Every Iranian-American is ethnocentric. It is inherent in us to be proud of our rich history, people and culture. We have read Sadi, Hafiz and the Legend of Siyavash. We can talk at length about the Persian Empire, Mossadegh and Shah Pahlavi.
We know how much our families sacrificed after the revolution, the one that led to a lost generation. A generation striving to give back to its families what was stolen from them. To recreate the missing ‘thing’ our parents yearn for.
Why then, can we not answer, with ease, that one simple question… where are you from?
For years I called myself Persian. Those in the know understood the reference was to Iran and were knowledgeable enough to embark on a conversation without putting me on the defensive. But the majority looked confused and ended the conversation with an arrogant smirk.
In my early twenties, I rebelled and for shock value, tested the ‘I am American’ card. Yes, that’s right, from the good old United States of America. The US is a so-called melting pot, a land that embraces immigration, multiculturalism and seeks to celebrate differences. Or is it? The follow-up question that comes only seconds after my reply is the infamous: ‘I meant originally.’ Oh yes, of course…
Where did I go wrong? Was it the fact that I have an American accent, education and citizenship? Yet, with my dark hair and eyes, my occasional display of so-called ethnic jewelry, and my Ipod playing Googoosh, there is obviously no way I can be American.
Having pressed on with this tactic for a couple of years, I made a conscious attempt to understand how people defined a race? Was it culture, mannerisms, language, or physical appearances. The latter won! I could not be an American; I simply failed in that gene pool. Rhetoric was the name of the game.
The struggle did not end there. During my undergrad days, my American ex-boyfriend, refused to accept that I was Persian, Iranian or anything that sounded remotely similar. “Yes, Maryam you may have been born there, but you have lived in America your entire life. You speak, dress and act like an American.” To him, it was that simple. He believed my reference to being a Persian woman was some way of highlighting superiority, exoticism and defining cultural values lacking in a society obsessed with individualism. I think the strength of my culture and the pride in my people scared him, made him feel different; made him question himself, his origins and his state.
So, when did I ‘become’ Iranian? It was when I let go of all the above. I let down my guard, threw away my defenses and just said it: I am Iranian. Period.
The reactions have been multifold, often depending on whom I am speaking with or in what country the question is being asked. In London, where I lived and worked for four years, I found much less hostility — funny enough, being ‘American’ was what most Brits came down on. Europeans were generally familiar with Iran’s history, pre and post revolution, and were intrigued to learn more about my actual experience.
Having recently returned to the United States, namely the county’s capital, the obsession with ethnicity has unmasked itself yet again. Rather than asking about my origins as a means of opening the door to an enlightened conversation, I am yet again in the witness box, being sized. Despite this, I keep my head up high. I look into the eyes of those who wonder what the far away land holds, not understanding how I can be so American, and yet simultaneously so Iranian. I look at them knowing that the values I have from both cultures make me who I am. The blend of east and west, berenj and burgers, coca cola and dogh-they intermingle to form the Iranian-American. Another character in the world play.
The lost generation cannot bring back what our parents lost, but we can seek to ensure, that alongside embracing western values and freedoms, we hold on to our history. A melting pot simmers us to a uniform substance, tasteless and lacking in creativity. A truly courageous society is one that softly sifts the ingredients to create a colorful medley bringing together lessons to build generations on.
So, where are you from?
Note I am not trying to say in this article that I am only Iranian. I am aware and proud of my American-ness as well. Some people have written suggesting that in order to make my life easier I should consider changing my name to Mary or living in Iran. I find these suggestions strange and completely against the objective in which I wrote the article. I am happy with my given name and a proponent of living in America, or anywhere one wishes to. To make it clear, I don't think there is anything wrong with using that title Persian, Iranian or American. The reactions I observe when I state I am 'Iranian' have been very mixed, and are not always positive. However, despite these reactions, we should be proud of being Iranian, Persian, American-whatever it is we see ourselves as. That is my point.