The Immigrant You Know

This piece was originally published in the Kentucky Standard on February 21st, 2018.

When my parents moved to Bardstown in the summer of 1973, they were welcomed with the sort of generosity that has made the community famous. Bardstown High School had hired my father to be the new Math and Physics teacher.

Two weeks prior to the move, my parents had returned from a month-long pilgrimage to my father’s homeland. It was the first and only time he visited Iran since coming to the US. Just a few short months later, my older sister was born. For my parents, 1973 was a busy year.

Fast forward 45 years and it’s safe to say that both my parents have fully integrated into the community. They came seeking fertile ground to establish roots and found a community willing to accept them.

There’s no doubt that Bardstown has left an indelible image on each member of my family. No matter how far away we live, Bardstown will always be home.

I can’t speak for my siblings, but I am thankful for having grown up in Bardstown. Definitely, I would have probably enjoyed growing up in place far more cosmopolitan (DC or some European capital), but my life would have been fundamentally different and my Southern sensibilities would be nonexistent. And that would be a tragedy.

Our experience in the community could be used as an example showing the virtues of immigration and integration. A Muslim immigrant from Iran marries an American woman, raises a family, becomes a highly respected member of the community, all within America’s heartland. Every time I tell that story, I get a wide-eyed “WOW” or “That’s so cool” from listeners.

There aren’t many opportunities for people in the community to interact with foreigners, much less immigrants from Iran. But through my father the community was able to have an overwhelmingly positive experience. He tore down the media and political narrative through his selfless giving of time and energy to the betterment of the community—and to a large extent he still does.

So, it came as a surprise, over the last few years, to hear some within the community voicing their support for a ban on Muslims entering the country. In the aftermath of the Orlando shooting in June 2016, a local educator claimed that guns weren’t the problem, but immigration from the Middle East was. I guess they had forgotten about the man who had been their soccer coach.

Then there were the claims by another Bardstown resident that Muslims are terrorists and Iran funds terrorism. Sure, Muslims have committed acts of terrorism, but so did white Irish Catholics. Did we ban them? Sure, Iran supports terrorism, but so has America. Needless to say, that local had forgotten about their Math teacher.

Still others have tried to assuage the pain, anxiety, and real fear we (still) have over the last three years since the current President began his campaign. While voicing their support for the vitriol facing American families like mine, they couch it in the cliché “but y’all are different”, which makes little sense when fully considered.

It’s great that we weren’t considered like “the rest of ‘em.” But what happens when we leave Bardstown and we become “the rest of ‘em” for someone else. For example, my uncle in Iran has been planning on visiting the US and possibly traveling the country with my father. But since the rise of Trumpism, my father has told him not to come.

“Can you imagine Amir and me traveling through the Midwest? He doesn’t speak English. Two Middle Eastern men traveling, speaking Farsi, isn’t necessarily the best idea,” my dad told me.

He’s right.

The problem also exists in two other concepts. First, the idea that we all live in a bubble. It’s hard for most of us to think outside the small context in which our lives exist. So, when we think about our neighbors, we think about them within our own bubble. We rarely consider the realities in which they live.

Second, something that is somewhat connected, is the idea that shared experiences should help us build bridges and forge lasting relationships. If this were the case, then many in the community who both know and respect my father and voted for Trump should have had a hard time doing so. They would have understood the words Trump uses and the forces he’s unleashed would have a negative impact on the lives of my father and his family. But that didn’t happen.

Too many within in the community not considering anything outside their own bubble found it easy to dismiss the bonds my family had forged with this community, in order to embrace a slogan their own experience should have told them was untrue.

And now my family and I are forced to reconsider those shared experiences and question the sincerity of those who know sold us down the river for the cost of a false salve.

America needs immigrants to survive. Bardstown needs people like my father in order to fulfill its potential. We should be doing more to be like we were in 1973.

 

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Dinner Decorum with My Father

For as long as I can remember, Thursday was pizza night at my dad’s house. On Fridays, our ritual was equal parts Viking, Persian, and American.

If there was not a home football or basketball game for our high school, regardless of the weather my dad would fire up the grill. Pork chops (which is where I developed my love of them and why I thought it was okay to out my dad as a closeted pork eater), steaks, chicken, you name it we grilled it.

Inside, on the stove top, we always had a pot of rice—polo not kateh for those of you Iranians keeping tabs. And there was usually a salad of sorts or some greens and radishes.

“In those days, my house was like Grand Central Station for the neighborhood kids,” my dad told me.

We would do our running around the neighborhood, but by dinner time we would all be back for whatever my dad was prepping on the grill.

Most of our friends were regulars, so they understood the decorum. Which wasn’t much more than ‘try a little of everything, AS IS, if not Mo Daddy will find a way to squeeze it on your plate.’

Newcomers would often violate corollary (asking for condiments with your food), we would try to stop them, but we would not be fast enough.

One such occasion came when I was in high school, one of my less experienced friends joined us. Grilled meats, rice (one bowl of plain rice, another bowl of rice with egg yolk), and salad. We had all spent much of the time after school playing basketball. Needless to say, we were famished.

The veterans and I had already scooped up our plates, piled them high with food, and were taking up our spots in front of the TV. Some were on the couch, some sat on the floor. All were busy scarfing down whatever was on our plates. Seconds were a must.

One of our friends, the rookie, was a little slower. As he walked the ten steps into the living room from the kitchen, he mumbled something about soy sauce and turns around to go back to the impromptu buffet line.

As he gets back into the kitchen we hear him start, “Hey Mo Daddy?”

“Yes, my handsome man,” responds my father.

We all know what is about to happen and are powerless to stop it.

“Do you have any soy sauce?”

‘Shit,’ we all look at each other, thinking the same thing, ‘he’s got no clue.’

“My handsome son, do you not like my rice?”

“No, I don’t eat rice without soy sauce.”

“My rice isn’t just any rice, you don’t need soy sauce. Try the rice without it, son.”

At this point, my dad has given my friend two opportunities to walk away without any repercussions.  He has failed to see the clear signs that the road is ending soon and he needs to respectfully exit. For our part, we are powerless to stop the impending train wreck.

“I need the soy sauce.”

“SON! Eat the rice as it is, there is no soy sauce. If you don’t like it, then you can put it back.”

You should realize that my dad was not sitting with us. He was in a nearby room, sitting and eating like a king, happy that his vassals were supplied with all they needed. His contentment was destroyed by the crime of asking for soy sauce with Persian rice. It was something you neither did, nor insisted upon. Decorum was breeched.

Cognizant he would not win, my friend ended up adding some more butter and salt. When he sat down, we all looked at him as if he had committed high treason. All we could do was shake our heads and hope he does not make the same mistake twice—or at least brings his own soy sauce, even then he would be courting disaster.

Apparently She Thought I Was Japanese

As most have probably gathered, or if you haven’t read the About Me page of the blog, I grew up in rural Central Kentucky. Needless to say, there wasn’t much diversity.

Labels for those of us who were different varied widely, mainly based on the perception holders own misconceived notions of ethnic groups. Not that it was their fault, however. But it did,  more or less, provide for some humorous interpretations of my own ethnicity–and coincidentally material for this blog.

Probably the weirdest, craziest selection of my ethnic background came from a classmate my freshman year in high school. I want to say, the label was first introduced at some point in the spring. And offered up as an explanation for my otherness at least twice, possibly three times.

It was a Saturday, if my memory serves me correctly (give me a break it’s been over 20 years–ugh I’m getting old). My father and I were walking through one of the hallways of my high school. Maybe I had Saturday school, that would explain why I was there, with my dad on a Saturday.

As we made our way to the library (yep, definitely had Saturday School), I see one of my classmates sitting on the floor with her boyfriend. They were, to put it mildly, engaged in some sort of heavy petting ritual that high schoolers often think is an acceptable form of affection in public.

She breaks off her exercise in affection, looks in my direction, and in an I-got-you-I-know-what-you-are tone says, “Japanese!! You’re Japanese!”

All I could muster was a confused, “ummmmm…,” before continuing my walk to the library. I was fourteen, maybe fifteen, and hadn’t really encountered that sort of thing. It was awkward and high schoolers really don’t know how to handle those situations without freezing…awkwardly.

By the time I could process what had happened, I realized it wasn’t the first time she had directed her conclusions in my direction. She had done it once before. Only that time, I hadn’t realized she was directing it towards me. Because of my own ignorance, I chose to laugh off that first interaction. To be honest, I don’t think I even understood what she was talking about.

She did it once more. And I’d like to think that I corrected her conclusions, because I really don’t remember it ever happening again. It’s just as likely someone else could have made the correction for me.

What I’ve never been able to wrap my head around, though, is the idea that to her my otherness equated to me being Japanese. Was that the furthest, most foreign place she could think of? Did my dark hair, dark eyes, some what tan skin tone mean that I was, in her calculation, Japanese? Was the only interaction she had with non-whites with someone that was Japanese? And what made her assume that yelling it out was something that was acceptable? As opposed to maybe, simply asking?

It surely, truly was an interesting calculus on her part. And to be honest, I’ve not run into her since then to ask. Not that I would, if I did, however. But I can’t help but wonder, ‘what on earth was she thinking.’