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Half & half
Growing up Iranian and American

By Siedeh Rezaei-Kamalabad
December 3, 2000
The Iranian

When we enter the world at birth, we are presented to a family. Some families are large, with cousins and aunts and great great grandparents. Some are small families with a mother and father, or a single mother or grandmother. No matter how large or small your family is, that group will affect who you are. And having a family torn down the middle by an ocean can influence the way you see the world.

I was born into a family with a mother and a father, and soon I had three siblings. My father is from Iran and my mother is from the U.S., where we live. My mother had her mother, a sister and her sister's family consisting of her husband, her three kids, and their dog.

All of my father's family except a cousin and a brother live in Iran. Their family isn't small. It goes on forever. Our family was at once a whole village called Kamalabad. Now they are scattered around Iran and the U.S.

Until I was six my Iranian family was just voices on the phone that I couldn't communicate with and photos in albums and on our walls. I never really knew them and I am still in the dark as to who most of them are. Yet they still affected my life.

My siblings and I are the only half Iranians in our family. Everyone else is fully Iranian and since my father is an Iranian Muslim and my mother converted to Islam, we practice the Islamic faith at home. My mother accepted many of the Iranian customs and wanted my siblings and me to know about our Iranian heritage. We celebrated the Iranian New Year and ate Iranian food most of the time. For a long time I thought everyone ate Iranian food.

We were also half American, and since my mother's family was Catholic, we celebrated Christmas and Easter with them. I grew up playing with Barbie dolls and watching cartoons, my parents never enforce the Iranian way of life on me but my Iranian side still dominated and influenced much of my life.

The summer I turned six, we went to Iran. That year the movie "Not without my daughter" had came out. My grandmother was afraid that what happened to that woman would happen to us. That was just a stereotype that I didn't understand at the time. Even though my grandmother was scared, my mother knew that would not happen to us. So we went during the end of May in 1990.

I don't remember much from then. I was so young. I forgot more and more as I grew older. When I was twelve, I went back with my family. It had been six years, and my parents were afraid I wouldn't get a chance to see my grandparents before they died, so they took out a loan and we went back.

I actually don't remember much from that time either. We visited all the museums and I can remember the first few weeks I told my mother I never wanted to go home. We stayed for two months and after a while I began to miss home and my life in America. That is the trouble with having family in another country, your heart is always longing to be in the other place and you know you can't have both. That is the worst part.

At nine you begin to practice the Islamic head covering and so while we were in Iran, I covered my head and wore long sleeved shirts and skirts or pants. That I didn't mind so much in Iran but when we got back to the U.S. and my parents wanted me to keep doing it, life got difficult.

I went to seventh grade that year at a school where I had only spent half a year so it was still new to me. The school groups had already been formed and me, being different, had a hard time fitting in. I was made fun of for covering my head, (I wore a beret instead of the scarf because I didn't like how it felt around your neck.) I have blocked that year out of my head.

Eighth grade came and my younger sister was passed nine and wasn't covering her head which made me mad so I told my father I didn't want to wear it any more. My mother talked to him and told him that they can't force me to believe in something I don't believe in yet. So after that I didn't have to wear the scarf.

Iran still haunted my every thought. In school we were learning about the Middle East and the memories started to come back. We would talk about Iran and I knew all about it. And then the stereotypes came up, a whole book that was all wrong about the way things were there. I started looking at other books and so many of them were wrong and only saw the political American view. I never viewed Iran the way they had.

I felt lost being the only Iranian in school, which I had always been. Knowing all this information that I used to correct what the books said. A whole other view of a country thought to be infested with terrorists.

Amazingly, when I entered high school the next year, my history teacher Mahmood Firouzbakt and a student in one of my classes, were Iranian. I had always thought I was the only one. I started going into Iranian chatrooms and talking with others.

This got me thinking about Iran constantly and my parents were thinking of taking us back to Iran for another trip. I went crazy, I started searching for tickets. My father looked also and couldn't find any that we could afford. I went on the Internet and found cheap tickets that we bought and on July 21, 2000, we were on a plane going into that other dimension where life is so different.

That's how my dad described going back to Iran, like going through another dimension. When you go there everything is more laid back and after a few days I'm back home at my second home and feeling comfortable with the surroundings and language. After nine days my Iranian grandmother died.

When I went to the funeral I couldn't cry because I thought of her as just being at home waiting for us to get back. I started to force myself to cry so no one would think I was disrespectful. Then I looked over at my aunts who were always happy and saw them crying. To see them unhappy made me cry even more. I had learned to fake crying in acting class.

After that day, I started to look at who I really am.

When we were coming home from the cemetery my cousin asked me why I liked theater. I couldn't answer. I didn't know. After thinking about his question for days and days I realized that what I thought I wanted to be -- an actress -- wasn't what I really wanted. If he hadn't asked me that question I would still be thinking I wanted to become an actress. But I don't.

Iran made me see more of the world outside Cambridge, Massachusetts. At a time in my life when I felt lost completely, I found myself in Iran. It changed me, for the better. I am now more open and less afraid of not being perfect.

My whole life has been affected by this family that I have only seen three times in my life. How could they influence my life so much and be so far away? That's what a family does; it is an environment that you grow and learn in. It makes you who you are. At least it did for me. Even from a million miles away.

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