Have you ever had a night when you just cried? Not because anything bad happened, not because of pain, anger or grief. Have you ever had a night when you just felt overwhelmed but unable to identify the source? A night when a couple of tears fell but you couldn't exactly trace their origins? Tonight was one of those nights for me.
I sat in my empty living room and a million disconnected thoughts entered my mind. I thought about work, Christmas, snow, computers, babies, Isfahan, God, brownies and cats. Then all of a sudden my face was wet. My first reaction was surprise, followed by relief that I was actually alone. I couldn't imagine trying to explain what was going on to anyone. That's when I attempted to explain it to myself.
For one brief minute, I just felt overwhelmed. The images on television selling cars, cell phones, cheap diamond rings, toothpaste, paper towels and cheeseburgers just got to me. They projected a level of satisfaction and happiness that caused my system's 'Fake Alarm' to go off blasting. It was just too much. Another credit card offering more ways to spend imaginary money that you don't have. Another gift that will guarantee you the affection of whoever you give it to. More products, more things to buy, more junk that adds up, more symbols of success and achievement. Then, my mind drifted far away to a place totally disconnected from this intense media culture.
I think that is when it happened. Maybe I cried because I was lonely; because the house is really quiet and I'm cold. Maybe I cried because I wished I was with my family in Iran instead of home alone in San Diego. I'm still not sure. The only certainty is that I started to compare again. Here versus there; outside versus inside; “kharej” versus Iran.
This comparison is something very familiar to me, to the extent that it forms a part of my identity. I do it because I have no choice. I can't help it. Perhaps it is my way of sorting through my life and trying to organize and make sense out of it. Am I happier here in the US or back in Iran? Will I ever be able to live in Iran again? Will I be satisfied living the rest of my life in the States? I tried to remember how I felt when I was in Iran and compare that to my current feelings.
One thing that is clear to me is that the “grass is indeed always greener on the other lawn”. When I was in Iran last summer, I wasn't 100% satisfied either. In fact, there were a number of things that irritated me; one of them the TV. I felt annoyed that there were only five TV stations and that they each devoted countless hours showing natural landscape and flower videos with Iranian Musak playing in the background.
Then I went through a stage of discovery and disapproval. Next, it was ultimate desperation. In this stage, I actually sat down and watched wrestling, volleyball and marriage counseling. The scary part is that I was actually beginning to get into it! By the end of those two months, I even found myself laughing hysterically to the “Golchin” comedy show, which I had originally found to be a 'joke'.
Anyway, my trip to Iran was full of traveling so I didn't actually spend two months in front of the television, but I did gain a new perspective. Televison formed too big of a part of western life. The television in Iran was awful but it didn't matter because no one sat in front of it all day long. Instead people spend their free time visiting family and friends, reading the papers, strolling the city and just simply living.
As time went by I became more and more accustomed to my new surroundings but some things remained unchanged. Everywhere I went, I felt the unspoken vibes that separated me from the local people my age. They too, were making comparisons between themselves and this “khareji”. We each silently measured our lives against that of the other. Who was luckier? Who was richer? Who was freer? Who was happier?
From the conversations I had with a few people, I began to see their perception of my life. One girl sighed and told me how lucky I was when she saw a picture of the surprise birthday party my roommate had thrown for me back in our freshman year of college. I didn't understand why, until I followed her eyes and saw the back of a guy's head in the photo.
The questions that some asked me also shed light inside their thoughts. “So, you work?… You lived alone?…. Do you go to a co-ed gym?… Why not?… Nice sneakers… How much do they cost?… Wow… You spent 80,000 toumans for those? How much money do you make? My dad doesn't make that in a month!”
I could slowly see myself through different eyes. A lucky girl who has independence, financial and personal freedom, access to the latest technology, unlimited opportunity and a fun luxurious life that she takes for granted.
Maybe they were right in some areas. It's true that having the opportunity to study and work is an advantage. Personal freedom is an advantage. There are many advantages to living abroad but none of them come for free. There is a high price that is paid for them, and many sacrifices are made.
Getting married, having children, and establishing a strong family unit often get lost in the pursuit of success. Even our palaces turn into prisons when we become lost in the crowd and lose the source of our emotional fulfillment. Even if one has everything, there is rarely time to enjoy any of it.
Families spread out across state lines and email takes the place of surprise visits. Instead of heart to hearts with neighbors and friends, we have to pay $200/hr to have someone listen to our problems. These are all costs of a successful life abroad which are not easily recognized by the wishful eyes of those looking in on it from the outside.
What the girls I met couldn't see, was that I felt like an infant inside my own hometown. They failed to see that I couldn't even cross the street without grabbing someone's arm and I had no idea how to get to anywhere alone. They couldn't see that I had lost a great piece of my identity when I left Iran and that with each trip I attempted to gain some of it back. They couldn't see how I searched through them for traces of who I might have become had I never left.
I admired them. Those Iranian girls who manage to look beautiful even when covered from head to toe. Those girls with the sharp tongues that have a quick comeback for every situation. I envied their strength, their confidence and their comfort in an environment where I lacked all three. In their presence, I didn't feel privileged or liberated. I felt awkward and out of my element.
I was impressed by the authority they carried. These women were not the oppressed, backward and abused victims of the third world that people abroad associate with Iran or Islamic women. They are over half of the university students, professionals in the work force, cultural leaders and an unsuspected reserve of force for Iran's future.
I was jealous of them and they were jealous of me. I had bent over backwards to come to Iran and they were itching to leave. I craved real chelo-kabab and “tolab” ice cream while they dreamed of MTV and NYC. I was tired of living a robotic life where you study to get a job to make money to pay for things that you won't have time to enjoy. They were tired of sitting at home, with no entertainment, no job market, and dim hope for their future. Would we find our happiness if we just switched places? My guess is that we would not.
Those of us who have lived a major part of our lives abroad crave the simplicity and warmth of our homeland. Although the majority of Iranians abroad are well-educated and accomplished individuals, few are free from homesickness or better put “deltangi”. We might have big beautiful homes, nice cars and lots of gadgets but it is precisely what we 'don't' have that links us together.
The culture of Iranians abroad lives on memories of the past and clings desperately to conserving the traditions carried over. It is a great love story with a different twist for each person. Some have burned all their bridges, others reignite the fire from time to time, while still others sit and wait by the phone.
What is true about almost all Iranians outside of Iran is that they want to go back. If not permanently, at least for part of the year. Being far away from our home has given us many comforts, but most of us don't have a full heart to enjoy them. We long to be reunited with that piece of our heart, even if we have to sacrifice some of our new-found comforts to get there.
For many Iranians the sentiments are reversed. Being born and raised in Iran, they don't share our enthusiasm for the daily routine Iranian-style. The economic and social pressures weigh on them every day and the years add on more quickly. Therefore, it is only natural that when they see one of their 'hamvatans' visiting from far away, they feel some resentment and jealousy.
The resentment is because often times the visiting Iranian gives opinion and advice in relations to politics and social reforms without being neither qualified to assess the situation in the course of his brief visit nor willing to stay long enough to feel the consequences of his recommendations.
A great example of one such group comes from a Los Angeles based television program that reaches Iran via satellite. In this ridiculous program, which I accidentally saw one evening, the gentleman was directing his speech to Iran's youth. He was calling on them to rise up and take to the streets and overthrow the government. He spoke with great enthusiasm and backed up his every point of argument with a handful of swears and name-calling. Most interesting to me was that he had the audacity to speak of courage while he sat in his Amir designer suit in sunny California, a half-world's distance from where he proposed bloodshed.
I wondered why he didn't exercise the courage he spoke of to get on a plane and march in the front line of the revolt he was trying to stir? Fortunately, this miserable and cowardly old man and those who support him, do not represent the entire Iranian community abroad. However the notion of handing down directives from abroad without risking ones own skin has created a slight feeling of resentment, especially among Iran's youth and those who are daily participants in the efforts to bring about reform.
The feeling of jealousy is also easy to understand. Iran is one of he world's youngest countries. Freedom of expression, education and opportunity to build one's future dominate the minds of the majority of the country. Through the Internet, they are exposed to, and can to a certain extent experience what had previously been beyond their reach. So, the question becomes; Why not me?
Competition in Iran is fierce and the struggles are daily. Education is not taken for granted and those who have the opportunity, apply themselves with a hunger unknown to many who are far more fortunate. It is therefore natural that they feel envious of those whose lives differ a great deal from theirs, simply because they had access to doors that are locked for so many. In their eyes, the economic and personal advantages to a life abroad surpass the realities of one in Iran and they would jump at a chance to test their fate.
These situations, I believe are two sides of the same coin and part of a cycle that repeats itself. As in any case there are exceptions. I have seen homes in Tehran that would put Beverly Hills in the kiddy pool. What I have discussed does not imply to them. Those who have it all and live it up, wether in Iran or elsewhere have their own issues to deal with.
For the rest of us, however, life is a balancing act. Finding our equilibrium is not an un-achievable task. It requires some soul searching to find out what makes us happy and what we are willing to sacrifice to obtain that happiness. Without a doubt, it requires letting go of some elements of our lives to embrace others.
The outcome won't always be a drastic one. Not everyone will move back to Iran, but everyone can add Iran to their lives. We do that every time we choose to speak Farsi. I know it won't get rid of our “deltangi” completely but it might help us make sense out of unexpected tears.