Cucumbers & tomatoes
Becoming a part of the societal salad bowl
April 22, 1999
Matters of immigration and dealing with that proverbial unopened suitcase
are intensely personal matters. I appreciate and enjoyed very much Haleh
Vaziri's insightful and intelligent disquisition on the subject ["Immigrants
or exiles"]. She promised to tell a story and did so convincingly,
in large part because she spoke from first hand personal knowledge and
experience and not mere hearsay. Ms. Vaziri's essay and an earlier broad
enquiry in regard to similar issues by Masood
Rad sent this writer in the search of the time when he discarded the
second suitcase altogether for the sake of a more manageable and portable
Because of the psycho-chemistry of transplantation, no immigrant ever
melts in the pot. Many take the dive and try, for whatever reason, but
only manage to dissolve partially before they become unconsciously defensive
just like that nasty stubborn lump which refuses to become a part of the
gravy for fear of losing it all. Even if one wished and willed to lose
one's earlier identity, there may not be acceptance by the pot itself.
The experience is not exclusively Iranian. This morning, a gentleman
in his fifties, with a very thick Italian accent, was encouraging his son
to move the ball up the soccer field. I know, he has been here since the
age of seven and last summer he went home, as he put it; his son called
the trip vacation. A similar vignette occurs daily with Irish, Russian,
Chinese, and other nationalities represented in my neighborhood.
The yearning to go back is primal and has little to do with a specific
culture or nationality. The "going back" itself takes different
forms, not all equally satisfying -- a visit, a longer visit, relocation,
or may be even being buried there. Where a geographical return is not possible
or unlikely, the Iranian surrounds oneself with all things and relations
Iranian, creating a cultural island where Iranian values are practiced.
Nothing is wrong with that.
The magnetism of the Iranian culture or one's ancestory also has very
little to do with prohibiting one from accepting the immigrant life-style.
That reluctance to assume an immigrant life-style, whatever that term means,
is deeply personal and relates directly to reasons why the immigrant arrived
in the host country in the first place. The ones arriving here for economic
reasons, do adapt to the life-style and move on. The ones who feel marooned
here bide their time to return to a promise never fulfilled, be it a rewarding
career, former possessions, or position. To them the immigrant life-style
smacks of selling-out. There is nothing wrong with that either. To each
As a general proposition, however, the best an immigrant does is to
become a part of the societal salad bowl, retaining for the most part one's
ethnic identity, while associating oneslef with others in endeavors induced
by the shared environment. The reason for this is no different than the
one governing similar situations confronted by a provincial character appearing
at the capital city, or the urbanite moving to the rural areas, or from
one neighborhood to another, from one family into another. The beauty of
being in the bowl is that one need not divorce oneself completely from
the land where one was born.
The assimilation process which begins with the first arrival ends eventually
with the arrival of the first, an offspring born in the new environment.
Despite all parental efforts and directions to the contrary, the environment
claims the child as its own. That child is born not on the cultural island
which the parents have carved out, but rather he is born in the melting
pot. Mom and dad remain forever pieces of cucumber, tomato, or a lump,
providing the child's first brush with an incomprehensible nostalgia.
Guive Mirfendereski is an international lawyer and adjunct professor
of law at Brandeis University.
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