Nema Milaninia's article, “Being born again“, hit some nerves with me. Nerves that run deep and that I am apprehensive to write about right now because I feel as though I have not fully thought everything out and I don't want to write emotional rantings. Oh well, here it goes.
I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and raised in California. I've lived in Los Angeles suburbs most of my life but have been attending UCLA. Before the LA-Iranian assumptions start running rampant, hear my family history.
My mother is a Sindi from Pakistan, her grandmother was a Pashtun from Afghanistan. My father… well, that's a bit tough. So, let me go back a few generations on my father's side. My father's paternal grandparents were from Behbahan, Iran, and maternal grandparents were from Shiraz, Iran. In the odd twists of history, my father's parents and their families landed up in Burma (Myanmar). In fact, my father's paternal grandmother was of a Burmese/Iranian mixture.
Eventually, from Burma, the family migrated to Pakistan, then to Bangladesh (where my father was born) and ultimately, my grandparents returned to Iran with my father and his two younger brothers.
My father often expresses a deep interest in returning to Tehran to see if the city he remembers still remains; but although unspoken, his memories of Iran are laced with a sense of bitterness. …………………………… Norooz event? Annouce it!
The rejections I have experienced from Iranians in the US, my father felt in Iran as well. I don't think my dad was ever called a walking disgrace to Iranians like I was, but it was always made clear to him that he was not welcome, no matter how perfectly he spoke Persian or tried to assimilate. And so, even though my father made some very close friends in Iran, most Iranians never accepted him.
I can't imagine how that must feel: to return to one's ancestral homeland, only to find that your cultural brethren shut the door in your face. My father has never forgotten or denied the blood that flows in his veins is Iranian, but except for a few close Iranian friends, he has done his best to stay away from the general community that caused him pain he would never admit to.
So, things became somewhat complicated for me when I decided to explore the construction of my own cultural identity. My affinity cannot be completely the same as my parents because my experiences have been so different, but it is not a purely American construction either. Right now, I'm at a point where I am completely comfortable saying that I am a concoction of Pakistan, Iran and America. The question is, what does that mean in practice?
When the earthquake in Bam, I reacted as a humanitarian but the fact that it was Iran gave greater impetus for fast action. But, ironically, the fundraising efforts forced me into situations I've always avoided: namely, Iranian community events where everyone would speak Persian to me and my limited vocabulary would give me away. And every time I get out of a situation like that, I curse myself for not being completely fluent in Persian already, or for that matter, Urdu.
It's okay though because I know I will get there. It won't happen by next week, but I've made great improvements towards a goal which I believe is becoming a fundamental construction of my identity. I just don't understand why I have been condemned by my past: circumstances have it that I was not exposed to either language as much as I would like to have been. But people never seem to recognize my efforts to embrace both languages and achieve my goal of fluency.
I don't know what it means to be Iranian or Pakistani to you or the next person and I will never pretend to know what it is like to have grown up or lived in Iran or Pakistan. But that is not my concern. What does concern me are the values and customs that I share with someone: an engrained tendency for respect and even stronger compulsion for family, generosity and awareness of others, learning of your ancestral past and feeling pride without being ethnocentric…
One thing I have learned is that by simple virtue of having an Iranian or Pakistani background, I cannot assume that these values always exist.
And so, I don't fit the mold of being an Iranian or a Pakistani — if there is one. And slowly, I am becoming okay with that because I am learning to fit into my own ideas of an Iranian and Pakistani raised in America. There will be others from both the Iranian and Pakistani communities who will tell me I am a-cultural or a disgrace no matter how beautifully I can recite Hafez or speak Urdu.
But I dare anyone to try and tell me what I am not when so much of what I am becoming and aspire for rests with the very countries I supposedly do not belong to.