Half & half
Growing up Iranian and American
By Siedeh Rezaei-Kamalabad
December 3, 2000
When we enter the world at birth, we are presented to a family. Some
families are large, with cousins and aunts and great great grandparents.
Some are small families with a mother and father, or a single mother or
grandmother. No matter how large or small your family is, that group will
affect who you are. And having a family torn down the middle by an ocean
can influence the way you see the world.
I was born into a family with a mother and a father, and soon I had
three siblings. My father is from Iran and my mother is from the U.S.,
where we live. My mother had her mother, a sister and her sister's family
consisting of her husband, her three kids, and their dog.
All of my father's family except a cousin and a brother live in Iran.
Their family isn't small. It goes on forever. Our family was at once a
whole village called Kamalabad. Now they are scattered around Iran and
Until I was six my Iranian family was just voices on the phone that
I couldn't communicate with and photos in albums and on our walls. I never
really knew them and I am still in the dark as to who most of them are.
Yet they still affected my life.
My siblings and I are the only half Iranians in our family. Everyone
else is fully Iranian and since my father is an Iranian Muslim and my mother
converted to Islam, we practice the Islamic faith at home. My mother accepted
many of the Iranian customs and wanted my siblings and me to know about
our Iranian heritage. We celebrated the Iranian New Year and ate Iranian
food most of the time. For a long time I thought everyone ate Iranian food.
We were also half American, and since my mother's family was Catholic,
we celebrated Christmas and Easter with them. I grew up playing with Barbie
dolls and watching cartoons, my parents never enforce the Iranian way of
life on me but my Iranian side still dominated and influenced much of my
The summer I turned six, we went to Iran. That year the movie "Not
without my daughter" had came out. My grandmother was afraid that
what happened to that woman would happen to us. That was just a stereotype
that I didn't understand at the time. Even though my grandmother was scared,
my mother knew that would not happen to us. So we went during the end of
May in 1990.
I don't remember much from then. I was so young. I forgot more and more
as I grew older. When I was twelve, I went back with my family. It had
been six years, and my parents were afraid I wouldn't get a chance to see
my grandparents before they died, so they took out a loan and we went back.
I actually don't remember much from that time either. We visited all
the museums and I can remember the first few weeks I told my mother I never
wanted to go home. We stayed for two months and after a while I began to
miss home and my life in America. That is the trouble with having family
in another country, your heart is always longing to be in the other place
and you know you can't have both. That is the worst part.
At nine you begin to practice the Islamic head covering and so while
we were in Iran, I covered my head and wore long sleeved shirts and skirts
or pants. That I didn't mind so much in Iran but when we got back to the
U.S. and my parents wanted me to keep doing it, life got difficult.
I went to seventh grade that year at a school where I had only spent
half a year so it was still new to me. The school groups had already been
formed and me, being different, had a hard time fitting in. I was made
fun of for covering my head, (I wore a beret instead of the scarf because
I didn't like how it felt around your neck.) I have blocked that year out
of my head.
Eighth grade came and my younger sister was passed nine and wasn't covering
her head which made me mad so I told my father I didn't want to wear it
any more. My mother talked to him and told him that they can't force me
to believe in something I don't believe in yet. So after that I didn't
have to wear the scarf.
Iran still haunted my every thought. In school we were learning about
the Middle East and the memories started to come back. We would talk about
Iran and I knew all about it. And then the stereotypes came up, a whole
book that was all wrong about the way things were there. I started looking
at other books and so many of them were wrong and only saw the political
American view. I never viewed Iran the way they had.
I felt lost being the only Iranian in school, which I had always been.
Knowing all this information that I used to correct what the books said.
A whole other view of a country thought to be infested with terrorists.
Amazingly, when I entered high school the next year, my history teacher
Mahmood Firouzbakt and a student in one of my classes, were Iranian. I
had always thought I was the only one. I started going into Iranian chatrooms
and talking with others.
This got me thinking about Iran constantly and my parents were thinking
of taking us back to Iran for another trip. I went crazy, I started searching
for tickets. My father looked also and couldn't find any that we could
afford. I went on the Internet and found cheap tickets that we bought and
on July 21, 2000, we were on a plane going into that other dimension where
life is so different.
That's how my dad described going back to Iran, like going through another
dimension. When you go there everything is more laid back and after a few
days I'm back home at my second home and feeling comfortable with the surroundings
and language. After nine days my Iranian grandmother died.
When I went to the funeral I couldn't cry because I thought of her as
just being at home waiting for us to get back. I started to force myself
to cry so no one would think I was disrespectful. Then I looked over at
my aunts who were always happy and saw them crying. To see them unhappy
made me cry even more. I had learned to fake crying in acting class.
After that day, I started to look at who I really am.
When we were coming home from the cemetery my cousin asked me why I
liked theater. I couldn't answer. I didn't know. After thinking about his
question for days and days I realized that what I thought I wanted to be
-- an actress -- wasn't what I really wanted. If he hadn't asked me that
question I would still be thinking I wanted to become an actress. But I
Iran made me see more of the world outside Cambridge, Massachusetts.
At a time in my life when I felt lost completely, I found myself in Iran.
It changed me, for the better. I am now more open and less afraid of not
My whole life has been affected by this family that I have only seen
three times in my life. How could they influence my life so much and be
so far away? That's what a family does; it is an environment that you grow
and learn in. It makes you who you are. At least it did for me. Even from
a million miles away.