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Cucumbers & tomatoes
Becoming a part of the societal salad bowl

April 22, 1999
The Iranian

Matters of immigration and dealing with that proverbial unopened suitcase are intensely personal matters. I appreciate and enjoyed very much Haleh Vaziri's insightful and intelligent disquisition on the subject ["Immigrants or exiles"]. She promised to tell a story and did so convincingly, in large part because she spoke from first hand personal knowledge and experience and not mere hearsay. Ms. Vaziri's essay and an earlier broad enquiry in regard to similar issues by Masood Rad sent this writer in the search of the time when he discarded the second suitcase altogether for the sake of a more manageable and portable sling-bag.

Because of the psycho-chemistry of transplantation, no immigrant ever melts in the pot. Many take the dive and try, for whatever reason, but only manage to dissolve partially before they become unconsciously defensive just like that nasty stubborn lump which refuses to become a part of the gravy for fear of losing it all. Even if one wished and willed to lose one's earlier identity, there may not be acceptance by the pot itself.

The experience is not exclusively Iranian. This morning, a gentleman in his fifties, with a very thick Italian accent, was encouraging his son to move the ball up the soccer field. I know, he has been here since the age of seven and last summer he went home, as he put it; his son called the trip vacation. A similar vignette occurs daily with Irish, Russian, Chinese, and other nationalities represented in my neighborhood.

The yearning to go back is primal and has little to do with a specific culture or nationality. The "going back" itself takes different forms, not all equally satisfying -- a visit, a longer visit, relocation, or may be even being buried there. Where a geographical return is not possible or unlikely, the Iranian surrounds oneself with all things and relations Iranian, creating a cultural island where Iranian values are practiced. Nothing is wrong with that.

The magnetism of the Iranian culture or one's ancestory also has very little to do with prohibiting one from accepting the immigrant life-style. That reluctance to assume an immigrant life-style, whatever that term means, is deeply personal and relates directly to reasons why the immigrant arrived in the host country in the first place. The ones arriving here for economic reasons, do adapt to the life-style and move on. The ones who feel marooned here bide their time to return to a promise never fulfilled, be it a rewarding career, former possessions, or position. To them the immigrant life-style smacks of selling-out. There is nothing wrong with that either. To each his own.

As a general proposition, however, the best an immigrant does is to become a part of the societal salad bowl, retaining for the most part one's ethnic identity, while associating oneslef with others in endeavors induced by the shared environment. The reason for this is no different than the one governing similar situations confronted by a provincial character appearing at the capital city, or the urbanite moving to the rural areas, or from one neighborhood to another, from one family into another. The beauty of being in the bowl is that one need not divorce oneself completely from the land where one was born.

The assimilation process which begins with the first arrival ends eventually with the arrival of the first, an offspring born in the new environment. Despite all parental efforts and directions to the contrary, the environment claims the child as its own. That child is born not on the cultural island which the parents have carved out, but rather he is born in the melting pot. Mom and dad remain forever pieces of cucumber, tomato, or a lump, providing the child's first brush with an incomprehensible nostalgia.

The author

Guive Mirfendereski is an international lawyer and adjunct professor of law at Brandeis University.

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