? And
she was surprised that I could speak Persian, considering I have no accent
when I speak English.
In a class, recently, I watched a film called Chan is Missing,
a Chinese film about the immigrant experience in San Francisco. The entire
film had a "lecturing" quality, as the various characters spoke.
One of the characters, a Chinese ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher
made an interesting point. He said there are three types of immigrants:
One type tries to immerse himself completely into the American way of life--but
he realizes soon that it's not possible because he is still Chinese.
Another type completely resists the American culture to the point that
he won't even learn the language or interact with the host culture, which
makes it difficult for him to get along in his society at large. The third
type of immigrant takes good qualities from both cultures and makes himself
a Chinese-American (or Iranian-American).
He proceeded to show an apple pie in a box made in a Chinese bakery.
He said that the pie looks American, you cut into it, it's American, but
the box it comes in has Chinese and English writing and when you bite into
it, it doesn't quite taste American, you soon realize it's really Chinese.
Just a few days ago, I walked into a coffee shop by the university to
get myself a triple shot of Espresso. The shop is owned and operated by
an Iranian man. As I opened the door and walked in, I heard traditional
Iranian music and the coffee shop owner was wiping the counters and whistling
along with the tune.
I looked at him and said, "Nazeri?"
"Pardon?" He had a funny look on his face.
"Een Nazeri-ye?" (Is this Nazeri?)
He took a step backwards, then a step forward and looked a bit shaken,
"Oh my goodness," he said with his hand fluttering to his forehead,
"Yes," I smiled disarmingly. "I don't look it?"
He puffed out his cheeks and blew out, "O-o-of course you look
Iranian... it's just that I see you coming in and out and I never thought...,"
his voice trailing off and the surprised expression on his face turning
into a sweet smile.
We exchanged names and handshakes and I walked out of the shop with
my drink, feeling good, but at the same time wistful and confused.
What is it? Shyness? Ethnic self-loathing? Thoughtlessness? Snobbery?
Do these contribute to Iranians not acknowledging each other? Is it confusion
as to who we are? Is it that we feel so hybridized by the two cultures
that we feel we couldn't possibly have anything in common with the person
who might seem so much like us, so we don't approach them or talk to them?
I'm like that the apple pie the ESL teacher described. I may appear
Iranian, but when I open my mouth to speak, I sound American. In an American
environment, I can see how I can confuse an Iranian who would look at me
and wonder about my true ethnicity. I have managed to conform to the American
culture to such an extent that even Americans can't guess that I was not
born and raised in the U.S.
Among Iranians, I am an Iranian. I use their expressions, their body
language and fit in pretty well. The only time I may seem different than
Iranians is when I discuss some of my thoughts and ideas. But in the end,
as Popeye says, "I am what I am."