Immigrants or exiles?
Identity and Influence among Iranian-Americans
By Haleh Vaziri
January 4, 1999
I approach the subject of Iranian-Americans not from a purely professional
perspective but, perhaps more importantly, from my personal experience
as an American woman of Iranian descent who is continually engaged in the
exciting although at times painful process of identity construction. Surely,
my training as a social scientist assists me in the inter-related tasks
of defining my identity and asserting my influence vis-a-vis Americans
as well as Iranians in and outside of Iran. In fact, my very personal understanding
of these issues is informed by my reading of scholarship; specifically,
I owe intellectual debts to such colleagues as Mehdi Bozorgmehr, Mohammad
Chaichian, Ali Akbar Mahdi, and Hamid Naficy, among others.
However, I will address these issues less as a social scientist and
more as an individual who reflects on the issues at hand. Consequently,
my remarks shall be more preliminary than conclusive, more impressionistic
than scientific, and briefer and more informal in order to solicit maximum
response from you, the audience. I assume that you are here to think about
how you yourselves define your identities and influence vis-a-vis Americans
as well as Iranians both in and outside Iran.
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Specifically, I intend to address four questions: Do Iranians live in
the U.S. as "immigrants" or "exiles"? How do the children
of Iranians relate to their parents' homeland, Iran, and/or the host society,
the U.S.? What influence may those calling themselves "Iranian-American"
have among Iranians, whether in or outside Iran, and/or vis-a-vis other
Americans? Are there spaces for multiple conceptualizations of Iranian-ness
Do Iranians live in the U.S. as "immigrants" or "exiles"?
We lack reliable data on how many Iranians or individuals of at least partial
Iranian descent live in the U.S. During the 1980 and 1990 census, an untold
number of Iranians and individuals of Iranian descent did not admit to
their origins, perhaps fearing that the data would not be kept confidential.
Iranians in the U.S. speak in terms of 1-2 million people, whereas sociologist
Mehdi Bozorgmehr has estimated a more modest 250,000 or so. The figure
ostensibly lies somewhere in between 250,000 and 1 millon. More important
than the number of Iranians living in the U.S. is when they came and how
they perceive themselves -- as "immigrants" or "exiles."
Prior to the "Islamic" revolution of 1978-79, Iranians did
not have a lengthy history of emigration beyond the Asian continent. During
the 1960s and early 1970s, Iranians by the tens and hundreds trickled in
to the U.S. to pursue educational and professional advancement. They settled
in cities and towns located close to colleges, universities, and major
business and industry. For example, my own parents came to the U.S. in
1963, in order that my father pursue his medical sub-speciality of child
and adolescent psychiatry. My parents gave little thought to staying in
Detroit, Michigan where a world-famous psychiatric clinic was then located.
Other Iranians in the metropolitan Detroit area also tend to be the families
of physicians or of engineers who work for the automobile industry.
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Did not choose to be here
In my observation, many of these families remained in the U.S. almost
unintentionally at first -- giving birth to children, enjoying educational
and professional successes, living comfortably, and returning to Iran for
regular visits. Yet eventually, these families watched their children make
American friends, attend American schools, and speak English as their first
and sometimes only language. Some of the Iranians who settled in the U.S.
before the revolution even became naturalized American citizens.
The events of 1978-79 suddenly and unexpectedly accelerated Iranian
emigration. The political repression, socio-economic dislocation, and inter-
state war resulting from the "Islamic" revolution triggered an
out-flux of Iranians to Europe and North America during 1978-79 and the
early to mid-1980s. The majority of Iranians who have come to the U.S.
since the revolution reside in three metropolitan areas -- Los Angeles,
Washington, D.C., and New York.
In conversations with many of these Iranians, both young and old, a
consistent theme emerges: These people feel that they were compelled to
leave their homeland. Although they have pursued personal safety and/or
professional advancement in the U.S., they did not choose to be here. And
even to this day -- twenty years after the revolution, some await their
return to an Iran under another political and socio-economic system, whatever
that may be.
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Before and after 1979
I draw the distinction between the experience of Iranians who arrived
in the U.S. before and after the revolution to answer the question: Do
Iranians reside in the U.S. as "immigrants" or "exiles"?
Arguably, Iranians who came to the U.S. prior to the revolution -- some
of whom have become naturalized U.S. citizens -- are "immigrants."
They left their first homeland -- Iran, the place of their births and childhoods
-- and have chosen, however reluctantly, to stay in the U.S., adopting
this as their second or new homeland. Although these immigrants feel nostalgia
for Iran, they harbor few if any desires to return to their first homeland.
Rather, they tend to adopt a bi-cultural perspective to life, espousing
what they regard as the best in both American and Iranian values. Although
sometimes they are admittedly stuck with the worst of both worlds.
Iranians who arrived in the U.S. after the revolution still live here
more as "exiles." They reject integration into the host American
society, but do not wish to return to their homeland. Yet they regard Iran
as their first and only homeland, keeping alive the desire for return.
Although exile communities inadvertently adapt and adop cultural patterns
from the host society, the U.S. in this case, they resist this process
sometimes vigorously -- clinging to idealized visions of their homeland's
culture, language, and politics. To explain this metaphorically, exiles,
whether Iranians or others living in the U.S., never quite unpack their
suitcases; at least one bag remains packed and always ready for travel
in case the opportunity to return to the homeland presents itself.
Whether immigrants or exiles, many Iranians have been in the U.S. long
enough to find themselves in the position of raising their children who
were born here. This reality inspires my second and third questions which
are inter- related: How do the children of Iranians relate to their parents'
homeland, Iran, and/or the host society, the U.S.? And what influence may
those calling themselves "Iranian-American" have among Iranians,
whether in or outside Iran, and/or vis-a-vis Americans?
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Who are Iranian-Americans?
To analyze the identity construction and influence projection of Iranian-
Americans, we must define who these people are. Iranian-Americans consist
of three groups: (1) Iranian immigrants who have become naturalized U.S.
citizens; (2) individuals who are of mixed parentage -- both Iranian and
American; and (3) the descendants of Iranians residing in the U.S.
I am among this last group of people and, thus, shall focus on them.
Yet. I do not typify the first generation of Americans of Iranian descent
-- what social scientists have referred to rather confusingly as "the
first and a half generation" or the "second generation."
Why am I atypical of this last group? Mostly due to my age. In fact, Americans
of Iranian descent my own age -- thirty somethings -- are rare, precisely
because few Iranians came to the U.S. prior the revolution. The typical
child of Iranian parents in the U.S. is not a thirty-something but, at
the very oldest, a twenty-something. Most such children are growing up
now, approaching adolescence.
Unlike these young children and adolescents, Iranian-Americans of my
own generation felt the reverberation of the "Islamic" revolution
as teenagers living here in the U.S. -- witnessing the varied responses
of our parents to this event and experiencing the anti-Iranian prejudices
evoked by the American hostage crisis. Indeed, the politics of the revolution
and of U.S.-Iran relations stimulated my own reflections about how to define
my identity and project my influence vis-a-vis Iranians and Americans.
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Nationality & citizenship
During my teenage years and even more so as a young adult, I have sought
to resolve the question of how to relate to Iran and Iranians, on the one
hand, and/or to the U.S. and Americans, on the other. I asked myself questions
such as: What about my lifestyle and personality is Iranian or, for that
matter, American? In which language do I feel most comfortable expressing
myself -- English or Persian? (I suppose the answer to this last question
is obvious!) Can I understand the experience of Iranians who have come
to the U.S. after the revolution? Can I relate entirely to Americans of
European and/or other heritage?
These are not easy questions to answer and still persist in my mind.
These questions point to the most difficult but exciting one: Who am I?
At least for the time being, I have answered this largest existential question
by identifying myself as a women of Iranian nationality and American citizenship.
What is the difference between "nationality" and "citizenship"?
Nationality is defined by cultural, linguistic, and, ultimately, racial
traits -- one's blood lineage. I have Iranian parents; hence, I am an Iranian
However, I would caution against over-emphasizing nationality per se
and its racial quality in particular. Iranians of various ideological stripes
-- but particularly those who harken back to the glories of empire and
monarchy -- have constructed the myth of a "pure" Iranian nationality,
directly traced to the ancient Aryan race. While historical links may exist,
this myth grossly over-simplifies Iran's history of conquest, invasion,
and migration over two millennia. An emphasis on "race" or lineage
runs the risk of essentializing Iranian identity. Yet identity, like culture,
is not a fixed essence, but rather a process of becoming.
Citizenship, at least in theory, is not an issue of race or lineage.
By contrast, citizenship consists of one's rights, roles, and responsibilities
to the society in which s/he lives. I was born and raised in the U.S.,
continue to live here, and, thus, may be more effective as an actor in
this society. As an American of Iranian descent, I not only enjoy certain
rights -- whether I define these as basic human rights or rights expressed
in the U.S. constitution. I also feel a profound sense of responsibility
toward this society. And despite the prejudice that I have occasionally
encountered as an American of non-European heritage, I feel that I can
be an effective actor and even an agent of change in this society.
For instance, my very background has inspired me to dispel mutually-destructive
stereotypes among Iranians and Americans. Yet because I live here among
Americans of primarily European heritage, I have more opportunity to correct
misperceptions about non-European people and especially about Arabs, Iranians,
and other Muslims. I feel charged with the responsibility of eradicating
prejudice and discrimination, particularly among Americans of European
descent, in both my personal and professional endeavors. More significantly,
I can be effective in undertaking this responsibility precisely because
I am an American citizen who has an excellent command of the English language
and of the credo on which this society claims to be based -- freedom and
fairness for all under the rule of law.
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I should digress to confess that when I first composed the outline for
these remarks, I conceptualized the projection of influence by Iranian-Americans
in macro-political terms. I sought to explain how those of us who are Iranian-
Americans shape the political realities of Iranians, whether in or outside
Iran, and of Americans. I gradually had to re-consider such grand thoughts
because I was struck by the realization that projecting one's influence
is a more immediate and intimate matter -- how does one alter, even improve,
the political reality of those closest to you; those whom you feel you
can reach. Dispelling prejudice is a starting point in this regard but
does not exclude the possibility that Iranian-Americans may seek wider
influence on events, whether in Iran or the U.S.
Yet those of U.S. who are Iranian-Americans should resist the temptation
to define our influence only in relation to macro-political developments
such as the future of U.S.-Iran relations or the emergence of civil society
inside Iran, lest we quickly feel ineffective. Nor should we fall into
the trap of under-estimating our impact; we are not marginal by any stretch
of the imagination. Rather, we must measure and balance where -- vis-a-vis
which communities -- we may be most efficacious.
I have offered merely vignettes from my own experience with identity
construction and influence projection. I do not presume to nor can I predict
how the children of Iranian parents who are growing up here now will relate
to Iran and Iranians and/or to the U.S. and Americans. Moreover, I am unaware
of research that addresses this question. On the one hand, these children
may not feel the compulsion to search for their identities in the way thirty-
somethings like us experienced, because political events in their parents'
homeland may seem distant even irrelevant. On the other hand, those children
of Iranian parents who live in major metropolitan areas may benefit from
attending organized Persian language classes and socializing with others
like themselves in sizable ethnic communities -- opportunities I lacked
growing up in suburban Detroit. This new crop of Iranian-Americans may
find their identities less as a result of crisis and compulsion and more
as a consequence of these wonderful opportunities presented to them. Well,
at least I hope so.
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Iranian-ness AND American-ness
I must conclude by answering my fourth question enthusiastically and
affirmatively: Are there spaces for multiple conceptualizations of Iranian-ness
and American-ness? Yes, absolutely. Most Iranians that I know did not expect
to be residing in the U.S. for more than a few years; they still express
an understandable reluctance to embrace fully the host society. Yet the
children of Iranians born here have little if any tangible experience of
Iran as a society. To expect them to embrace Iran and Iranian culture as
their parents do is not only unrealistic but unfair. Conversely, to allow
them to abandon completely their heritage would be a huge loss. I do not
presume to tell Iranian parents how to raise these children, for I have
no experience in this task. Nor am I willing to tell Iranian-Americans
how and where they should assert their influence. I can only offer my experience
as the child of Iranian immigrants who eventually embraced the notion that
I could have influence on others -- particularly on Americans but also
on Iranians, mostly but not exclusively in the U.S.
However, I am hopeful that the teenage and twenty-something children
of Iranian parents in the U.S. might maximize the opportunities given to
them to serve in the unique although sometimes awkward position of bridging
two cultures. Rather than merely assimilating into the so-called "melting
pot" of a diluted yet hegemonic white, European culture in American
society, these children (along with others of recent immigrants) can design
a new model of relating to both their parents' homeland, Iran, and their
own homeland, the U.S. These young people will enjoy the rights of other
U.S. citizens and may also be effective agents of change -- contributing
to American society as producers and consumers of a syncretic culture and
politics informed by their self-perceptions and understandings of the world
I shall end by acknowledging that I have probably raised more questions
than the first four I outlined. And I have offered somewhat tentative answers
to these first four. I hope, that I have stimulated your thinking about
the inter-related issues of identity construction and influence projection.
I feel that my very presence here is evidence -- albeit unscientific --
that there are spaces for multiple conceptualizations of Iranian-ness and
American- ness. We must carve out those spaces and empower our children
to do as well.
About the author
Haleh Vaziri has her doctorate in comparative and international politics
from Georgetown University's Department of Government. Her research interests
include Middle East politics and the movement for women's human rights.
The above is an excerpt from an address delivered in Washington, D.C. on
December 20th, 1998. (Back to top)