It was more than 35 years ago when I entered the United States for the first time, a non-stop flight from Tehran to New York City by Iran Air. I carried a big orange suitcase in my right hand full of stuff including half a dozen hand-made shorts packed into the suitcase by my mother, as if I was going to a shortless country, an English-Persian dictionary in my left hand, $2100 in my pocket, and a burning desire to succeed in my heart.
Tehran and a couple of other Iranian cities were the only places I had traveled to before coming to the United States. I was acting like a nincompoop, bewildered and baffled. Any observer can surmise from my behavior that I was not a regular tourist. I felt like a functionary who was dispatched to an unknown territory for a really important mission.
Even though the main reason to come to the US was the continuation of my education, I have to admit that curiosity was also a determining factor. I believe curiosity is a constructive attribute of the Iranian people who are renowned for seeking knowledge from cradle to grave! I believed that when you study in another country, you are more affirmative on your resolve to succeed and had a greater chance of attaining better academic credentials.
As you guessed correctly, things were much different those days. To give you some ideas; Richard Nixon was the president, Cold War was a hot topic, the expression “safe sex” had a totally different connotation, body piercing was not the only way to express yourself, Chevy Vega was the only compact fuel efficient American car, Cher was still married to Sonny, Adam Smith was more famous than Anna Nicole Smith, the hottest show on TV was “All in the Family”, holidays were mostly holydays, the only famous Paris Hilton was Hilton Paris, no need to remind people to turn off their cell phones, obesity was not a troubling issue for this nation, the most likely reason why Monica (Lewinsky) would crawl under a desk was to find her missing toys!, punch card machines were the state of the art data processing apparatus, Crisco not Cisco was the rising star of Wall Street, you still let your fingers do the walking, and most importantly the rate of exchange between US dollar and Rial was about 1 to 75. The only thing that hasn’t change is that kitchen cabinets do still come with Lazy Suzan!
Because of lack of experience and/or sheer ignorance, we, the new comers, made often serious mistake much to the chagrin of those who came to this country before us and used to think that they are our chaperon. For instance; entering a store from exit door or exiting from the entry door, eating food with spoon in school’s cafeteria, reusing disposable items, or worst of them walking in dormitory’s hallway in our pajama. All these were considered indefensible crimes that only the naïve newcomers like me would commit.
For me who had never been to any foreign country before, coming to the US was really a big deal. I was more anxious than being excited at the same time. In my simplistic mind, I had a black and white image of America. I thought America was a huge land mainly occupied by houses and smoke-emitting factories and most of its areas is brackish land dusty and arid, and people mostly cowboys, rough and unfriendly with skewed attitudes toward foreigners. Inadequate knowledge of the popular culture of this country and the norms of its society made everything odd and unusual for me at the beginning.
I was very careful not to engage in any embarrassing behavior. I did not want to do something which may be indicative of my backwardness or be interpreted as lack of respect for others. Inadequate knowledge of the popular culture of this country often resulted in misinterpretation of the behavior of others toward me. For example if someone had a smile on his/her face while approaching me, I told myself that this person must like the foreigners especially me and I amused myself with this thought that I am indeed very popular. I could not remotely think that Americans are naturally cheerful. Even if sad things happen to them, they don’t lose their sense of restraint and humor. In other words, they take things easy.
First, I thought that the evident gap between the American Culture and the Iranian culture my create a problem for me. Then I realized that there is nothing like exclusive American culture. American nation is an amalgamation of different people that migrated to this great land gradually and brought their cultures with them. These people make up the different patches of this beautiful well designed national quilt heterogeneous and full of colors. I had no choice but to became another piece of this magnificent quilt and assimilated into the American culture so to speak. Sometimes, I thought I felt like being a thick strand of a threat that was forced through the tight hole of a needle.
Gradually, my resisting power grew weaker in confrontation with the irresistible longing for hedonistic American culture. Soon, ab was changed to water and noon to bread, I ate soup instead of aash and chicken broth instead of abgoosht, salam was changed to hello, and tonboon to jean. Nevertheless, a feeling of homesickness was irritating me from inside. I was losing my Iranianness!
I was always looking for the things that have a trace of home to fill out the vacuum that was created by loneliness. When I saw a person resembling an Iranian, I talked to myself loudly in Farsi or whistle a famous Farsi tune to capture his attention. However, because of bad chuck, the person turned out to be Mexican, Creek, or Arab making me disappointed. These people, some of whom were even more confused that I was, provided me with a little relief knowing that I was not the only stranger in this country.
The other techniques I used to grab the attention of the Iranian-look-alikes did not produce any tangible results either. However, the sad realization that it was really difficult to find other Iranians had never weakened my determination. I felt that it was not really comfortable to associate always with Americans. I wished to find a few Iranians, especially from my home town, to chat and to talk about things we shared.
My bigger concern, however, was to be forced into the vicious state of indigence if I run out of money. Even though, I was not supposed to work for money, I tried to find legal loopholes in immigration laws. I resorted to every possible means to find a safe and gainful employment. I also thought that I could strengthen my English language, especially my conversional ability, by working and dealing with other people.
I am pretty sure that the official minimum wage rate was $1.60 those days, equivalent to $7.45 in today’s prices. When I multiplied this number by 75, it was 120 Rials per hour or 960 Rials per day. For me who was used to the living on forty to fifty Rials per day back home, this was a huge amount giving me an additional motive to work.
The best way to find a job back then days was through the classified ads in local newspapers, sorry careerbuilder.com! I checked the local newspapers everyday in our school’s library to find a suitable job. One day the following advertisement caught my attention; wanted, an energetic young man to work in a local zoo, English proficiency and experience are not necessary.
It seemed it was an ideal position for me. I was young, energetic without any work experience and, of course, not so proficient in English. I called to inquire about it. They wanted me to go for an interview. When I went for the interview I made my first embarrassing linguistic error I told the secretary that I had a date with your manager. What I meant, of course; was an appointment. I saw the sarcastic smile on her face at my expense as she was guiding me toward her boss’s office.
It didn’t take a long time for me to find out that the job I was being interviewed for was unbelievably an odd one. They explained to me with a great deal of sorrow that the only male lion of the zoo had passed away recently and they had not been able to find a replacement. Doing that, I was told, required an extensive search which may take a long time. Therefore, the zoo officials have decided to hire a human replacement for the diseased lion, someone who could slip into a lion costume and pretend that he is a live lion. It was a temporary position until eventually they could find a real live lion. I thought that was kind of a practical joke played on me, but they were desperately serious. I took it as kind of flattering when they told me that I was a perfect candidate for this job. However, as I found out later on, they had not been able to find a viable person who had the guts to become a lion. I told them I need some time to think about it.
After a short consultation with myself and weighing the costs and the benefits, I could persuade my left brain that it was not a trebly bad job for me. First, the hourly payment was above the minimum wage rate. Secondly, I did not have a boss ordering me what to do. Thirdly, no one will ever find that it was me disguised as a lion. Therefore, the whole thing will remain a secret forever. Besides, it wasn’t going to be my permanent job. I could use my resources to find a more reputable job in the meantime. Reluctantly, I accepted the job and I was asked to show up early next morning. Their joyous reaction to my acceptance was the testimony to their extreme anxiety for not being able to find a fool like me willing to say yes to such a silly offer.
The next morning I showed up on time to start my new job. A few days went by without any incidence and the true personality of the fake lion remained concealed. Therefore, the first act of this dramatic show was executed successfully.
One day, I was really tired because of inadequate sleep the night before, I fell asleep while on duty, a very deep sleep similar to the afternoon nap by construction workers, amaleh, on a hot summer day back in Iran. During my sleep I was hunted by a dreadful nightmare. I saw in my dream, while I was performing my daily routines as a fierce lion jumping up and down, two wild tigers were approaching me from not so far distance. Given that I was only a timid human in the skin of a lion, I was so frightened that I was about to wet my pants. I had no choice but to console myself by reminding myself that how do they know that I am not a real lion? Theoretically, I am the king of the jungle and all the other animals should respect and be afraid of the king. On the other hand, I said to myself, what happens if they find out that I was a phony? Then, I will be the main course of their afternoon meal. I started blaming myself for being stupid enough to take this job. This was the soup I myself poured into my own bowl! I told myself in Farsi. Now, all of my dreams of getting a good education in the United States were about to shatter. I, a docile person who had led a relatively pressure free life style until now, should suffer from the pressure of the powerful jaws of these wild tiger.
Such strange thoughts were scratching the surface of my brain like sharp nails and raising my heart bits so swiftly that I woke up suddenly. I was so relieved because waking up was the best remedy for my misery. I said to myself, thanks God I was finally free from that horrible nightmare. All of a sudden, I saw two real tigers a few yards away from me. I could see them with my own open eyes this time. This was not in my dream any more, it was real, actual not imaginary, factual not fictional. I said to myself what a bad luck. It couldn’t be any worse than this. The two tigers were staring curiously and seemed to be thinking about attacking me. I said to myself that is it. I am done, finished, gone and should be ready for final exit. I was about to recite my shahadatain. instead, by force of habit, I suddenly said as loudly as I could; “Ya Ghamar Bani Hashem, my hand on your skirt!”
Much to my astonishment, the two tigers suddenly burst out laughing and started talking in human voice and asked me simultaneously in Farsi; “Sir, are you Iranian too!?”
I never forget the immense joy not because fate finally saved my life but because I found other Iranians after all.