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Persian spirit
Things that make me who I am

By Mana
April 24, 2001
The Iranian

In October of 1982, my parents, like thousands of other Persians at the time, fled from their native country Iran and sought refuge in America. Though I was still unborn (my mother was six months pregnant), their decision has had the single most influential impact on my life.

Growing up Persian -- and, perhaps more importantly, Persian and female -- in a country with little knowledge of Middle Eastern culture (short of stereotypes) has proven a challenge. It has ingrained within me a sense of culture and an awareness of people that I would never have had otherwise.

Though I was born in Oklahoma City and I am technically an American citizen, pride compels me to consider myself Persian. However, various circumstances have prevented me from ever visiting Iran -- a fact that continually amazes Iranian adults, because I am thoroughly fluent in Farsi.

Most Persian teens speak strictly English to their parents, which I find disappointing because preservation of culture is one of my foremost priorities. To that effect, I hope that when I am on my own I can practice the same traditions as I do now.

Being Persian makes me feel like I'm part of a bigger picture -- like there's an entire community to support me, beyond my family. Each day presents me with another opportunity to educate someone about my heritage and myself: "Where are you from?" "Do you speak English at home?" "What religion are you?"

When I was younger, the constant, repetitive questions bothered me; at a time when acceptance was most important, I felt isolated and strange. But as I've matured, I've embraced the things that make me unconventional: wild black hair, exotic facial features, fluency in a mysterious second language.

I've also learned to welcome people's curiosity and use the opportunity to give them a little insight into who I am. The number of people who don't even know where Iran is, much less anything about the country or its people, amazes me.

I've met few who haven't had a previous stereotype of Iranians -- most connote us with terrorism, misogyny, deserts, camels and religious fanaticism. Most are unaware of the genuine hospitality, the zest for life, the love of good food and the strong family ties. I love the satisfaction of introducing someone to another aspect of my culture.

Capturing the Persian spirit in words is difficult; anything short of the full experience doesn't do it justice. Parties are always loud and festive and involve hours of upbeat dancing. Food can only be described as gourmet. Family takes precedence over virtually everything.

Persians are always curious, always looking to gain knowledge about humanity. Perhaps that is the reason I am so eager to learn about others' lives and cultures.

In Iran, an educated individual is held in the highest regard, treated with the utmost respect. Because of the number of potential students (over half of Iran's population was born after the 1979 revolution) and the lack of adequate resources, getting an education is a lofty goal, and those who attain it are revered.

In the past two years, this younger generation, "children of the revolution," began exhibiting opposition to the current oppressive regime through organized, peaceful demonstrations and rallies. At each election, reformists receive an overwhelming majority of votes -- Persians are nothing if not passionate about their cause.

For all the knowledge and positive experiences that come with being Persian, there are an equal number of challenges to face. Maintaining the delicate balance between my Persian side and my American side is a daily struggle. I am fiercely liberal, a trait I attribute to my father's open-mindedness.

Therein lies the conflict between my conservative Iranian background and my freethinking American background.

Also, there are issues with my parents; despite their attempts to be progressive, they retain many traditional values and are at times unaware of the possibilities available to them. Consequently, I have missed some of the American childhood experiences: I never went to camp, or joined Girl Scouts, or took family summer vacations.

Beginning in elementary school, I was always painfully aware of the difference between other kids and myself. I looked different, spoke differently, ate different foods. Shifting from "school-mode" to "home-mode" was and is a daily culture shock.

I used to be too embarrassed to bring my friends home-what if they thought my parents' accents were weird? Or that our food was gross? Again, I gradually learned that those differences make me unique. Incidentally, I tend to make friends with other Asians, because we share something in being from different backgrounds.

As I grow older, I face other challenges. Although my parents have consented to my dating, I still feel a certain amount of apprehension, because it's simply not accepted in our culture. Now that I am beginning the college process, I realize how much my mother doesn't know about the system, and I feel like I'm on my own in making the most important decision of my life.

To keep things in perspective, I remind myself of things my parents offer me, things that American teens rarely acknowledge the value in: appreciation of opportunity, an ambitious Persian work ethic, rich cultural history, value of common sense, respect for authority figures and the sanctity of a romantic bond.

Dealing with the culture lines has made me a more perceptive, observant individual. I feel like I value aspects of both cultures that many people take for granted, because I have perspective from both sides. I would never wish my experiences to be different, as they have collectively taught me the things that make me who I am.

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