... between Iranians and Ameircans
November 22, 2005
I want to share with you some of my personal observations over the years about the cultural differences between Iran and the U.S. I came to the United States from Iran right after high school to go to college. It was a hard battle for me to convince my parents to send me here, because in Iran young girls are expected to get married, preferably soon after high school and settle for a life of domesticity. Boys are the ones who are encouraged to go for higher education. But I always questioned the role prescribed for me and aimed for a higher education.
Since my brothers had come here before me I tried to talk my parents into sending me here too. They agreed under the condition that I go to an all women’s college near my brother so that he could look after me. He was going to medical school at Washington University in St. Louis, and there was an all-women’s college in St. Charles, not far from St. Louis, and so I applied to that college and got in.
When I just came here, at the age of seventeen, I thought I knew America well already. Throughout my high school years, living in Ahvaz, an oil town in Southwest Iran, I had seen many American movies and read books in translation. Some Americans lived in the town, employed by the oil refinery in the area. I dreamed of coming to this country, which seemed to be so free of restrictions. But once I came here to attend college, it was a rude awakening, finding out how little I really knew about this culture. What I knew in broad terms didn’t capture all the subtleties that go into the make-up of a culture.
It was a hard place for a foreign student in that college, since there were so few of us and the American students had a narrow view of foreigners. But still the college represented America in many ways. Oddly what was the most difficult adjustment for me wasn’t so much their narrow view of anyone who wasn’t like them but the subtle cultural differences that I became aware of for the first time.
For instance the idea of friendship was very different. In the college, it was accepted to treat your girl friends only as back-up for when you don’t have a date with a boy (boys were usually from the nearby boys schools). If a boy called at the last minute and asked a girl out she would break the date with her girl friend and that was acceptable. In Iran because the members of the opposite sex are forbidden to each other before marriage, friendships within the same sex go deeper.
Another difference I have become more and more aware of is family expectations. For instance recently when I was giving a reading from my work in a high school, some of the teachers came to me afterwards and complained that their Iranian students would miss classes or even not show up for their final exams, when their families asked them to go and pick up an uncle from an airport or take someone in the family to a doctor. The American teachers couldn’t understand how a family obligation like that could be allowed to stand in the way of a student’s obligation to himself at school.
This leads to another fundamental difference between the two cultures. Ambition isn’t as valued in Iran as it is here. In fact it isn’t a compliment to call a person ambitious. Work isn’t taken that seriously in Iran. I remember my best friend’s brother who was the head of a bank; on a nice day he would close the bank and tell all his employees to go on a picnic. When my husband and I were visiting Iran, once we were standing at a street corner in a business district waiting for a taxi to take us somewhere. No taxis were stopping. A shop keeper came over to me and said "You've been waiting here for a long time; I’ll be happy to take you where you want."
I told him I appreciated it. So he asked his partner if he wanted to come along too. In the middle of their business hours they shut the shop so that they could take us to our destination. My husband, who is American, was suspicious, whispered to me that maybe they want a lot of money in return for their service. But at the end when they dropped us off and we offered them some money as a token of gratitude, they refused to take it. They said they just wanted to help us out. With the altruism went a bit of indifference or even aversion to taking work too seriously.
This drive to be helpful, also gives people a sense of obligation to the community. For instance many years ago when my old aunt wanted to come and visit me, a teenager in her neighborhood, who was coming to America to study, postponed his trip, helped my aunt get her visa and passport ready, and brought her to my apartment in New York, before he went on to his own college.
Along the same line is that in a culture like Iran individual happiness isn’t as emphasized as the group or family’s mutual happiness. Rules, presumably promising happiness for all are handed down from generation to generation. For example marriages are arranged because the parents who are presumably wiser, would select someone who fits in with the whole family not just the person who is getting married.
With the concept of happiness for all goes the idea of privacy. In Iran it seems strange if someone wants to be alone or live alone. That concept of privacy in the U.S. and togetherness in Iran also lead to the issue of loneliness. America seems like a lonely place to Iranians who come here, particularly the older ones. When my aunt was visiting my mother who was living in Ohio, to be near one of my brothers, she always complained about how quiet and lonely America was. No one walked on the streets, everyone was locked inside of cars, unreachable. People didn’t drop in all day long for a friendly talk, everyone was so busy working. She cut her trip short because being in Ohio, even with her sister, was unbearably lonely.
The same sense of obligation to the whole, rather than the individual, is helpful to older people in Iran. They always have people to take care of them.
Another broad difference in the two cultures is in sexual interactions. Imagine how different attitudes towards sex are in these two cultures, when in Iran women are supposed to cover up in the presence of men because showing a bare arm or hair is too seductive, whereas in this culture women can be seen sunbathing without any clothes on, and they put personal ads directly seeking out sex. Even under the Shah, when women had the option to go out uncovered, these sexual mores were strongly in place.
All these differences reflect the larger political issues, that seem so irreconcilable between the two cultures.
I can see there are certain advantages and disadvantages to both cultures. In Iran you can feel more protected and life can be easier in some ways in that decisions are made for you, there is a guideline for you to follow, so young people rarely experience the angst as many do here. On the other hand, if you are a questioning person, as I was when I was a teenager in Iran, life can be stifling.
Nahid Rachlin, born in Iran, came to the United States to attend college and stayed on. She has been writing and publishing novels and short stories, in English. Among her publications are three novels, FOREIGNER (W.W. Norton), MARRIED TO A STRANGER (E.P.Dutton), THE HEART'S DESIRE (City Lights), and a collection of short stories, VEILS (City Lights). She has another novel, JUMPING OVER FIRE, in press at City Lights. She also has a memoir, PERSIAN GIRLS, in press at Tarcher/Penguin.