Iranian-American Like Me

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, grabbed a fistful of Iranian soil before leaving Iran forever in January 1979. After months of bloody demonstrations and a call for his removal from power, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, grabbed a fistful of Iranian soil before leaving Iran forever in January 1979. It was a symbolic gesture; one filled with love for his native land, but it also signaled the knowledge that he would never return. What followed was an Islamic revolution that forever altered Iran both politically and culturally, sending millions of Iranians into exile. Opting to spend their lives elsewhere, Iranians sought refuge and asylum in the West, with a majority emigrating to the US.

My family and I arrived in the US 22 years ago when my brother and I were still in our teens. My father, a former career diplomat, had served most of his assignments in Europe, where my brother and I were largely raised. Hence, we arrived here well aware of Western lifestyles, but with our Iranian identities firmly intact. As with most Iranian exiles, however, my family’s desire to cling to our culture and heritage while living in exile has proved problematic, creating a dual identity for both the exiles, and the first-generation born Americans whose loyalties lie with the US, rather than with their parents’ homeland. The Iranian immigrant crisis, however, is largely centered on the Iranian-born nationals, many of whom still cling to the desire to return to Iran while watching their offspring undergo an inevitable “Americanization”.

In November 1994, after much deliberation, I decided to become an American citizen, and received my official US passport. The citizenship ceremony, which I shared with hundreds of immigrants from all over the world, was emotional. Many were in tears because they had labored long and hard to become Americans. On that day I cried, too, because I knew I was giving up my Iranian nationality in exchange for an American one. I went home after the ceremony, and looked long and hard at our old imperial diplomatic passports that my father kept in his desk drawer. I reminded myself that no matter what a piece of paper says, I am and always will be an Iranian. But the US was my adopted home, now, and I would have to learn to assimilate. I had pledged allegiance to the US, and accepted the fact that from now on everyone would recognize and categorize me accordingly. But the definition was still dubious. What does “being an American” mean? Yes, my English was superior to my Farsi, but I still communicated in my mother tongue with my parents, socialized with Iranians, and missed my homeland terribly. I resigned myself to the fact that as with most other immigrants, I could pick and choose the best of both cultures; that I would embrace and accept the most promising qualities that America had to offer, while still remaining devoted to my Iranian identity.

“The hyphen in Iranian-American” is how one can best describe the dilemma of the nearly one million Iranians currently residing in the US. Caught in the midst of an identity crisis, the Iranian-slash-American represents the base of an already troubled foundation: torn apart by an adamant cling to old world Iranian ideals and traditions on one hand, and a shift of loyalties to the States, the adopted land, on the other. Our “White Russian complex” is the younger generation’s explanation for the Iranian assimilation issue, that is, they are the clichéd, educated, wealthy political refugees who patiently bide their time in exile in the hope that Iran will hurry up and return to its pre-revolutionary Shahi days and ways at which point they will immediately purchase a one-way ticket “home”.

Most Iranians readily admit to their refusal to give up their identity and accept Americanization. The refusal to “budge” from their deep-rooted Iranian identity so to speak, is largely due to an inherent sense of our history and culture. In answer to my questions regarding our possible delusions of grandeur, one Iranian (an acquaintance of my family, who is exceptionally pro-Iranian in every way and somewhat disillusioned with his life in the States), shouted angrily at me on the phone, “Can you deny 3,000 years of history? Have you forgotten Cyrus, Darius, Khayyam, Hafez? Are you not an Iranian?” My reply: that indeed, I am Iranian but refuse to hold on to my glorious ancestry and past instead of getting on with my future, resulted in a halt to the conversation. In a tired voice, he declared that he no longer wished to continue the conversation, and expressed his pity for me and others like me whom be believed have lost touch with their national heritage.

Nostalgia is often the last refuge of a generation that has been completely stripped of its sense of self. One émigré, a former high-ranking diplomat who currently lives in the Washington, DC, area quietly mused, ‘It’s difficult to begin life over in your forties. Once I made political decisions for my country, now I sell Hondas. How can I ‘adjust’ easily?” Another fellow Iranian exile, a former career diplomat who has knocked around from odd job to odd job and is contemplating a move to Europe, explained to me, “In order to save my sanity, I have to remind myself that I was of use once; that I have accomplished things.” Former generals, ambassadors, politicians, academics and dignitaries who are currently employed as cab drivers, couriers, bank tellers — or the majority of whom are unemployed — they all resent their harsh fall from recognition in Iranian society to anonymity America. Many are members of my family’s social circle, and I have kept a close watch on their assimilation over the years. Most of them live day to day in an effort to get by, but almost all of the social-gathering and dinner party conversations center around the good ol’ days when they were all esteemed dignitaries in their respective fields. Old habits die hard, and the habits of those who have fallen from grace are especially difficult to alter.

The present “anonymity” (and lack of recognition for former glories) in question — in other words, the freedom to bury the past and create a different future, an American privilege coveted by the multitudes who flock here — is ironically, the obstacle in the Iranian assimilation process. Most regret not only the loss of their former comforts, but more important, their current agonizing frustration that they can’t put their Iranian education and experiences to comparable use in this country. A former government official in Iran has very little chance of putting his knowledge and experience to use in the US government; an Iranian doctor most often has to either re-apply to medical school, or go through an intensive US residency program before he or she qualifies to work in the States.

Our so-called “cultural arrogance” and whole-hearted devotion to our past, therefore, arises from a need (and lack thereof) for recognition of past performances, rather than for recent ones: the cab driver cherishes praise not for his impeccable manners towards his customers, but for the medals he once received as a general; the former ambassador revels not in his proficiency as a bank teller, but in repeating the story of his formidable tact in once appeasing, say, the Russian foreign minister; the saleslady at the department store doesn’t concern herself with her impressive sales capabilities, but with the formidable dinner party she once held in Tehran which was attended by generals and other military dignitaries.

Mainly political refugees (as opposed to economic ones), Iranians still remind Americans that although they are grateful for the generosity shown by the US toward them, if it were not for the revolution, they would still be living and working in Iran, and at most, would have experienced America only as tourists. This occasional treatment of the States as a hotel, so to speak, rather than as one’s own home, is the younger generation’s issue with its elders. The younger generations view their elders as romantics, perpetually sighing over an idealized lifestyle. They are rife with contradictions: armchair patriots publicly mourn Iran and privately thank God they’re in the States; fathers preach solid Iranian values yet expect their children to be American successes; mothers worry about a daughter’s prospects of finding a suitable husband, yet disapprove of her dating freely.

Inevitable pressures of life in exile and the unavoidable physical detachment from the homeland have gradually led to the demise of basic Iranian traditions which the younger generation has witnessed: The fathers of these families, having faced an abrupt end to their careers and livelihoods in Iran, no longer hold the customary role of sole provider and proverbial head of the family. This upsets a long-held patriarchal tradition. The mothers of these families, many of whom, albeit educated, did not work in pre-revolutionary Iran (since, as was customary, they could afford to stay at home and raise the children), have had to join the American workforce. Often these women are the breadwinners in this new life, and they carry the bulk of the financial burden.

And then there are the somewhat spoiled young exiles. We were, at one time, confident in the certain (or so we thought) guarantee of specific privileges. Now, we have had to shift our priorities. Whereas before we focused on getting accepted to, say, the University of Paris where we would study literature or political science, now we have had to work to earn a university education, and are often disillusioned by having to attend institutions which may offer an affordable education, but at less prestige than we had hoped for. In addition, due to family and economic pressures, liberal arts are forsaken for more lucrative occupations, such as engineering, medicine, and computer science.

Old enough to have developed a sense of identity with Iran, yet young enough to adapt readily to our new environment, Iranian-Americans have one foot entrenched in American culture and are incapable of loosening their ties to their Iranian roots. Shifting back and forth between the two, and having to balance both an Iranian and an American identity, we search for a happy medium. Often we’re “damned if we do and damned if we don’t”. Prudish by American standards, we are slightly wayward by Iranian ones; nationalistic according to Americans, we are politically aloof according to Iranian elders; culturally proud by Iranian measures, we are often considered snobbish by American interpretations.

It seems that Americans consider us “American” when we praise the US, but we’re “Iranian” when we criticize it. This makes us wonder whether Iranians are truly welcome as Americans. Although we have few loyalties to present-day Iran, should another confrontation occur between the two nations, will we be reminded as we were during the 1979-80 Hostage Crisis that we are still very much Iranian? If anything, the horrific September 11th attacks proved that US sentiments can become naturally guarded towards foreign residents, many of whom, despite their roots, are loyal to their adopted home.

America is vast, strong and domineering. Most of us saw our first glimpses of American life while watching Hollywood heroes on the screen. We were enchanted by the accent, the cool, friendly easy-going manner of Americans and how they seemed to welcome people from all walks of life. Upon our arrival, we discovered that everything is bigger in the States, and more varied that what we were used to, and plentiful. Sidewalks are huge, supermarkets are worlds onto themselves, and TV and radio are broadcast 24/7. The US is the country that never sleeps. This is where Chinese, Japanese, Arab, Korean, Ethiopians, Hispanics, and others from all over the world chose to come to find a second home, in pursuit of the American Dream. This is the land that promised them “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses . . . ” And so they came. But the American Dream comes with conditions attached. In order to truly fit in and succeed, the immigrant is largely required to embrace every aspect of American life and culture to its fullest, and remain a full-fledged patriot to all-things-American, and forever shrug off prior political and cultural loyalties. America can also be a cruel and unforgiving place that punishes innocents who have done no wrong, just as it did the many Arab-Americans who were harassed after the 9/11 attacks or the innocent Iranian residents who suffered a backlash during the Hostage Crisis.

A decade after earning my American status, I, like most of my fellow Iranians, have learned to make my peace with my life in the States. I have established a few American friendships, dated American men, attended university here and worked for American media organizations. My accent still offers a hint of my former European schooling and residence, but by and large, I am often mistaken for an American, a fact which still surprises me after all of these years. I have come to terms with the fact that I may live in the States for the rest of my life. I do my best to ward off dreams of one day returning to Iran. I am trying to make the most of my American existence, but the desire to hold a fistful of Iranian soil still keeps me longing.