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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Why There’s No More Thanksgiving in Kentucky for Me

Ever since I can remember, my mother has hosted her extended family on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Our childhood home several miles outside of Bardstown, KY, is the spot for this yearly pilgrimage. Aunts, uncles, cousins, my now 96-year-old grandfather, and even some family friends would converge on our home–sometimes several days in advance. They’d come for food, football, fellowship, and old-fashioned banter. In recent years, as my siblings, cousins and I have married and some have become parents, the number of those attending has swelled to well over 50 guests.

Only three times has my mother failed to host our traditional post-Thanksgiving congress.

The first time was when my uncle got married in upstate New York. The second was in 2001 when my mother was working full time and chipping in as my brother and sister-in-law juggled being first-time parents with working full-time and finishing college. The last time was when my cousin set her 2013 wedding for the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The tradition had been so engrained in our family’s ethos that my cousin called my mom asking for permission to schedule her wedding on that day.

Nearly seven years ago, as I was moving to Washington, DC, my mother made me promise to come home for the annual get together.

“Even if it’s the only time you come home each year, make it Thanksgiving,” she insisted.

But since the rise of Trumpism in the summer of 2015 and the embrace of much of the Republican Party of Islamophobia, I knew my attendance at the annual event might be in jeopardy.

As an Iranian-American and Muslim-American who had supposedly been openly embraced by my mom’s relatives (who are white and mostly Christian), I thought the sorts of vitriol and bigotry being spewed from the right would not intrude on our post-Thanksgiving gathering. My family and I should have been on auto-pilot from the moment the GOP went all-in on attacking immigrants, given the fact that my father is Iranian-born.

But they weren’t. Instead of blasting the right, they played the false equivalency game, suggesting that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s low favorability numbers and her supposedly inadequate response to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi were the same or worse than the invective and innuendo used by multiple GOP contenders to target immigrants and minorities.

I went to Kentucky in 2015 knowing that there were family members who either fully embraced this right-wing rhetoric or who were sitting on the fence. It was not a pleasant experience. To be sure, there were and still are a few who’ve pushed back against the creeping Trumpism running riot in our family. But they remain outliers, multiple standard deviations away from the mean.

By the time 2016 rolled around, it was clear that whatever hopes I had for my relatives to rise above such invective were misplaced. The relatives that were supposed to put family first and stand for obsequious hospitality driven by a strong belief in the Golden Rule, in fact, were enabling the type of politics that ran counter to these principles. Instead of circling the wagons and protecting all of us, they, through their silence or direct support for Trumpism, supplied the kindling that fueled those attacking us from the outside.

The Trump supporters in my family claimed that their favored candidate was merely speaking his mind—and thus was worthy of their support. But the sad fact is that they agreed with what he said. They nodded along when he targeted Muslims. They acquiesced when he mocked the disabled journalist. They condoned his support for harsh and brutal constitutionally-questionable police tactics. They parroted his racist dog whistles.

It didn’t matter, apparently, that members of their own family would be targeted or feel threatened. It wouldn’t matter that their support for him was a betrayal of everything for which our family has stood. It wouldn’t matter that they’d put politics before family.

The reality is, they are directly complicit in the fear and anxiety that my parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and Iranian relatives feel every single day.

To date, the relatives who supported Trump have yet to openly show remorse. Instead, they’re relying on a false hope that our familial bonds will absolve them from having to apologize for their betrayal. While I still love them, my relationship with them has been fundamentally and likely irrevocably changed.  The people who I thought would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me to face hatred, racism, and bigotry, instead fed me and my Iranian relatives to the wolves.

This 500-pound gorilla will remain in the room at every family event until they’re willing to show some form of contrition—or at a minimum, acknowledge the damage that they have done.

Never in my wildest dreams, could I have imagined so many members of the family to which I owe much of my upbringing would be so willing to embrace a candidate who promised to target my sister, brother, father, nieces, nephews and indeed all my Iranian relatives.

It should come as no surprise, then, that for the second year in a row (and only the third time ever), with the approval of my mother, I missed the Saturday after Thanksgiving gathering. I still love my family, but I do get to set the boundaries for my relationship with them. Last November, they crossed a line that should have never been crossed.

Instead, I exercised my right to choose by surrounding myself with people who I not only love, but also trust. I know they wouldn’t sell me out or betray me for some false promise to make America great again.

There’ll Be No Sugar Cereal in this House

Preface

It would be imprudent of me to embark on a journey of exploring my identity and not include anything about my mother or her family. Simply put, experiences I have had with my mother’s family have been consequential and often directly connect to experiences with my father’s family. To fill the absence of Iranian culture, my mother’s family was ever present. I would be lying if I tried to minimize their role in my life. There is no way I would be where I am today without their enduring guidance and influence. But don’t take this as a slight at my Iranian background. The situation was more circumstantial than anything else; the roles very easily could have been reversed had we ended up in California or for some reason we grew up in Iran. Therefore, I am thankful for the role that my mother and her family have played in my life. There was never a doubt in my mind about their love for my siblings and me.

 

When I was a child, my mother would not allow sugared cereal in the house. That meant no Sugar Smacks, no CoCo Puffs, no Corn Pops, even Frosted Flakes were banned. This was juxtaposed with the fact that there was always full 12 pack of Coca-Cola sitting somewhere in the house.

My mother loves her Coca-Cola Classic, a guilty pleasure perhaps she developed well before I was born. But after many years working as a social worker and mother to three [rambunctious] children, she’s definitely earned it. Such experience has made her the most patient, kind, and caring individual I know. One could even describe her as unflappable. But all of that patience melts away, if you dare give her Pepsi or RC Cola. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT. I’ll discuss her attachment to Lipton Tea later.

One time when we were grocery shopping there was someone at the store handing out samples of the newest Pepsi product. The demonstrator claimed the drink tasted just like Coca-Cola, and to prove it, she had customers take a taste test. Most could not taste the difference, but my mother–before even taking a sip–could already tell which drink was Coca-Cola and which was the new Pepsi product. The woman was not pleased and it quickly became clear that we should move along. My mother scoffed and walked off supremely disappointed that the person actually thought she would fall for such a rudimentary test.

No matter the contradiction, her love for Coca-Cola—and sweetened Tea (both hot and cold)—did not prevent her from issuing an embargo on all cereals with artificial sweeteners. My siblings and I could protest, strike, petition, and sulk all we wanted. She simply would not budge.

“I wasn’t going to have my kids hopped up on sugar,” she told me years later. “You all were already hyper enough as it was, I didn’t need to add any more fuel to the fire.”

She was pretty successful. It was not until I was in middle school when she, at my brother’s request, approved the purchase of Cap’n Crunch. But her fight was doomed from the beginning.

You see, my father had been buying us ‘healthier’ sugar cereal for years. We had a menu’s choice of Frosted Flakes, Apple Jacks, Frosted Mini-Wheats, Fruity Pebbles, Fruit Loops, and so on, but not all at the same time, of course. I am fairly certain he was aware of the prohibition at my mother’s house, but to be honest, it wasn’t until I wrote this piece that I thought my father might willingly be breaking the embargo. Outside of the sugar cereal and ice cream, my father was pretty frugal on other sugar products as well. Maybe this was his way of countering whatever my mother had decided. A small, subtle guerrilla operation that was too insignificant for my mother to thwart. Needless to say, it never morphed into a full blown conflict, thankfully.

But the biggest violator of my mother’s ban on her children’s consumption of sweetened cereal was not my father, it was her father—my grandfather. There is no question whether or not he was aware of the embargo—he was. He willfully and knowingly chose to ignore it.

Nothing my mother said or did could have convinced my grandfather of the merits of her moratorium on sugar filled cereals. I am not sure she even put up a fight. Her acquiescence was likely due to her in depth knowledge that his stubbornness—which she picked up from him and subsequently passed along to me—would likely further entrench his position if she were to protest loudly.

He was smart enough to limit his violations to only when we visited him and my grandmother in Paducah, my mother’s hometown in Western Kentucky. That was one of the many things I learned to admire—and have attempted to mirror—about my grandfather. He knew where the limits were and danced right up to that line, just enough to make the other side nervous and begin a protest, only to back away before they really had a case.

A few times a year we would make the three and half our trip to Paducah by way of the Western Kentucky Parkway, easily the most boring highway in America. As kids, the trip seemed to take ages. Each hour felt like a millennium. But my brother and I knew what was waiting for us when we arrived, so in our minds, the arduous journey down the mind-numbing parkway was well worth it.

Shortly after our arrival and the routine of expected familial greeting formalities, we would be headed right back out the door with my grandfather. My memory has it that he would already have his coat on, keys in hand, ready to take us to the grocery store—in clear violation of my mom’s orders—to pick out the sugar filled cereal that each of us wanted. An added bonus: he did not force us to make a consensus decision. One box a piece.

According to my uncles, we would bust back into the house high-stepping like a drum major, boxes-over-our-heads in celebration of flouting our mother’s rules. As we were celebrating, my grandfather would scurry into the kitchen, grab two bowls, two spoons, and the milk, so we could eat our treasure with haste.

“I think dad felt sorry for you,” one of my uncles later told me. “The funny thing is, we didn’t get sugar cereal either.”

I was particularly notorious for adding more sugar to the already over sweetened cereals. Maybe it was the excitement, or maybe it was an attempt to pack in as much sugar as possible before the prohibition began again a few days later on the Western Kentucky Parkway. Most likely, it was probably because I knew I was in a safe zone, free from reproach. Regardless, I consumed as much of the sugar packed breakfast product as I could.

As my siblings and I grew older, our mother loosened her restrictions. For example, I do remember adding sugar to Product 19, which for some reason, I’ve not found in ages. Since I remember doing it on a regular basis, it had to be done with my mother’s approval because I know she would likely rush into the kitchen the moment the spoon hit the sugar bowl. But my memory escapes me here.

Even though my mother stood her ground on artificially sweetened cereals, she wasn’t draconian in her prohibition of all sugars. We still had ice cream, cakes, baklava, white sugar (for sweetening tea and the aforementioned Product 19), Drumsticks (those mass produced Ice Cream cones that are magnificently delicious), and Oreo cookies, just to name a few overly sugar-infused products.

Looking back, it seems my mother was simply trying to exert some control amid our sugar saturated life. In a way, her attempts at discipline via sugar limits have helped control my sweet tooth, a virtue of good health practice I value today. Although, I must confess, chocolate chip cookies, bastani (Persian saffron-infused ice cream), and doughnuts have become my weaknesses. I guess the only way forward is to embrace delayed gratification.