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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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.’

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.)

 

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.