Turning 21 seemed like it was going to be a big deal. After all, I was finally reaching the governmental “go-ahead” that teenagers and college students across the country seem to long for. And yet April 24, 2008, turned out to be nothing special–only a date on which the numbers on my ID officially qualified me for the things my receding hairline and 5 o’clock shadow already could give me. The balding, the touch of gray in my sideburns, the stresses of post-graduate planning, the uncomfortable glances I can now attract just by standing near a group of freshman girls at a party–have all started to make me feel old already.
To tell the truth, I spent my 21st birthday studying, and the day afterward taking exams.
But in an hour of reflection the evening after my birthday, a feeling not only of change but also of significance came over me. Thinking about my experiences thus far and the hardships I was preparing to undertake in the coming years, my mind turned to my parents.
They have often reminded me of what life was like for them at my age, in lectures much like those many children hear from their parents. But I knew my parents’ experiences differed drastically from those of my friends’ families. By the time they turned 30, my parents had lived through a governmental overthrow, a revolution, and an emigration halfway around the globe.
Most people can tell from my name alone that my heritage lies outside this nation’s great borders. Born and raised in Lexington, Ky., I am the first-generation American from my family–quite literally. My mother, father and older sister traveled to the United States from Iran in 1983. The Islamic Revolution left my father, who worked for a Western company, without a job, struggling to support my mother and older sister, who was only 2 years old. Having spent his college years abroad in Lexington, my father returned to the city with them to start a new life. I was born four years later, and my younger sister two years after that.
In many ways I had a childhood that could be considered standard for an American boy. I was heavily involved in sports, spent a great deal of time hanging out with friends and classmates at the movies and the mall, listened to all the current Billboard hits, and adopted signature regional alterations to my speech like “y’all” and “good Lord” for a period of time.
There were also Persian versions of activities that made my upbringing unique. A lifelong soccer player as well as a champion high school coach, my father transferred his relationship with soccer to me when I was just 3. As my high school years approached, I signed up for wrestling–a sport that is a historic source of national pride (as well as frequent Olympic medals) in Iran.
When friends came to my home, they found themselves in a world of Persian rugs and paintings, bombarded by an abundance of food and hospitality. There is a common word in Persian culture for excessive kindness: tarof. To finish your dinner is a must, to forgo seconds almost an insult. While dinner with friends often consisted of eating out or deliveries, the average Persian dish would take at least two or three hours to prepare. When guests were coming, meal preparation could take the entire day as well as the night before. I had to finish my school lunches in half the amount of time as other kids; the other half I spent explaining to my classmates what it was I was eating.
Nevertheless, my appreciation for my cultural inheritance has increased as I have grown older. When I was 9, I spent a summer with family in Iran. I can remember seeing all the relatives I had only heard about before, though I strain to recollect my impressions of the place itself–the people, the landscape, the streets, or the atmosphere in Tehran, the capital city. What I remember best is that which Iranians like my family have continued in America: the abundance and importance of get-togethers with family and friends, the telling of stories and jokes, the gatherings around large tables of food and desserts, the playing of music, and the recitation of ancient poetry over a cup of tea.
Over time my ability to recognize a fellow Iranian has become increasingly uncanny. There’s always something about the hair: the naturally jet-black color (or reddish or blonde augmentation for many women who have been in the U.S. for some time), the thick mustache under the protruding noses of older men, the darkened shadow of stubble on a younger one’s face.
The dead giveaway, though, is always the eyebrows. It is what ancient and modern traditional painters employ to capture the classic Persian complexion: the broad, wide arc of the elegant female, and the thick, slightly lowered band of the man, who consequently conveys a tinge of austerity.
Not only have I used this sixth sense to identify Iranians among groups of people, I also have developed an interest in determining the heritage of all sorts of individuals. I’ll even attempt, on occasion, to guess the heritage of my classmates.
One of my parents’ greatest gifts was bestowed before I was even conscious of it. I was about 5 years old when I realized my other friends could not understand the language my parents were using around me–Persian, also known as Parsi or Farsi. I have often thought about how strange and fascinating it has been to understand another language even before I was capable of making my earliest memories.
As I grew older I realized I could understand a tongue that had been virtually unchanged for thousands of years and shared by my ancient ancestors. Because I could understand Persian, I could also understand bits and pieces of languages such as Dari, Armenian, Urdu, Turkish and Hindi–idioms whose regions reflect this ancient influence.
Today it’s one thing to read translations from news coverage of infamous people like Osama bin Laden. It’s a completely different feeling to be able to turn away from the television and still decipher what he’s saying.
The experience of being Iranian-American has not been free of negative consequences. In the same way that the Iranian hostage crisis brought unwanted attention to my mother, father and older sister in the early 1980s, the events of Sept. 11 and the voice of bin Laden evoked an even greater sense of distrust, hate and misunderstanding. Before the end of that fateful day, students had already destroyed my father’s car in the high school parking lot. In subsequent weeks they would petition to be removed from his classroom and send him threatening messages.
While I have been surrounded by good friends and caring people most of my life, I still know what it feels like to see the subtle change of facial expression when I tell a person I’m from Iran. I know what it’s like to be “randomly” yet consistently selected for special screenings at the airport, or to make sure I shave right before I head out to catch a flight. Even though I’m not even Arab, having a surname that’s separated by two letters from the word “Hussein” seems to be enough.
Nonetheless, were it not for these experiences, good and bad, I am certain I would not have encountered, nor even sought out, the others who have fundamentally shaped me into the person I am today. I will graduate in one year’s time with a degree consisting of a main course of neuroscience with side dishes of psychology and philosophy along the way. In a quest to better understand the human mind, brain and being, I have sought to learn more about myself as well.
In many ways it seems my life of balancing cultures has led to a lifestyle of balancing interests. While my high school period was busy with these various activities– wrestling, cultural organizations, violin, art, volunteer work and the like–the greater part of my career at Vanderbilt, I hope, will have been spent not only furthering my growth and education, but those of the community as well. For that reason, in my sophomore year, I founded what is now known as the Iranian Cultural Society at Vanderbilt.
Beneath the ever-looming tension and complexity of international politics and media coverage lie a very ancient civilization and tradition in Iran about which the majority of people in the Western Hemisphere–including myself–know far too little. It is a blessing to have lived in a place where these rich cultures and traditions have sprouted and grown through my life. My hope is that one day I may return to that other half of my identity and share my experience with others.
© 2014 Vanderbilt University
Conversation guidelines: Vanderbilt Magazine welcomes your thoughts, stories and information related to this article. Please stay on topic and be respectful of others. Keep the conversation appropriate for interested readers across the map.