Beyond culture and race
I don't remember much, perhaps because it was long ago, more likely because I chose long ago not to remember. To a child, the world is new and strange, and often senseless. What you can not understand, you can not compartmentalize in order to file away in your memory. So you forget. What remains now, are vague memories, some almost dreamlike in quality so that I do not know if they are actually real, or remembered scenes from a movie or story. Others are vivid and accurate, if not in their proximity to the actual events, then in their power to mimic the same emotions they evoked years prior, though those emotions are now filtered through an adult mind and psyche, and no longer carry with them a sense of helplessness and shame.
From Iran, I have few memories, though the events they recall are those which I most clearly understood as a child. They fit into the world as I knew it, and required little or no explanation from an adult, inspired no sense of wonder and awe from the small child that I was then. Eating spaghetti with my grandmother and discovering for the first time the joys of black pepper and its transforming effects on the most simplest dish ... being woken in the middle of night by mother to go into the basement where she had prepared saalad olivieh sandwiches ... a birthday party and my brother stealing away all of my friends to play an invented game ... hearing jingling bells and running to the window to watch the tall camels as they went past ... men on the streets with guns ... a restaurant, eating kabob with my family and my parents encouraging me to play "the quiet game" to see if I could refrain from talking or giggling for just a moment ... large "X"s taped to the windows in time of war ... a beautiful new house with a swimming pool which eventually we had to leave behind ...
After we left Iran, the events in my life grew much more obscure and confusing to me. The memories of that time are the ones which are most unclear, as even while the events occurred I knew not how to understand and make sense of them, and therefore today, I remember them in essence only. When we left Iran, it was the time of the hostage crisis and my mother had warned me not to let anyone know that I was from Iran. Clearly, this was for my own protection. She feared that I would be the object of enmity among my classmates were they know that I was one of the "enemy." I wonder now if it would have made any difference to the other third-graders. Regardless, I followed her instructions.
I would not be from Iran, but then where? She had neglected to tell me what I should say. It was clear I was not American, especially among the white, blue-eyed and blond-haired children of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A girl in my class who had my dark coloring, and foreign features was from somewhere in South America. I decided that I too would be from there, though I knew nothing of it, not even where it was. I had a secret I did not even know how to keep or defend. Maybe it meant I could not get close to anyone, lest my secret be discovered.
Language was a problem, though I'd studied some English at school in Iran. I remember going out to play a game in gym class, maybe softball, or kickball, and the sting of the teacher's condescending look and tone. "Don' t you know what bases are?!" she had asked. No, I didn't, and was it not her job to teach?
On the bus home from school someone had asked my cousin if he was my relative. We got off at the same bus stop, went to the same house, so it would have been a fair assumption. My cousin had answered no, but I didn't know what "relative" meant, though I had a suspicion. When I later discovered the meaning of the word, I felt that my cousin had been embarrassed of me, maybe because I did not speak English well? I didn't know for sure and still don't, but it was the only conclusion I could draw at the time.
Eventually, I assimilated into my surroundings. I had been young after all, when we had come to the United States, and adjusting was easier for me, I'm sure, than it has been for many. But it took time to no longer feel that I had something to hide, and to finally feel proud of who I was, and actually enjoy the fact that I was not like everyone else. I must have been shy, reserved, for I had kept all of my confusion and shame inside. My parents, who have always been supportive, would have been eager to help, had they been aware of a problem, though I'm sure for them, the adjustment was more difficult and they must have been preoccupied and burdened.
Today, ironically, I teach English at a high school for at-risk students. Despite their troubles, and what may be construed by society as their academic and social failures, my students are quick to stand up for who they are, quick to defend themselves against any attack, whether blatant or subtle. They have, at such a young age, a sense of confidence that I have only acquired in recent years. Some of their confidence and assurance stems from sources that are not so positive, however. They are confident of their ethnic identity often because they live in a community which consists mainly of their own, and they feel the strength and security of numbers, though they are isolated in a way, and sheltered from diversity. They are in gangs with members only of their own ethnicity, and from this they gain a sense of family and identity and confidence.
At lunch the Mexicans sit together, the Filipinos together, the Samoans together, and so on. Their courage and assurance is admirable, but not always manifested in the most productive ways. They will not be put down by anyone. So they stand up to others, whether the others are students, parents, or figures of authority. They can curse almost as easily at an adult as they can at a peer. They are quick to fight when they feel that they have been insulted or disrespected. They know to stand up for themselves, but not exactly how to do it.
To me, their reactions have become predictable, their sense of ethnic identity almost meaningless. To each person, there are many facets, multitudes of dimensions of personality and character. Culture or race is just one of many factors that defines us and our lives. I believe that it is not enough then to instill a sense of confidence that stems purely from one's ethnic identity, or from any other single entity. Fostering a sense of respect for one's self as an whole individual may eradicate the conditioned responses I see in my students, and may be the only way to teach that ultimately, one must look to him/herself for self-confidence.
Perhaps if young people had adult role models, and guides to support and encourage them for who they are, they would not turn to gangs for a sense of confidence, they would not need to exclude themselves from diversity by isolating themselves in ethnic enclaves for support and validation. Perhaps if teachers were truly teachers, caring and supportive, students would feel proud of themselves and their accomplishments and not turn to other places for support. Perhaps others who are experiencing the same feelings of displacement and helplessness that I felt as a child would feel secure enough to stand up for themselves, or at least to questions and share their experiences, in order to understand them.
If every adult could work to teach children to value themselves for who they are, rather than to look to outside factors for a sense of worth, perhaps today's youth will have the confidence to grow to be the same type of role models and caretakers we wish we had had as children.
This article first appeared in Iranian Heritage magazine. Reprinted with author's permission.
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