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.


“Do you speak Hebrew?”

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




“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.)


There’ll Be No Sugar Cereal in this House


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.

I Thought My Dad Was Black

People always ask me what my hometown was like when my dad first moved there. To be honest, I don’t really know—I wasn’t born yet. But I often joke that Bardstown was made up of whites, blacks, and then my dad. That isn’t necessarily true, but you get the idea.

In fact, when my parents first moved to Bardstown, there was another Iranian living there. But, according to my mom, my dad really didn’t like him that much. Neither has told me why and I don’t know if I actually care. Since it’s not that important, I’m probably not going to ask, or perhaps I should.

Needless to say, by the time I was born there weren’t many people like my dad living in Bardstown. With the exception of two cross-country trips to California (we drove and that’s for another story), visits from relatives in Oklahoma City, and the occasional visit with my dad’s college buddies (remember Manu and the Persian Rat Pack), I wasn’t in regular contact with other Iranians.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was (yes, you’re picking up a pattern), but I was probably around four, as my memory tells me that my parents were divorced and I was in pre-school. That means it was at least 1986, and in this particular memory, my father was wearing a short sleeved shirt, which means it was probably when the weather was warmer.

I was deep in thought as my dad was driving me to my mother’s house. We were probably coming from the Montessori pre-school that I attended, but again I don’t remember that detail. On second thought, it could have all happened in 1987.

My mother lived—and still does—in the house my parents bought in 1978. When they divorced, my mother kept the house, while my father took the parcel of land across the road. He’s tinkered with remodeling and refurbishing a small cabin that sits on the property. In the last ten years, he’s made more progress than he did in the previous twenty. He’s made it livable, but just barely.

The house and the parcel of land with the cabin are a little more than five miles down Woodlawn Road, which branches off of Bloomfield Road, right in front of Nelson County High School. When my parents first moved out there you could count on one hand the amount of cars you’d pass on the road. That’s not even remotely the case today. Now, despite my mother’s house being at the apex of a blind curve that not only changes elevation, but also crosses a small creek, cars zip by at all times of the day. I’m surprised there haven’t been a lot of accidents, but screeching tires are a regular occurrence.

My dad and I had just left the two lane portion of Woodlawn Road and were heading down into the valley where my mother’s house sits. The road is just wide enough for two cars to pass, if and only if both drivers slow down and utilize the gravel shoulder.

We had just crested the first of two hills before heading around a small bend, crossing a small bridge and hitting the longest flat stretch in that part of the county that led to my mother’s house. In that moment I finally mustered up the courage to ask what I had been thinking. It could have been on my mind for a while. Or maybe it was more of an impulse, because as my memory has it, we had just passed a black family headed in the opposite direction and my father flashed a friendly wave—something everyone does on a country road.

“Daddy, are you black?” I asked timidly.

You see, in my four or five year old mind, my father couldn’t have been anything else. He obviously wasn’t white, he was too dark for that. And since I really had no other frame of reference and because so many black families were friendly with my father, I concluded that he—and by proxy me, because even at that young age, I understood that whatever my father was, I was too—was black.

“No,” my father responded, part concerned, part curious, and slightly perturbed.

This was a time in my father’s life when he was under a great deal of stress. The combined elements of a recent divorce and the job of a public school teacher had put him on edge. Luckily, my curiosity didn’t strike the wrong nerve.

“Are you sure?” I shot back, convinced my father was lying. The logic I had spun in my young mind was solid and impeccable.

“Yes, David. I am sure.” He said calmly, returning to dividing his focus between the road and something deeper and more philosophical than I could have ever imagined.

I don’t remember if there was any conversation the rest of the drive—it was less than a mile to my mother’s house from that point. Surely, I had gone back to doing whatever it was before I asked the question. Maybe I was playing with GI Joe’s, which according to my father, I would sneak into school or soccer practice in my front pocket. Or perhaps I was imagining how I could convince my father he was actually black. Or maybe, I started to question my impeccable logic: if he wasn’t white and he wasn’t black, then what the hell was he? What on earth am I? Wait, could that have been the genesis of my lifelong identity crisis?

I’ve never really talked to him about this moment and what it all meant. And I’d like to think he’d read this and call me to talk about it. But to be honest, my dad won’t be reading this unless I print it off and send it to him snail mail. (I’ve sent him the link to this blog twice and in the numerous conversations we’ve had since, he hasn’t commented. If he did, he’d probably call me an asshole or some other cuss word in the most loving tone anyone could ever use while uttering an expletive.)

All I am sure of is that he took my question well. He could have given me a lecture—like many Iranian parents, I’ve learned, are notorious for doing—about the greatness of being Iranian. Maybe it was the stress, maybe the question caught him off guard, or maybe it was something else altogether.

One explanation is at that time in the late 1980s, being Iranian wasn’t posh. So, maybe he feared that instilling in us an overbearing sense of pride in our Iranian-ness could have been dangerous. That’s partially why he didn’t teach us Farsi—emphasis on partially. But I think, more or less, it boiled down to the fact that to him he was human and nothing else mattered. He was indifferent to labels and even now when we have questions about identity, he balks at labeling himself Iranian.

“Does it make a difference?” I imagine him saying. It doesn’t. But it does.

Identity is important, but what I’ve learned is that we’re not limited to just one. And that’s what this is all about.

Can You Tutor Me in Spanish?

“Hey, Shams! Can you tutor me in Spanish,” one of my now fraternity brothers asked me during my pledge semester.

It was the spring of 2002. I had, against the wishes of my father, decided to follow in the footsteps of my maternal uncles and older cousins. They all had joined fraternities while studying at the University of Kentucky (UK).

The previous semester, my roommate, Greg, and I had made a pact that we’d join a fraternity together. Unfortunately, Greg, didn’t come back to school for the spring semester. I was left to join “Greek life” on my own.

I can’t honestly tell you what exactly about “Greek” life that I found so enticing, but for some crazy reason fraternity life appealed to me. Was it all the parties? Maybe. Was it the aura of confidence and machismo? Possibly. Or was it the often proclaimed idea of “brotherhood”? Perhaps. Regardless of what it was, I was going to join a fraternity.

For those of you that don’t know, you can’t just walk up to a frat house and ask to join. There’s a whole process that each potential new member must follow. The first step is Rush Week. That’s kind of the meet and greet of the fraternity world. Each frat tries to sell you on why they were better than the others. And each rushee tries to impress one or several fraternities. Each evening the fraternities have different events, cookouts, bowling, movie nights, mixers, etc. At the end of the week pledges that have made the cut will get invited to what some fraternities call a “smoker”–or in the case of my fraternity the “Mystic Supper.” This gives the rushees one more opportunity to impress in a more formal—I use that term loosely—setting. The next day is what is known as bid day. This is when brothers from each fraternity hand out invitations to the ones lucky enough to have met their fraternity’s criteria. It’s actually quite rigorous, but you know I can’t really get into it since I’m sworn to secrecy and all (I’m half joking, but seriously I can’t tell you).

Prior to Rush Week, I had already whittled my choices down to three fraternities: Alpha Tau Omega, Lambda Chi Alpha, and Alpha Sigma Phi. I had known people in each of those fraternities and the others on campus hadn’t really appealed to me. Going in the plan was to join Lambda Chi, my uncles were brothers at the UK chapter, so it seemed like the right choice.

I ended up choosing Alpha Sigma Phi. It’s a choice I don’t regret. To this day I still keep in touch with some of the brothers. There are even some living in the DC area. We meet up from time to time, share laughs, and retell stories from our time at Murray State.

“Well, if I could speak Spanish, then yeah, but I don’t, so no, I can’t,” I responded, half laughing, half confused about why he thought I’d be able to help him. “Who told you I could speak Spanish?”

“That’s what everyone thinks. You’re fluent in other languages, right?”

“Ummm, No. I speak English, that’s it.”

“So you don’t speak, like Italian or French, or whatever they speak in the Middle East.”

“No, unfortunately not. I’m just a regular American when it comes to that.”

“Oh, for some reason we all though you did.”

“Hahahaah, okay, man. I’ll take it as a compliment,” I said, ending the conversation.

I determined that being half-Iranian categorized me as being fluent in many languages. It probably made it easier for people to wrap their head around what I was. How on earth were they able to process the fact that I was an Iranian-American that grew up in rural Kentucky? ‘He must speak multiple languages,” I imagine them saying both to themselves and their friends.

To be fair, though, it probably helped that I was friends with many of the international students at Murray—mainly the Middle Eastern students. So, I guess they just assumed because my friends were Middle Eastern, that I had to be able to speak their languages too.

It became a running joke that I knew every Middle Eastern student on campus—I didn’t, but I knew quite a few. There were Turks, Arabs, Central Asians, but only four Iranians (including myself). Of the other three, one had grown up in Murray and the other two were on student visas and really didn’t hang out with other students. Needless to say, we didn’t form the 2000’s version of my father’s Murray State Iranian Rat Pack.

Once when I was sitting with my fraternity brothers in the cafeteria, one of my Bahraini friends comes strolling in. We’ll call him Mohammad—I think that’s actually his name, but time has led me to forget. One of my fraternity brother leans over and jokingly—and not expecting an answer–asks, “Hey Shams, do you know him? Where’s he from?”

“Yeah, he’s Bahraini. His name is Mohammad. We have econ together.”

The table erupts in laughter.

“You really do know all of them,” he responds with an emphasis on them.

I could have been offended, but at the same time I realized I did spend a great deal of time with my Middle Eastern friends. To be honest, I hung out with them because they were my only outlet to understanding a culture I had longed to be a part of—even though they weren’t Iranians. Many of them just accepted me as if I was one of them. They allowed me into a world where I felt, for the first time, not guilty of being Middle Eastern—I wasn’t the novelty, I was just like everyone else. We played soccer together, talked about culture, and what it was like living in America being Middle Eastern. I was thankful for that.

To this day, I’m still in contact with a few of them. Although most are back in their home countries, social media allows us to keep in touch—even if it’s every six months or so.

I thought my supposed persona as a multi-cultural polyglot had been squashed after that conversation during my pledge semester. It wasn’t.

A few years later, I started dating a girl who was friends with some of my younger fraternity brothers. As a joke, I had put various cities in the Middle East as places where I had lived and worked after/during college on my Facebook profile. Honestly, I can’t remember all of the cities, but I think one was Ardbil and another was Samarkand. And my voice mail was in German—a language I learned during undergrad, not because I’m some international man of mystery. Apparently, those things only fueled the origin-myth surrounding brother Shams.

After a few dates, she mentioned something about being thrown off by my accent when I called the first time. We had only interacted a few times before that, so I guess she had forgotten that I actually had a southern accent. Which, according to my Aunt and a handful of others, is now non-existent, although my current girlfriend would beg to differ.

“Well what did you expect? I grew up in Bardstown,” I said after she told me about being surprised.

“I mean, yeah, I remembered after I had heard your voice, but for some reason I had it in my head that your accent was different,” she said.

“What do you mean,” I said laughing.

“Well, ‘they’ said that your family were some sort of political refugees,” she responded timidly. “They” will remain undefined.

I couldn’t help, but laugh. The myth that had made my other fraternity brother think I was a polyglot, had morphed into a new myth that made younger members of my fraternity think my family came to the US as political refugees. We were somehow well connected in the upper echelons of the Middle Eastern political refugee circles—whatever that means. Basically, I wasn’t to be fucked with. Seriously, that’s what she said. I was apparently, “scary, well connected, and dangerous.” Again, whatever the fuck that means.

After she told me this, I wondered why she had decided to go on a date with me—and then subsequently go on more dates with me. She said something about being intriguing, but more so that after our first phone conversation she realized that their stories, the made up narratives about me, were just that…made up.

I’ll chalk all of this up to the fact that there aren’t many Iranians in Kentucky—or immigrants for that matter. In order to process my confusing, and often conflicting identities, they had to create their own myths to describe who/what I was. None of them were true, however, but all of them were rather comical and amusing.

How I Learned Muslims Don’t Eat Pork

“What’s your favorite food?” my Amoo Manu asked. Manu was one of my dad’s best friend’s from college. The collection of Iranian students studying at Murray State (Murray, KY) in the mid-60s had formed a Persian version of Ocean’s 11, or what I liked to call the Iranian Rat Pack.

Many years later, when I asked my dad how they found each other, he replied, “How do flies find manure? We just did.” He laughed about describing it that way, but that’s how my dad rolls. He makes analogies that, on their face, make sense, but have connotations that may rub people the wrong way.

“Well, who were the flies and who was the shit?” I remember asking half laughing, a quarter appalled, and the rest really fucking curious about whether or not my dad actually thought that through.

He just laughed and never answered the question.

Manu had gone back to Iran shortly after my parents married in 1971. He, his wife, and three kids would spend the next decade or more in Iran. In the early 80’s, they moved back to Kentucky—his wife was from Louisville.

Manu was a businessman—he owned a Persian rug store in Louisville (Kentucky’s biggest city). Whenever he found out a customer was from my hometown, he told them he and my father were college buddies. Preying on my dad’s stellar reputation in Bardstown, he normally sealed the deal—only once did dropping my dad’s name not work.

“Manu, I’m expecting some commission from these sales you make to people from Bardstown. Using my name isn’t free,” my father says (and still does), half joking, half serious, whenever they see each other. No money ever changed hands though, so it remains a running joke—or a point of contention, I’m never quite sure.

When Manu had asked me what my favorite food was, I was probably 7 or 8. I remember the NBA Championship between the LA Lakers and Chicago Bulls being on, but I also remember both my dad and Manu wearing sweaters which wouldn’t have happened had it been summer time. And considering I remember being 7 or 8, there’s no way it could have been the summer of ’91—or maybe I’m wrong about my age. Chalk it up to memory loss.

My dad is a master griller—self-proclaimed, but neighborhood certified. Growing up he’d grill at all times of the year. Rain or shine, sleet or snow, he’d grill out–bourbon in one hand, tongues in the other. His grilling became so famous that pretty much every weekend—since my parents divorced he had custody Thursday thru Saturday during the school year—all the neighborhood kids would show up for dinner. Like all good Iranians he had rice and salad with whatever meat he grilled. We’d even put egg in the rice. But, in one of the rare occasions of catering to my friend’s food tastes, he made sure there would be separate plain rice for those too grossed out by raw egg in the rice.

One of my favorites was grilled pork chops. Especially the kind with the bone still in the meat—the same went for steaks. We’d sit on the living room floor eating, as my dad liked to call it, “Viking Style”–using our hands, sitting in a semi-circle with the TV replacing the massive fire we presumed the Vikings had.

Periodically he’d lay down a sofreh (or colorful table cloth). This became a normal routine for me, so much so I just thought that was what everyone else did. To me it wasn’t an Iranian thing, it was normal. And most of my friends went along without comment. Honestly, looking back, I chalked it up to the fact that each family was different—some ate at a table, some sitting on the floor, etc.

Not knowing that there was some sort of prohibition on eating pork in Iran—or the Muslim world for that matter–I responded to Manu’s inquiry by blurting out, “Pork chops!!!”

I knew, almost instantaneously, that I had said something wrong—or at a very minimum, something I wasn’t supposed to say. My dad, while living in Bardstown, was able to insulate himself from the restrictions and judgments of Iranian society. If he wanted to drink, he could drink. If he wanted to eat pork, by all means he’d eat pork. If he wanted to be a teacher, he could be a teacher. If he wanted to supplement his income by working at a restaurant part-time, he could. If he didn’t drive a BMW, it didn’t matter. There wouldn’t be another Iranian there judging him for his supposed transgressions—or being envious for his “zero fucks given” attitude towards arbitrarily designated modes of appropriate behavior Iranians believed in. To a certain extent that attitude has been transferred to me as well. And honestly that’s probably one of the points of tension—internally and externally—I have with the Iranian community (in the US or elsewhere).

Manu, who had been preparing skewers of ground beef destined for the grill—for the non-Iranians this is what we call kubideh--immediately stopped. He looked at me, then my father, then back at me, then back at my father. My father, who was behind me doing something I can’t recall, stopped whatever he was doing. I felt his stare in the back of my 7 or 8 year old head.

“Mah-mad,” Manu started, using the nickname many used for my father, “Pork Chops!!! You let your kids eat pork!” He then said something in Farsi that I don’t remember, so I can’t translate. I’m assuming it was something along the lines of, “Muslims don’t eat pork. It is haram. What kind of Muslim are you, if you allow your kids to eat pork?”

My father responds, in English, because this was always the way he talked with Manu—Manu to him in Farsi, my dad to Manu in English, “No. His mother makes it for them. David is mistaken.”

He was trying to cover his tracks, but being 7 or 8 I couldn’t understand nuance. So, I blurted out, “No, Daddy, you cook it for us!”

This was a time before my dad had his supposed PhD in calmness, which meant that I was likely about to feel his wrath. The signs were clear—his face became tighter, jaws clenched, and his underbite becames more pronounced—think Bill Cowher. “Daaaaaaayyyyyyviiiiiiddddd!!”

That’s all he had to say. I knew I had upset him in some way. It wasn’t until much later that I understood why. He was embarrassed about being exposed as a pork eating Iranian by his son. Even if I was unaware that what I had said peeled away the layers of protection from Iranian judgment he’d accumulated from years of living in Bardstown, it still was my fault. I should have known that Muslims don’t eat pork. I should have known that Iranians judge. I should have known that our life in Bardstown is vastly different than that of pretty much every other Iranian on the planet. I should have known that just because we ate rice with every meal and drank hot chai instead of coffee, it didn’t mean that we’re free from judgment.

I didn’t know.

Luckily, if my memory is correct, the women at the dinner party came to my rescue. “Mahmad, it’s not his fault,” one said. “Lighten up, how’s he supposed to know.”

“Other Iranians eat pork, Manu. Stop being dramatic,” another one said.

I like to think my sister was there, but I’m not sure. If she was, she was probably the first to tell my father that he’s being ridiculous or at a minimum soothe me in the aftermath of one of my dad’s shouting fits.

That day I learned that Muslims don’t eat pork, that some things we do in the privacy of our own home—even it’s something as innocuous as eating pork, which I still do—shouldn’t always be discussed in public. It was many years before I learned exactly what those things were.

Looking back, that was one of my first experiences with aberoo. The very Iranian idea of responsibility to your family, how your actions affect those you’re related to, and how Iranians put on a certain display in public to hide their faults, weaknesses, or vices. This concept manifests itself in many ways. One being the idea that you can only be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. Another is that image is important, even if means going into massive debt to buy a house decked out with the latest fashions or purchasing the most expensive BMW series.

I still have run-ins with aberoo on a regular basis, but I’ve come to begrudgingly accept it.