Children of the revolution
Transnational Identity Among Young Iranians in Northern California
Selections from a Video Project
By Fereydoun Safizadeh
Department of Anthropology
December 16, 1997
Ten years ago, Robert Cole argued that a nation's politics becomes a child's everyday psychology. How true this is with respect to many Iranian children who came to the United States as children of immigrants, refugees, exiles, or asylees in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
These children not only have lived with displacing effects of that revolution and their immigration, but also with the fallout from the tense political relations of Iran with the United States. Many of their parents, themselves struggling with the impact of displacement, have not been able to do much about the effects of international and local politics. Furthermore, both the children and their parents have been swept into the middle of the multicultural identity politics of the 1980s and 1990s here in the United States.
For the most part, parents do not know how the children experience, understand, and perhaps resist or reshape the complex, frequently contradictory cultural politics that inform their daily lives. It is clear that many children of Iranian background are growing up in complex multi-ethnic and multicultural settings, demanding that they move in and out of diverse roles, and create identities that often bewilder and trouble their parents. These children have become the focal points for diverse and often contradictory identity claims, and their minds have become "the terrain for adult battles."
My concern in this paper is with the multi-facetted identity forged by young Iranians in the United States, and more specifically in northern California. I am also interested in the parents and other adults with whom these children grow up and interact with. To a large degree, it is their expectations and needs that form the "warp and woof" of the tapestry of Iranian and emerging Iranian-American identity.
Existing ethnographic evidence indicates that persons with diverse experience as males or females, the time of arrival in the United States, familiarity with the English language, and belonging to different ethnic, religious, linguistic, and class background are communicating surprising well with one another about their experiences and identity construction in this country.
Many complicated concerns and discourses are handled with a high level of meaningful interchange by such individuals. My intention as a participant observer anthropologist has been to attempt to describe this ethnographic reality so that the complexity and the nuances of cultural and identity reformulation by young Iranians can be brought to the foreground, and to provided a better understanding of the dynamics and processes that new immigrants and people in a transnational context experience.
It is important that this discourse among immigrants and transnationals be made accessible to scholars, educators, social workers, and people in mass media whose jobs requires that they have a better understanding of the people they teach, work with or portray.
Children of the Revolution
Children who grew up around the time of the Islamic revolution have been subjected to enormous forces of history, politics and global currents. Specifically, by the children of revolution I have in mind those individuals who were in K-12 in Iran, or here in the United States or somewhere in between when the Islamic revolution took place in 1979.
Since that time, these school children have grown up in the midst of an unusually high level of turmoil emanating from the politics of Iran, the revolution, the hostage crisis, the Iraqi attack on Iran, and the continued turbulent relationship of the United States and Iran as exemplified by the Irangate or Iran-Contra affair, and the position of Iran in the international community as an isolated, renegade, rogue country or state.
Taking hostage of the American embassy personnel in Tehran in November of 1979, and the intensive media coverage of this event, precipitated many types of reactions toward Iranians in this country. Some of this reaction were directed against Iranians in grades k-12.
The stories of a number of my students at the University of Californias, Los Angeles (UCLA), San Francisco State University, and others focused my attention on this area. Specifically, while discussing diversity and multiculturalism in an anthropology class, a tall athletic 20-year-old male said "I did not realize how malicious young kids can be" and went on to describe his experiences of being beaten up by a number of his fifth grade classmate, and the fear that it brought to his daily life. This student was harassed for two years, and on occasion beaten up by 10- or 11-year old kids in response to the media portrayal of events in Iran. This young man's mother was an American.
Another case involved a girl, who described her experiences as third- and fourth-grader when she had been harassed and even hit in the school yard and on her way home. The exception in her case was that an American school mate had often defended and protected her throughout her period of ordeal.
What was outstanding in both cases was the recollection of vivid details, and the agreement that these experiences had effected their sense of self and identity as children and as Iranians in ways that they could not forget. The first hand knowledge of these specific cases, combined with the knowledge of the anti-Iranian feelings and activities in a number of university campuses in California made me aware of how little actually or ethnographically we know about the lives of the children who were suddenly thrown into the mainstream of American society because their parents moved here, or decided not go back to Iran.
Equally distressing was the attitude and comments of some parents and other older Iranian immigrants, including teachers of Persian language towards these young Iranians. Disparaging comments were about these people's ability and inability to speak Persian, their accent when speaking, their American mannerisms, their interests and disinterests were typical. It was not uncommon to hear "These kids are not Iranian, they don't know who Hafiz, Sa'di, and Ferdowsi are. They cannot read poetry, they don't understand what love means in Omar Khayyam."
The dismissals were sharp, harsh and arrogant. It was a well known fact in California that many Iranian students are doing well in school and at the university level. Most, in the midst of very competitive studies to become the professional that their parents expected them to be, took Persian language, history, and literature courses.
These concerns made me interested in the multiple and transnational identity of young Iranians, and how identity is constructed, reformulated, and negotiated. Specifically, my interest was on the daily events, activities and incidents that many Iranian- identified children had experienced in the United States that had made an impact on their sense of self, and identity. The issue of Iranianness how this is obtained, maintained, and enhanced has been a major concern among parents.
The "children of the revolution" went through states of displacement, fragmentedness, hybridity, neither here nor there, feelings of being a "halfie" that needs to be explored and addressed. It is this context that the concept of transnational identity offers some interesting analytical possibilities.
The Video Project Studies of immigration in the social sciences often focus on the structural aspects of the phenomenon. Individual and personal accounts of this experience have received little attention. Narrative fiction, poetry or film written or made primarily by the immigrants themselves or their children have provided fascinating detail, texture and context for the multiplicity of experiences that immigrants have had, and how that is interpreted. It is only recently that social scientist, particularly anthropologists are paying attention to this literature
My study was envisioned as a video project serving as a way to record comments, articulations, behavior, display of artifacts and use of symbols that shed light on the experience and discourse of immigration and identity among Iranians. More importantly, the video sessions were seen as forums in which immigrants, exiles, refugees, and asylees could speak out for themselves, and share their personal stories and experiences.
My intent was to explore how do Iranians living abroad, particularly in the United States discuss personal, ethnic, national and transnational identity. By personal identity, I was interested in how individuals organize, construct and discuss an everyday sense of self and identity, and try to answer the question "who am I?" In exploring ethnic identity, I was interested in how ethnic and communal identities are assumed, constructed or imagined, as well as issues related to being a minority or a majority population in a society, both here in the United States and back in Iran.
For example, additional identities for Iranians are Armenian, Assyrian, Baha'i, Jewish, Kurdish, Turkish, Zoroastrian and "tribal" such as Qashqai, Bakhtiyari and Turkomen. In considering national identity, I was interested in the identification with a "homogeneous" shared national public culture, a state political system, and a sense of territoriality. By transnational identity, I was thinking of a sense of belonging to a multi-national or a supra-national global culture, possibly a cosmopolitan international culture and order, including being a part of cyber community and culture.
For the purposes of the project two groups were differentiated. First, the younger Iranians without much or any experience or memory of Iran. Second, individuals with much stronger memories and personal linkages to Iran. With the first group discussions mainly focussed on the sense of self, dual and multicultural backgrounds and identity. With the second group discussions were mainly reflections on present experiences in the United States, and its relationship to life and experiences in Iran.
I began video-taping in May 1993 at the 20th year reunion of the class of 1972 of the Community School, an English language missionary school, in Tehran, at a Presbyterian church retreat camp on Lake Tahoe in California. This encounter of American, Iranian, and minority Iranian graduates of the Community School provided lively discussions and reflections on the issue of identity.
In the second session, my colleague and I video-taped a group students of the San Francisco Art Institute. In the third session, we focused on the undergraduate Iranian-American students of University of California, Berkeley. The forth video session focused on a group of parents and adults who had been students here in the United States prior to the Islamic revolution. These individuals were now in their forties and fifties, and many had high school and college age children. Not only was their own sense of identity in flux and in a state of reformulation, but also the identity of their children was a major concern to them.
The fifth session, was with the "exiled" Dr. Mohammed Jafar Mahjoub, professor of Iranian literature and civilization at UC-Berkeley, and the video-taping of his students during a class period in the fall of 1993. The question posed to him was "what does it mean to be an Iranian in the midst of such international and transnational cultural currents, and how does that effect one's sense of self?" The final session was an experiment in reflexivity with the group of pre-revolution fathers and mothers.
While viewing the tape of the earlier session with them, my colleague and I video-taped the reactions, comments and discussions that the viewing generated. With the exception of the Community School graduates and the group of parents, many of the other participants in the video sessions and the project had received most of their elementary and high school education here in the United States in the past 10-15 years.
As indicated earlier, these students had experienced some extraordinary conditions and situations in elementary, junior and high schools, and in many cases it has been hard for the younger Iranian students to share their experiences with their parents, because aspects of these experiences were personal and intertwined with their social life and status.
In all, there is approximately fifteen hours of taped sessions. For the purpose s of this paper, I am focusing on the younger Iranians without much or any experience or memory of Iran, and will present the results from two sessions. These include videotape discussions with undergraduates of the University of California, Berkeley and with students of the San Francisco Art Institute.
Voices of the Participants
Session 1: From a session with three undergraduate female students at University of California, Berkeley. My own questions are indicated in bold letters.
Ms. E - "I was born in Tehran and we moved when I was four or five to London. We stayed there five-and-a-half years and then we moved to Toronto. We lived in Canada for four-and-a-half years. After that, we moved here and we have been living here in California for seven years this coming August. We came to California in 1986 or 1987. We came here when I was 15 or 16. I was going to be a sophomore in high school. We have family here, but the majority of my family is back in Iran still. We also have family in Europe, Los Angeles, and my cousin has lived here for 13-14 years now. We came here to be together, we did not have any family in Canada. My older brother went back to Iran and got married, but my other brother and parents are here. My father's business is back in Iran. So, basically he travels all the time. I went to Northgate High in Walnut Creek. It was hard for me to make the adjustment from Canada. Toronto was more international and diverse. I wanted to be a dental hygienist, so I got my certificate from a dental school in San Francisco. Then, I went to Diablo Valley College and transferred to UC-Berkeley. I changed my major. This is my last year at Berkeley, and I want to go to nursing school after finishing. I think it would be very hard for me to move back to Iran and live there after having grown up in London, in Canada and here for many years. I just don't think I could really adapt to that kind of life. But I am interested mostly in going back to visit my family, to see my aunts and cousin and to visit everybody. My cousin is going to Iran tonight. I almost went there a couple of years ago. She is in high school and goes back all the time."
Ms. A - "I was born in Daly City. I spent the first two years of my life in Pacifica, and have lived for 17 years in Sunnyvale. My dad's side of the family is from Iran. He came 30 years ago. My mom's side of the family is from Nicaragua, although she was born and raised here in San Francisco. I have never gone to Iran, but I would like to, and my dad has not gone since he has come. We have pretty much a lot of family in this area - Sunnyvale, Foster City - on my dad's side. But the majority of his family is still in Iran. My dad's mother lives with us. She is from Azerbaijan, from Baku. She speaks Turkish, Russian and Persian in the same sentence. My dad has two brothers. They have their own family and children. He also has an uncle in Los Angeles. One brother married a Persian woman and the other a Norwegian woman. My dad talks a lot about his family in Iran and I have seen pictures of them, so I would like to go and see them. On my mom's side, we have family in this area also, but not much, mostly in Nicaragua. I also would like to go to Nicaragua. I went to Homestead High School in Cupertino and I like it there, it is a good school. Then, I went De Anza College, and transferred to Berkeley for my junior year. I am going to go to law school, and want to be a civil rights lawyer."
Ms. B - "I moved here when I was small. Seventeen years ago, two years prior to the revolution. We moved here with my father, mother, and sister and have stayed in the Bay Area since. First, we moved to Pennsylvania and then to Berkeley. I don't actually have a lot of relatives here. I have a cousin in Los Angeles, and my other cousin is in South Carolina. We bought a house here, and my father has taken a couple of trips to Iran, and my mother took a trip last year. I went to school here in Berkeley, and my sophomore year I went to school in Moraga. I did not like it there, I was suffocating there. In the Berkeley public schools there are the Spanish, there are the Blacks, there are the Asians, there is everything. So, I came back to El Cerrito High. After that, I went to Diablo Valley College and then transferred to UC-Berkeley my junior year. I want to go to medical school. I would really like to stay here in the Bay Area. I am more American than Persian; I don't think I could really live back in Iran. I took a Farsi course last year and they showed films of the Empire. I have become interested in the art and architecture of Iran. I would like to go and see the ruins in Iran."
Ms. E - "One thing that I think is really important is that I know a lot of people who come here from Iran like maybe three years ago and have lived here only three or four years. They try to be all American, and they just completely forget about their culture about who they are and everything. I don't agree with that, I myself have grown up here for many years, and I am more Americanized than I am Persian. But I still like the music, I still like to associate myself, go to Persian gatherings with my family or go to a Persian concert and still have fun and enjoy the music and also I have my American friends, and so I am like both. I did not lose my identity as to who I am and no matter what you do you can't really change who you are. I know a lot of people who come here and completely change. They don't like to speak Farsi. I have friends who say, 'I don't speak it at my house. If I have to with my parents I can't stand it.'"
Ms. B - "I have a problem with what you say because sometimes you might lose it, and it is not always intentional. Like for myself, when we moved over here, we did not have any extended family around us, and at the same time none of us in the family knew how to speak English. So, we started to speak English as a means of learning it, because none of us knew how to speak it, and it was more for practice to learn the language, and that turned into habit. So, in the family we only spoke English after a while. It was not that none of us wanted to speak Farsi because we had an aversion to speaking Farsi. It became a part of our life to speak English in the home, and because of that, I never really learned the language. Other people might look at me and say that oh, she wants not to be Persian, she wants to forget that she is Persian. It is not that at all. It is just that I did not grow up speaking it, and it was not rebellion against being Persian. It just didn't happen and other people might look at me and judge me because of that, and that pisses me off."
Mr. F - "Is that bothersome or is it not? When people judge you, i.e. who is Persian and who is not. Let us say in this case because of language?"
Ms. E - "I am not necessarily just saying the language. My parents speak Farsi at home because their English is not that good although they have been here many years. But they still wanted me to know my language. So, they always spoke to me in Farsi. We speak only Farsi at home. I am just saying it really has to do with everything ...."
Ms. B - "You always had more extended family around you."
Ms. E - "Not really, not really, because like I said the majority of our family is back in Iran and when we lived in London we did not have anybody in London, we did not have anybody in Canada either. My parents had a lot of Persian friends with whom they associated with but that is about it. And most of our family is in Los Angeles."
Ms. B - "Your parents still have a lot of Persian friends like you said."
Ms. E - "My parents, yes."
Mr. B - "Not me, I did not have the tools to learn."
Ms. A - "You are talking about two different things. You are saying that your parents did not speak Farsi by choice, and you did not really have a choice because you were trying to learn English. I don't speak Farsi really, I was not raised with it, I speak very little and my father spoke it very little to us. But it wasn't because he did not want to teach me. He also wanted to practice English at home. Mainly it was because when my parents spoke to my brother, he was not responding to them in English, and they thought something was wrong with him. But then they realized that he responded in Spanish, and that was because the woman helping to take care of him spoke to him in Spanish. So, my dad really got scared, that he cannot communicate with his son. He only wanted to talk to him in English. From then on, we all just talked in English, that is why I don't speak Farsi. But it is really frustrating and I think it is really unfair in a way to be treated as less of a Persian, or not as patriotic, or to have an inferior culture, or to hear comments that your dad did not raise you right. All four of us laugh at it. We can't deal with it any other way. It is clearly frustrating. It happens all the time. Even I was in Greece this past summer, and this lady heard my name, a very Persian name. I was waiting, here it comes, here it comes, boom she starts speaking in Farsi, and now here comes the lecture. As soon as she found out that I don't speak Farsi she started, ah you are Persian, it must be your dad who is Persian because your mom would teach you Persian because she would love the language, and on and on."
Mr. S - "That is interesting, so if your mom was Persian, then she would have taught you, she would have talked to you."
Ms. A - "That is what they say, but that is not true. They say that a lot, oh your dad is Persian, well then, that makes sense. I am very proud of my Iranian heritage. I am concerned about the culture because my dad is .... But I do agree that I am missing out on a whole lot by not speaking the language fluently, and I can't have as much of the culture as I like because language is a huge part of the culture. So, I am going to take Farsi next year. I really want to learn it. But in the mean time, you get fairly condemned. My sister took a lot of Farsi classes, and she speaks really well. She gets treated better by other Persians. It will never stop being frustrating, but I have learned how to endure it. I sit there with my brother and sister and think that here it comes, here it comes, the lecture and then boom there is the lecture: 'You guys are Persians. How dare you not speak Farsi.'"
Mr. F - "How many kids in your family?"
Ms. A - "Four, I am the youngest."
Mr. F - "How old is the oldest?"
Ms. A - "25, and I am 20. And then they say oh, your older sister speaks it because she is older in age. No, it is because she took Farsi classes. There are also two of my cousins, they speak very little Farsi. But may be because they don't look as Persian or are not around as many Persians, they don't get as bad a treatment."
Ms. B - "It is really frustrating, it is difficult, it is offensive. When you don't know the situation, don't assume that I rebelled against it, or wasn't brought up right or ..."
Ms. A - "But even then, just the fact that I am proud to say that I am half Persian and to have someone say ..."
Ms. B - "I never tell people that I am NOT Persian, but some people think I am Italian. I am not trying to pass of as an Italian or anything else, it is who I am. What you are interested in has a lot to do with what you have been brought up with. So, I don't take as much interest in Persian music. There are some that I like, the more traditional stuff that sounds familiar to me from my time when I was in Iran. But it is not my favorite style of music, you know what I mean. It is hard. That is why when I went to Berkeley I started taking Farsi classes. I thought I am sick of this, I am going to learn it."
Ms. A - "My dad is really sympathetic with that. He says don't worry, don't listen to it. I think he feels bad because he knows what we have to endure all the time."
Ms. B - "But this happens all the time ...."
Mr. F - "What is good about America?"
Ms. B - "The diversity. The diversity of people, places, issues, things. I like that a lot. It is hard for me to compare America with Iran because I have not been to Iran for so long. But what I like about America is the diversity. I can't even say that about all of America; it is the Bay Area. I like that, there is more flavor. After I had been in school here in Berkeley, I went to school in Moraga for a year. When I would go to my classes, I just kept saying to myself. "Where are all the people?" because almost everybody was the same. I did not like it there at all. I came back to Berkeley and went to high school around here."
Ms. A - "I also like the diversity, I like the opportunity, although I don't think there is equal opportunity at all, but at least there is opportunity. I think Iran is more repressive, but I don't want to go on about how repressive the government might be or condemn it."
Ms. E - "I agree with both of them. Iran has changed now ever since the time of the revolution about covering your hair, this and that. I think all that is a little too much. Here in America there is so much freedom which I think is good, but sometimes there is too much freedom. There are a lot of crazy things out here, I think things should be balanced."
Mr. F - "How about political freedom?"
Ms. A - "I don't think there is enough freedom."
Ms. B - "Freedom is wonderful, I mean it is good but with a little bit of self discipline it is fine, allows for more creativity. There is just a lot of flavor here."
Ms. E - "I would rather have more freedom than having to cover my hair and not show my legs or arms in the dead of the sun and hot weather, but I think a too much freedom can lead to a lot also. "
Mr. F - "Have you been bothered in America because of being an Iranian?"
Ms. B - "I can think of a very specific situation during the revolution, during the hostage crisis. I was probably in third grade and I remember from that time. I was at a school here in Berkeley and a couple, well, a few kids took me into an alleyway and started hitting me, slapping me, and threatening me. They were girls. Finally a boy came and rescued me. I dealt with a lot of things during that time. It was in Washington School here in Berkeley. During the hostage crisis period, I dealt with a lot of flack. I remember during that time my parents owned a restaurant on Solano [St.]. There was a lot of vandalism of the restaurant, of the car. I just took a lot heat at the school. But that all stopped after the hostage crisis was over, and things were normal and I did not have to deal with anything again. Once in a while you hear terrorist remarks. But that is it."
Ms. E - "I heard remarks here and there but I really did not have anything happen to me. But I came to the States in 1986 or 1987."
Ms. A - "I was in second or third grade and the same situation happened, and stuff like that. This guy yelled and swore at me and told me to get off this playground. He called me an "IRANIAN" [pronounced Eye-Ranian]. I thought that is kind of weird I just won't play in this playground. I did not really think anything of it. But I never wanted to hide it, I am totally Iranian. People's ignorance ... you can always laugh at it. It is kind of scary, like people's ignorance when we were bombing Iraq and even the relation now with Iraq. Whenever I would express my sentiments, they would say "Of course, you are from Iran." I would say, wait a second we just bombed Iraq, not Iran, get the difference between Iraq and Iran straight. But people don't really differentiate; if you are from the Middle East, that is it. If you are not white, you are it. There were a lot of hate crimes going on against Persians, not just Iraqis, when we were bombing Iraq. My mom was nervous because my dad's license plate says "azizam" ("my dear"). She thought maybe someone was going to do something to him. Because people are so ignorant they can't tell the difference. I was also worried. I heard it on the radio, people looking in the phone book, and if the name looks Iraqi or Iranian they would call up and repeatedly threaten them. What a joke all of this is. They never called our number. But I heard on the radio the stories and incidents happening to people whether they were Iraqi or not. Just hate crimes in general. What was that situation I am thinking of ... well anyhow, nothing really against me besides once when I was little, the situation in the playground. I sort of thought it is amazing. I am more proud to be Iranian now. Now that it is like this, I will be more proud."
Mr. F - "What about multiple identities and the transnational experience, being Iranian, American, and also something else. How do you experience this background or backdrop?"
Ms. A - "I am of mixed racial descent. I have dark skin and dark brown hair, but no distinguishing features that many people can identify. People don't know what I am, and I feel their uneasiness until their curiosity is appeased and the veil of tension is lifted. With each new job I begin, employees do not know how to relate to me until they know my racial heritage. I am not as threatening to them because I am mixed; my skin is not dark enough to do that. I sense the confusion among the employees until one of them gathers up the courage to ask the question they have all been dying to ask: 'What are you?' Years of exposure to this form of ignorance has unfortunately led to my own confusion as to my cultural identity. However, my conversations with other mixed Persians revealed that I was not alone in my uncertainty. They too see blur where they should see an identity. For example, when I am Latina, I am only Latina, and when I am Persian, I am only allowed to be Persian. To Latinas, I look 'undoubtedly' Latina, and to the Persians, I look 'completely' Iranian. Therefore, even if I wanted to, it would not be possible for me to choose one identity over the other. It is very complicated to balance the two, as I am forced to perform the correct ethnic role with the appropriate group. It is difficult to maintain a double consciousness in a society that demands that I choose one. It is easier for people to relate to me as one or the other ethnicity, but not both. As a result, I am like a chameleon, changing from one identity to the next, constantly exercising extreme caution in order to prevent one part of me from acting inappropriately when I am expected to act like the other part of me. Or, in the more simple terms my friends use to describe me, I am 'the Iran-Contra' girl."
Session 2: From a session with two female and five male students at San Francisco Art Institute.
Mr. Z - "I came here six years ago. I do not have much ta'asub (prejudice) that I am an Iranian. I think of myself more as a Zoroastrian than an Iranian, because when we lived back in my own country we always had that qorbat (exile, longing) as a Zoroastrian. It was an Islamic country, and we the Zoroastrians felt like we were living in qorbat. When I came here, I did not feel any qorbat. I felt that I had more freedom to be myself. I found the opportunity to get to know myself, and to be away from issues and problems that come from ta'asub. The fact that my country is Iran, it is a khak-o-abi ye (land and water) to be protected does not have much value for me."
Mr. L - "I have been here 16 years and when I came I was 13 years old. I also do not have any ta'asub that I am an Iranian, but until several years ago I thought of myself more as an Iranian because most of my life I had been in Iran. Now that I have been here more, I consider myself neither Iranian nor American. For me now, it is a survival thing, if one does not have an attachment to one thing, it is because tomorrow something else could happen for me not to be here. Once again, I must survive somewhere else."
Mr. F - "Are your friends mostly American or Iranian?"
Mr. L - "Iranian."
Mr. F - "And you have not forgotten Persian."
Mr. L - "No. One reason was that a bunch of us lived in a small city. I lived for 10 years in Fresno. I found a group of friends that had similar problems, we were Iranians the same age, we became very close together. The reason we became close together is that we could not relate to ordinary Iranians. By ordinary, I mean those who were more Iranian, who were still traditional. Also, fathers and mothers couldn't understand the problems that are here in this country. For this reason, we were of much help to each other."
Mr. K - "I grew up in Iran, and we left when I was eight-and-a-half. My dad is Iranian and my mom is American. While we were there among my friends I was always considered Iranian even though my mom was American. It did not affect anyone's judgement of me as to who I was. The interesting thing is that when we came here during the hostage situation, it was similar, in that, it still did not matter if my mom was an American. I was needed as the scapegoat for a bunch of kids. Kids who really did not know what was going on, but who were reflecting what their parents were saying at home, and listening to the racist attitudes that their parents did not want them really to hear, and yet they were anyway. I don't think that bumper stickers saying, "Iranians Go Home" and different things in public helped their attitude any also. But nevertheless, it affected mine. As far as my self-identity in Iran, I considered myself Iranian because that was all I ever knew. When I came here, at first I was proud to be Iranian. People would ask what is my name in Iranian and all that. It was a novelty having an Iranian in the class. As the hostage crisis continued, everything went reverse, and I was a scapegoat for lack of a better word. I lived in San Diego. Around where I grew up, there were a lot of surfers and a lot people who were into being native. Native Californian, native San Diegan, and anything that deviated from that norm was considered to be the other. It is interesting the negative aspects taken on by the people and the countries that the U.S. has been in war with or had problems with. This happened with Iraq too, and certain people here got a lot of trouble because of that."
Mr. F - "You said that it would be nice for people to be able to live together, etc. I think about my father's and mother's generation of people who have lived all their lives in Tabriz [Iran]. In the manner that we see all types of communities and cultures here in San Francisco, they did not have or were not exposed to. The only other community that was there were the Armenians. The "other" were the Armenians, who had their own church, food, restaurants, liquor stores, good sandwiches, and silversmiths to the degree that I or we as Muslim children in Tabriz saw and were aware of the work and lives of Armenians. Or, for example in the church or the community center, there were their dances which were good. They use to celebrate Noel or Christmas, which was pretty and interesting. At any rate, here in San Francisco where we live today, an array of the world's peoples and cultures have been arranged for you to see."
Ms. X - "Cosmopolitan!"
Mr. F - "Yeah, but I wonder to what extent? Maybe my expectations have gone too high. For example, I wonder what I have in common with a Vietnamese, or don't, have for that matter? I go to their restaurants. Here, it is almost like human beings in a zoo. When viewed from a particular perspective, it is this collection of beautiful diversity and multiculturalism. But my feeling is that it has only stayed at the level of the restaurant."
Ms. X - "The level of the restaurant! When you speak like this, one feels like a white American is talking. Please pardon me. When a person stands outside, one see all these foreigners, one is Vietnamese, the other is Chinese, the other is a Cambodian, and there is also Thai food that I should try. There are all of these. But the Vietnamese that you were speaking about are a good example, because when the Vietnam war took place I was in Iran. I was a kid, but it left a very weird effect on me. It raised the question of why is there a war in Vietnam, why are the Americans doing all those things there, why did the French go and do all those terrible things to those countries. That is how I look at the different people and nationalities that have come here."
Mr. Y - "When you go into a Vietnamese shop and confront a Vietnamese salesman today, that is not how you look at them, do you? You go in there, do your shopping and come out. You don't think about all that has happened in Vietnam. "
Ms. X - "That person has come out of that past and out of that history, one cannot forget that."
Mr. Y - "But one does, the problem is that one does forget. We in our daily lives do forget it. When you go into a Seven Eleven to buy something you don't take all that history with you in there. It is in our daily lives, in the daily encounters that we have - we must see what we do there. Some say that America is a melting pot. It is here that I agree with those who say it is not a melting pot but it is a salad bowl. There are different ingredients, but they have not mixed. They have not boiled together like a soup."
Ms. X - "Well, to an extent it has happened, for example the marriage of different races together. Mr. K. is a good example of a melting pot. He is not an American, he is not an Iranian, he is both. Seriously, so when we say melting pot, one can talk about that too, especially children who are from two different races. There are many of them, especially here in California."
Mr. Y - "You have Mr. K. in on one hand, and on the other, you have us which have not been assimilated into the pot yet. Or have not been melted into the other cheeses."
Mr. F - "We have been and we have not, that is the whole point."
Mr. Y - "That is the whole thing. You think you are, I think I am until I sit down and listen to some piece of music or something small hits me. It takes me someplace where I cannot share it with other people around me who are not Iranian or don't have the same background. And it is painful sometimes not to be able to do that."
Ms. X - "Let us change the subject and go back a little. What I wanted to say is that I feel closer to many persons who come from the Third World. Let me say it this way. When an Iranian is disrespectful of a Mexican, I get angry. I tell them that we ourselves are Iranians, we live in this country under the burden of being foreigners."
Mr. H - "Let me point out something here. When I see you for the first time, I don't know whether you are Iranian or Spanish. Your face might look Spanish. My first encounter with you is a human one, in that I want to see what kind of person you are and what goes on in your head as a human. If it happens that you are one of my countrymen, it is possible that we may have something in common. I don't agree with this that I see the world like this because I am here in America and that America was not in agreement with my country. Many ordinary people have been born here, which happens to be America, and have started to live and work here."
Ms. X - "But they govern us with their laws."
Mr. H - "That is a different issue. As far as the subject of identity is concerned, and on many issues, Americans are supportive of your ideas and position. In fact, as a foreigner, they support you."
Mr. K - "I have a problem with the melting pot allegory in that if we say that my Iranian half is a zucchini and my American half is a carrot and you throw them into the melting pot gradually my carrot juices and my zucchini juices are going to be sucked out, and what is left is still a little piece of dehydrated zucchini and dehydrated carrot, and still exists no matter how much you try to boil it off. Because of that, first of all, I am neither an American nor Iranian. Second of all, I am an Iranian and I am an American but the juices have been taken out of me, in that I have lost my language partially because my dad never spoke to me, partially because it was socially unacceptable to be speaking it with friends in elementary school. My American side has been taken out of me with Reagan and Bush funding both sides of the Iran and Iraq war. And I can't even love my American side and I cannot love my Iranian side. Therefore, have I been melted into an American? I don't think so."
Mr. F - "One quick point. Nowadays there is a lot of discussion about the unmeltables which is, I think, the salad analogy that you are saying."
Mr. Y - "Yes. We realize that there are differences, and there are different cultural entities. When we realize this, then, we can have better relations between these cultural entities rather than believing that they are losing all their colors and juices into one product and into one shape. This is the double-edged nature of assimilation. America means that we would be dealing with each other in our most common denominators, whether your are from Vietnam, Iceland, Iran, or anywhere. You put us in one place we have to, because of instincts for survival, find our most basic common denominators which means that anything that is idiosyncratic in particular cultures is going to be wiped away, either immediately or gradually. The other side of the coin is that if you are to gain something out of this assimilation you have to lose something whether you want to or not. It is inevitable; you can't have both."
Mr. F - "America is not static. They are really trying to figure out what is going on."
Mr. Y - "Because these common denominators are shifting higher or lower, depending on which culture comes in and which one become more economically viable to deal with. Whether Koreans come up, Japanese come up, or the others come up."
Mr. F - "Certainly in the next few decades this whole notion of multi-culturalism is going to be put to test. I think there is a lot of lip service, now especially here in California. One can distinctly feel that there is a lot of lip service from the government, the state, and institutions trying to diffuse some kind energy and dynamism that is perceived not to be healthy. On the other hand, I think there is a process of ghettoization that is taking place in this period of multicultural plurality in this country. My point is that, simultaneous with what appears to be more involvement with the mainstream of American society, a process of isolation and segregation is taking place, especially for the older generation of Iranians or others who have come to this country in the past 20 or 30 years. The reasons for this among Iranians are both internal and external. One can see also that..[in] other groups, different ethnic and cultural groups and communities are becoming an island unto themselves. They are developing cultural and economic resources, such as an ethnic economy, etc. But for the most part, meaningful interaction takes place or is supposed to take place with your own group or within one's own group. At least for Iranians, there is only superficial interaction with other groups, such as Euro/Anglo-Americans, but especially with non-Euro/Anglo-Americans, such as Afro-Americans, native Americans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Indians, and Hispanic/Latin Americans. This is what I meant by an arranged collection of beautiful diversity and multiculturalism, and that it has more or less stayed at the level of the restaurant."
Reading and hearing some of the voices of the individuals who participated in this project provides a limited sample of the issues that are of concern to many Iranians who are living in this country. Even as citizens they are still socially, culturally and psychologically negotiating and forging personal identities resonates different with a variety of background and past experiences. Important in the videos was the mix of Persian and English language use, varying abilities with the English and Persian languages, accents, and other non-verbal forms of communication, such as gestures, the use of the eye, face, and body language in reactions, responses, as well as in the presentation of the self, i.e. request only to be heard but not seen in the video. Much of this is lost in the transcription, textualization, and the translation of the ideas and statements. Text and writing are powerful ways for communicating, nevertheless its capacity and limitation is clearly evident when working from an auditory and visual database as in the case of this project.
General topics that emerged from the discussion and video sessions were: language as doorway to culture, cultural and ethnic boundaries, boundary crossing, location of culture, cultural authenticity, displacement, gender differences in the experience of immigration, need for recognition, multiple identities and hybridity, home and homeland, nature of departure from homeland, nature to return to homeland, politics of the homeland, immigrant's place and position in a host country i.e. model minority phenomenon, adjustments made for minority cultures and the changing cultural practices in a host country, and assimilation. By themselves, each of these and other related subjects have been explored in great detail and complexity by scholars. Nevertheless, most of above topics underpin much of the everyday statements and approaches to the dilemmas and concerns that individuals have as recent immigrants, exiles, refugees, asylees, and as individuals in a transnational context and framework. They also address the key issue of being caught between two cultures, being a "halfie," neither here nor there, which can be crippling, but also a source of personal agency or emancipatory power. I would argue it is often the latter in the case of many young Iranians.
The research and the video sessions were held in San Francisco and Berkeley during the fall of 1993. I would like to thank all the individuals who graciously participated in the discussion sessions and Farhad Kalantari for his cinematographic and organizational assistance. Arlene Dallalfar, Mehdi Bozorgmehr, Alison Feldman and Kaveh Safa who read an earlier draft and offered insightful comments. Also, my special thanks goes to the participants in the seminar at Center for Middle Eastern Studies/Committee on Iranian Studies, Harvard University, April 8, 1996 and the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 17th Summer Institute, New York University, June 12, 1996 for their thoughtful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
. Cole, Robert 1986. The Political Life of Children. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
. For an examination of the ways children are central figures and actors in contemporary debates over definition of culture, its boundaries and significance see: Stephens, Sharon ed. 1995. Children and the Politics of Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, and her introduction to the volume: "Children and Politics of Culture in "Late Capitalism," pp. 3-48.
. Many Iranian individuals and families who have come to the United States since the 1979 Islamic revolution do not fit neatly into one or the other of the categories such as immigrants, refugees, exiles, or asylees. On the other hand, transnational as category or concept does cover important elements of such peoples' condition and identity. The transnational condition is about deterritorialization and displacement. It is also about a type of acumen or a possible cosmopolitanism that comes from extra-territoriality. More specifically, by transnational condition I have in mind the movement of persons, and the flow of information, symbols, capital, and cultural goods into global and multinational situations.
. Fischer, Michael M. J. 1986. "Ethnicity and Post-Modern Arts of Memory." In James Clifford and George E. Marcus eds. Writing Culture, The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.
a community (yet) -- Iranian immigrants in the U.S. are not organized.
By Ali Akbar Mahdi
* Iranian-Americans: A Political Survey -- Sussan Tahmasebi's survey of Iranian immigrants' views on U.S. politics.
* Cover stories
* Who's who