Had I Been Born in Iran, You’d Do This to Me

To say I’m not surprised we’ve reached this point, this quickly would be an understatement. In fact, I’m more surprised it took this long.

The current President ran a campaign based on the dehumanization of virtually every possible group except white evangelicals (who still seem to overwhelmingly support his agenda). If you were a person of color or one of those who sits at the limits of whiteness, the target on your back only has only become bigger.

From immigration advocates, like my friend Pablo Manriquez, we heard dire warnings about what this administration (and even the last) was doing. To date, Obama deported more than Trump has. And to be clear, I was also critical of Obama on this issue. It was one of several disappointing calculations the 44th President made. More importantly, it created space for the sorts of actions we see today.

But the current state of affairs at the southern border constitute a severe moral erosion of American society. Far worse than anything Obama did, the current administration has decided to rip families apart as they try to cross the border. Most, if not all, made the difficult choice to trek hundreds of miles through inhospitable terrain in order to seek asylum in the United States. They are fleeing immediate threats of, among other things, violence, persecution, forced sexual slavery, forced labor, etc. in their home countries—not altogether different than why many of our ancestors came to this country.

You wouldn’t, however, be wrong to suggest that in order to claim asylum status one must cross formally recognized borders. But even as I write this, reports are surfacing that those borders are being closed to those seeking asylum. Additionally, a little over a week ago, the Trump administration announced that gang and domestic violence aren’t grounds for asylum. Thus, nearly every asylum seeker will be denied.

To describe the situation facing asylum seekers as anything, but Kafkaesque would be a travesty. To gain asylum you have to cross at a recognized border. But that option is shuttered. To turn back means, you’ll certainly be killed. To enter the United States at a crossing that isn’t recognized means possible detention, family separation, and eventual deportation, because of the new policies by the current US President.

I’ve seen some suggest this policy by the Trump administration is no different than what Obama did. Or that this is a law passed by Democrats. But, claiming it was Obama’s policy is simply not true. Neither is claiming it was a law passed by Democrats, who haven’t controlled Congress since early 2010. That said, Obama, in accordance with the Flores Settlement, did house unaccompanied minors in facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services. But Obama did not separate families. In fact, he kept them together through the deportation hearings.

The Trump Administration seems confused, as well. On Sunday night, just one day after White House Advisor Stephen Miller was quoted defending the family separation policy, Secretary of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen tweeted that families weren’t being separated. On Monday, however, she defended the policy. Trump, himself, has blamed Democrats, while also suggesting it’s a negotiating tactic. Which is it Mr. President, a democrat law or a negotiating tactic to get your wall?

The policy to separate families, the one that has generated the heart wrenching pictures of children being ripped from the arms of their parents, has been Trump’s and Trump’s alone. The current administration bears the responsibility for the chaos, inhumanity, and moral depravity at the border.

To see many good people in Bardstown openly supporting this policy (using the same dehumanizing language the Nazis used to support and defend their detention of Jews) is at best rage inducing. But, I shouldn’t be surprised, as many of those I see supporting the policy to rip children from their mother’s arms are the same who defended the policy that prevents me from inviting my Iranian family to visit this country.

The bottom line is families should be kept together through the entire process—deportation or not. Separating them forces them to relive the stress and trauma they were fleeing.

Let me leave you with these two morsels. First, it’s important to remember the difference between us and them is we had the luxury of being born here.

And maybe the most disheartening thing is knowing if I had been born in Iran, many readers would have been content to do the same thing to me. Many you already feel that way about my cousins. That’s a shame.

America deserves better.

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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.

 

The President’s Words Matter

The President’s words matter.

Precisely because we hold our elected officials—especially our Presidents—to a higher standard, the comments by the current occupier of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave strike a concerning cord.

As someone with a strongly held belief in the sanctity of the Presidency, I am deeply troubled by the President’s words last week and during his tenure overall.

While it’s true that our image abroad prior to the current administration’s shenanigans was, to put it lightly, complicated, there was still some amount of hope and inspiration engendered by the idea of America. Over the last year, as the international community has come to be more fully aware of Trump’s America and the Republican Vision for the future, that promise of opportunity and optimism is rapidly waning.

My father came to this country over a half century ago. I operate on the assumption that Trump considers my father’s place of birth a shithole, too. After all, he’s spent a significant portion of his campaign and time in office demonizing Iran in an effort to back out of a hard-earned diplomatic victory (one I had a small hand in by helping to organizing a push to convince Senators in Maryland and Virginia to support the accord).

If my father had arrived in an America with a similar environment as today, you probably wouldn’t be reading this. Primarily, the Trumpian world view would have blocked my father from coming in the first place. And second, if he had made it, he would have likely steered clear of Trumpland.

My immediate family’s experience is wrapped firmly in the increasingly out of favor idea that America is a cocoon of hope, aspirational advancement, and opportunity. My father came at a time, when, even as we battled, sometimes in the streets, over the very definition of equal rights for all, there was a strong moral conviction to promoting this country as willing to open its arms to the globe and welcoming people of all shapes, sizes, races, and creeds. All this country asked in return was, to paraphrase Washington in his letter to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island, that newcomers conduct themselves as good citizens and give this country their undying support.

For those that know my father, he is exceptional in his own right. But he is who he is precisely because of the opportunities afforded to him by this country when he immigrated nearly fifty-four years ago. And he is one of millions of immigrants who have come here, for a myriad of reasons, only to have conducted themselves with honor and dignity—many of whom living in Bardstown.

The President’s words last week debase the Presidency and the very principles our Founding Father’s sought to achieve. That little phrase he uttered, so casually, dehumanizes the very people seeking refuge in this country’s opportunities and inspired by the idea of America. It matters little that these types of phrases are used across the country in locker rooms, carpools, and beer halls. There, they remain nothing but banter by cocksure citizens with little to no power to change policy. But when spoken by the President, the person responsible for representing all of America and being our voice domestically and abroad, the signal becomes all too sinister. Not only do they upset long standing decorum of a polished and respectful Executive, they have further tarnished our image abroad. And they could ultimately embolden those citizens above to take action against their immigrant neighbor.

Is this the example of leadership we want to create for younger generations? Is this the precedent we want to set for America’s new image abroad—xenophobic, bigoted, and crass? Should it matter, as David Rothkopf, former editor of Foreign Policy, asks, that the President reflexively discounts vast swaths of the globe simply because of their race, culture, or religion?

You should be answering with a resounding No, No, and Yes.

Last night, my wife reminded me of the Bible verse (yes, this Muslim reads the Bible) Micah 6:8: He has showed you, O Man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with God?

We all, our President included, would do better, if we tried, even as flawed beings, to follow the inherent command in the verse above. Otherwise future generations may be imperiled.

They deserve better.

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.

White Like Obama

One evening while walking through DC, slightly buzzing from consuming medium quantities of beer, I had an epiphany. Not the kind that politicians write about when they change course or the non-believers credit with turning them into zealots. But it was far simpler. One that summed up my whole quest for trying to understand identity, how we shape our own, but also how society shapes their perceptions and how that affects each person’s own self-identity.

I was considering the time my biracial friend had told me he hated white people. He apologized immediately. I had not scolded him, nor had I made some long speech about reverse racism. His frustration, was often my own and I totally understood why he said what he said. You see, his mother, like mine, is white. But because his father is black and he had a darker skin tone, society had put him in a box that refused to recognize his whiteness.

He and his younger sibling had dated white girls through high school—and even now they’re married to women who would identify as white. Unfortunately, some people in our town could not fathom interracial dating. And part of their inability to comprehend manifested itself through making remarks about how unacceptable it was or how it could ruin the white girl’s reputation.

I understood what he was going through. At the same time, I was dating a black girl. Some parents of my white friends would make remarks about interracial dating to me too. Although, it would not be directly addressing my own relationship, their point was clear—interracial dating was bad.

When my friend made his comment, I simply told him we were both equal parts white, but that there was no need to apologize—except maybe to his mother.

I dwell on that interaction often and have longer piece dedicated to it–coming later. But on this evening, high on the effects of several half liters of beer, walking home from my favorite beer garden, I was struck by this thought: ‘Genetically speaking, I’m just as white as Obama. He and I (and even my friends mentioned above) will always have that in common. But only one of us will ever be perceived as white by society. Only one of us will benefit from white privilege.’

What sort of identity crisis does that create for my friends and President Obama? Have they ever sought acceptance from white society? Or did they give up? How would their mother’s feel about that conversation? Did my perceived whiteness have any sort of impact on the experience I had in high school? Does my own desire to embrace my Iranian-ness stem from this feeling that being called white is not enough? What is the genesis of the push back from my friends at home who cannot accept me being anything else but white?

My experiences as a perceived white kid growing up in central Kentucky imparts on me the recognition that white privilege (or advantage as my astute professor friend likes to say) does exist. The perception of being white insulated me from having to face the sorts of venom thrown at my friends and President Obama. It was only when I started embracing my otherness, that I started to receive the same sorts of messages from my hometown.

Trumpism Brings Fear to My Doorstep

As Donald J. Trump prepares to accept the Republican nomination for president, his candidacy is already having a frightening impact on the people I love the most. For the first time in my life, I hear real fear in the voices of my parents. Caused in part by Trump’s tropes about Muslims in reaction to horrific terrorist attacks, the 2016 presidential election has caused them a great deal of concern.

“Of all these years I’ve been in the US, I’m not sure I’ve been as scared as I am today,” my father admitted during one of our many phone conversations.

For what it’s worth, he’s been here for over 50 years, coming from Iran to learn English and falling in love with the country. My father lived through the tumultuous Civil Rights movement, the Iranian Revolution’s hostage crisis, and 9-11.

I was shocked by his admission. Normally positive and upbeat, he seemed almost mournful at the uptick in vitriol and hate speech. The country that had given him so much hope is beginning to scare the daylights out of him. Most of our conversations since then focus on the fear and apprehension he feels.

My mother, for her part, tries to stay positive and steer clear of the political minefield. But when she does talk about the current state of affairs, she can’t hide her feelings.

“I just don’t want to have those conversations with people,” she told me recently. She’d rather stay home and read books than have to engage Trump supporters.

It’s not just those interactions that she’s worried about. Anytime she hears Trump and his followers spewing their Islamophobic hatred, her thoughts immediately turn to my siblings and me. Pandora’s Box has been opened, she worries. Even if Trump loses, the tension and vitriol will continue.

My own actions, my father pointed out to me when I recently visited my hometown in Kentucky, had even contributed to his sense of apprehension.

“If you think by speaking out against the racism, Islamophobia, hate speech, you are making me feel safer, you aren’t,” he told me matter of factly.

It was a jarring indictment of my own attempts at advocacy. I was forced to reevaluate my approach to the rising tide of Islamophobia throughout the country, within my hometown and even within my friend group.

How am I supposed to open their eyes to what their Islamophobia means? How do I show them that their racist, bigoted, hate speech is both unacceptable and dangerous? How do I show them that their conveniently held beliefs that Muslims should be banned, placed under extra surveillance, have their patriotism questioned, targeted for violence, etc. directly affect their own friends—people with whom they’ve broken bread, played soccer, shared life altering experiences? How can I uncompromisingly walk them back from their position of exclusion? How can I make my parents feel safe again?

Fear, we can reason, is a natural response to extreme discomfort. My father’s fear stems from the realization that those he’s spent a lifetime teaching the finer points of advanced mathematical computations will be unforgiving in their own calculations deciding that he and his children are in fact the enemy.

My mother’s fear is much the same. The people she built bonds with through various professional and social avenues could very easily turn their backs on her simply because her former husband is Muslim and her children are half-Iranian. Those same people could then also target her children and grandchildren.

The embrace of Islamophobia by some of my friends, some of my father’s former students, some of my mother’s acquaintances, is aided, in part, by demagoguery on the right, which has a long history of invective and innuendo that Muslims and Islam as a culture (as if a monolithic Islamic culture exists) are America’s greatest threat. Their conclusions, however, disregard the many contributions Muslims–and Islam, for that matter–have made to our country. And they ignore the positive impact my father has had on our community.

My father, always the philosopher, channeled the German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer, when he said, “Every time we reason, our conclusion is a function of the information we have.”

Some of us have nearly unfettered access to information and interactions with other cultures; most do not. But no single person has all the information, all the time. Additionally, information can be denied through subterfuge, which is both internal (a stubborn refusal to seek alternate sources of information) or external (politicians using invective to push constituents in a certain direction).

Our last conversation on my visit home was steered in part by my father’s daily reading of Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. That day’s passage, among other things, discussed the labyrinth of information, which is constrained by both our own willful exclusion of facts and the purposeful exclusion of facts by others. This is the vector through which propaganda enters, leaving us with a sense that we’ve made up our own minds when we haven’t.

If the rise in Islamophobia—and racial tensions, overall—is more a function of access to diverse sources of information than innate bias, it would indicate that bombarding Islamophobes with information would be sufficient to make them walk back from their irrational positions. But some people, as columnist Ross Douthat recently pointed out, view openness (or cosmopolitanism) as yet another mechanism by which elites can rule the land, excluding the world views of those skeptical of inclusionary politics. Thus, they decide exclusion is the antidote to the corrupting power of the elite.

If that is true, how do we bring the Islamophobes in from the cold? How do we convince them that inclusion is far more agreeable and more effective in preventing terrorism than exclusion? How can we open their eyes to the fact that we, as the United States, are supposed to be the beacon of hope rising above the morass of despair in so many parts of the world, particularly the Middle East? How can we show them their position plays into the hands of our enemies? How can I do this without making my family any less safe than they already are?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. All I know is the more I push, explain, attempt to engage, and even lose my cool at times, the less traction I seem to get and the more apprehensive and afraid my family becomes.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that when I go home, I choose not to spend too much time in public. To be honest, I’m fearful too. The myopia of many running rampant in my beloved hometown (and the Commonwealth of Kentucky, for that matter) is a far cry from the welcoming cosmopolitan spirit that embraced my parents when they moved there in 1973.

 

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.’

Are You Israeli?

I was standing outside the Pret A Manger inside DC’s bustling Union Station busy minding my own business, listening to Pandora, and idly waiting for my girlfriend to arrive, so we could catch a train to Philly.

The Red Line, as usual, was having issues.

Out of the corner of my eye, I catch an eager looking gentleman trying to get my attention.

‘Is my music too loud,’ I thought to myself. No, it wasn’t.

He smiled, nodded his head. I acknowledged him, with a returned head nod–something guys inherently do the world over. ‘Yes, I’m approachable’ or ‘Yes, I see you’ are among but a few of the many messages it can send.

“Are you Israeli?” he asks with a perceptible accent that told me he was both foreign born, but fully comfortable in English.

“No.”

“Do you speak Hebrew?”

Maybe he wasn’t so comfortable in English after all.

“No.”

“Jewish?”

“No.”

“Where are you from,” he said, exhausting all of his presumed options.

“Kentucky.” He gives me a sincere look of ‘what the fuck.’ It’s the same look I often get when I tell people I’m from Kentucky without providing context.

“But my dad is Iranian,” I explain, recognizing he needed clarification.

“Ahh,” as if that explained his perception of my Jewishness (wait, does that mean we all look alike?) and was enough for him to be comfortable to continue the conversation, “Are you Muslim?”

“Yes, but only as much as one can be growing up in rural Kentucky.”

With the formalities of feeling me out completed, he asks, “My friend, last night I lost my wallet, my train ticket, everything. Could you help be buy a bus ticket back to Boston? I have no money. I’ll send you a check when I get back. I promise”

I hesitate.

“Consider it as an exercise in cross-cultural engagement.”

‘Fuck, he knows my weakness.’

“Sure, how much do you need?”

“The ticket costs $40. There’s an ATM right over there,” he said pointing to the ATM in front of the H&M.

‘This guy has really scoped this place out. Is he scamming me? Or maybe he’s just been here a while.’

I walked over towards the ATM, started to insert my card, and saw the sign that read out of order. Was that an omen? Should I turn back now? Give up on the potential cross-cultural bridge building?

As I turn, I catch his face looking hopeful, for the first time all day, someone will finally help him make that 8 hour bus ride back to Boston. Otherwise he might end up the real life version of Tom Finnerty (yes, that was a Sopranos reference).

“I think there’s another ATM around the corner,” I said, “This one’s broken.”

“Thank you for helping me. My friend, what’s your name?”

‘Oh crap, he’s not going to believe I’m not Jewish.’

“David,” I respond, chuckling to myself, as I shake his hand.

“Eli, my name is Eli.”

‘Should I tell him my middle name is Abraham? No, absolutely not, don’t do that. He’s really going to think you’re lying to him about not being Jewish.’

“Again, thank you for helping me.”

There’s a line at the two ATMs through two sliding glass doors and around the corner from Pret. They sit at the top of the exit from the metro station and close to where the trains arrive. Both of us sit in an awkward silence that lasted all of two minutes but felt like eternity.

Finally, it’s my turn.

I go through the familiar motions of withdrawing funds from a cash machine pulling out $60, an extra $20 for myself. Transaction completed.

As I hand him the $40, he most certainly had seen me pull three twenties from the machine, Eli asks, “Can I have $20 more for some food along the way? It’s an 8 hour trip.”

‘Let’s not ruin this moment of cross-cultural bridge building, Eli,’ I thought.

“I’m sorry that extra $20 is for me,” I said, almost immediately regretting it because it sounded way too harsh and made me feel a little like Smokey’s mother in Friday.

“Ahh, no worries, friend. Thank you for this. But, please, give me your phone number or address, I will send you a check when I get back to Boston,” he insisted.

“Pay it forward, my friend. When someone asks you for help, help them. That’s how you can pay me back,” I responded sounding almost sanctimonious, rather than benevolent.

“Thank you, Thank you, I will,” he said smiling as he walked to buy his bus ticket.

Somewhere in Boston, Eli is sitting comfortably (I hope) sipping coffee or tea, and periodically thinking about our interaction at Union Station. I wonder if he ever found anyone to buy him food or if he waited, hunger pangs unabated, until he got home.

It’s been less than a month and I still laugh that of all the people scurrying through Union Station, he picked me solely because I looked the most Jewish.

 

The Puerto Rican Boyfriend

I spent several summers before, during, and after grad school coaching soccer camps. My boss, Heidi, was a high energy, high octane former US Women’s player from Chicago–and Cleveland. The juxtaposition of my very slow, methodical, and light-footprint approach to coaching was constantly on display. That said, we were actually a perfect compliment to each other, as each player is different and coaching required varying your approach in an effort to produce the best possible outcomes for those under your tutelage.

One of the summers I was helping my boss, we directed a local high school in their preseason camp. Early in the morning we would arrive, set up shop, and work on specific areas that needed improvement. Most of the kids we knew, having coached them in previous summers in various camps or clinics. So, it came as a surprise when I was pulled aside by a player or coach, I don’t remember, and had the following interchange.

“Shams (that’s what they called me), you’ll get a kick out of this.”

“Ha, okay, what happened?”

“When you and Heidi pulled up, Bobby (not his real name) said, ‘Great, here comes Heidi and her Puerto Rican boyfriend.'”

“That’s hilarious. Was that supposed to be an insult?”

“No clue man.”

“I should act upset.”

Several moments later, I was in charge of Bobby’s group. I can’t remember the actual session, but I recall they had been messing up what ever it was we were trying to accomplish. So, I stepped in. Telling them I had three pointers, saving the ethnic  clarification for the last point.

“…and THIRD,” I said turning toward Bobby, “I am not Heidi’s boyfriend and I’m not Puerto Rican. Does Shams even sound Puerto Rican? Come on man, I’m half Iranian, not that expected you to know that, but if you’re going to try to insult me at least get the right ethnicity.”

All the other guys chuckled, while Bobby’s face turned red in embarrassment.

After a while, I pulled Bobby to the side.

“I want you to know, I’m not offended. My intent was to demonstrate that sometimes your audience includes people outside your circle of friends, people that you may not realize are listening. I’m sorry, if, in doing that, I embarrassed you.”

 

The Italian Exchange Student

A running joke among Iranians is that we can pass for a lot of ethnic groups.

Unfortunately, I’m not enough of an anthropologist to make a definitive conclusion about how or why, but I don’t think I’m too far off in saying that it’s in part due to Iran’s location. During the Silk Road era, many tribes, nations, ethnic groups, conquerors, marauders, bandits, merchants, etc. crisscrossed the Iranian plateau. Their genes, as usually happens when, over several centuries, people interact and cross paths in the same locations, inevitably intermingled with those of the natives. And thus the present day plight of Iranians being able to blend in, without being noticed as Iranians, was born.

My brother, Jacob, was no exception. In fact, out of my two siblings and I, he looks the most Iranian–he even tattooed his name in Farsi on his arm. Once, right after the ink had settled, I told him they messed up his middle name–they hadn’t, but a little brother has to do what he has to do.

I looked up (and still do) to my brother, especially on the soccer field. Four years my senior, he had all the skills and presence I wanted to mirror. He was a true leader on the pitch.

His skills were so great that some kids from other schools couldn’t believe he was simply an American. He had to be from somewhere else.

“The only reason why Bardstown is any good is because they have that Italian exchange student,” one student from a neighboring county said.

“Umm…what,” the older sister of one of my brother’s friends said. She had been hanging out with some of her friends from that school.

“Yeah, that Italian kid. He dominates the games. That’s why they are good.”

“There aren’t any Italians on the team. I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“That guy, who plays midfield, darker skin, kind of curly black hair, dark eyes. He’s got to be Italian.”

“Are you talking about Jacob?”

“Yeah, I think that’s him, #19?”

“Yeah, you’re definitely talking about Jacob. He’s not an exchange student and he’s not Italian. He’s one of my brother’s friends, born and raised in Bardstown.”

“Well, he looks Italian!”

 

(I’ve probably gotten some of the details wrong, so if anyone is reading this knows the exact interaction, please let me know.)