Playing ping-pong in South Tehran. All rights reserved.
“Manata, tell me, where do you like more, Iran or America?”
“I like both the same.”
“Yes, but where would you rather live?”
As an Iranian who has lived the majority of her life in America, I have been asked this question more times than I can recount by family and friends in Iran. It is not a simple question and the answer entails a deeper understanding of the concepts of home, location, and identity. These motifs are interwoven in the daily lives of those Iranian émigrés too assimilated in the host country to return to the land of their birth, too “foreign” to ever feel at “home”. Further embedded in this question are the intricacies associated with a life in exile. Feelings of nostalgia, marginality, and longing for return often characterize such persons who leave their homelands by force, voluntarily, or by necessity of circumstance.
As a second generation Iranian who has experienced such feelings without ever having lived for a substantial amount of time in Iran, I live my life in a continuous attempt to honor, respect, assist, and learn more of the country of which I am from. While I may not be fluent in Iranian cultural nuances and may not know the inner workings of Iranian society, I am an Iranian and I can nevertheless attempt to learn and bring my own unique experiences into the broader “Iranian” milieu. Indeed, my unique Iranian lifestyle at home as a young child provided me with a lens with which to view and analyze my dominant American surroundings. It was my good fortune to be immersed in two antithetical traditions and to be able to merge the lessons learned from both into a type of “hybrid” Iranian culture that was uniquely my own and that continues to shape my life to this day.
Identifying oneself as an “Iranian” (as I have done) has different connotations that depend on both context and circumstances. There is no one “true” Iranian, one rigid definition that encompasses what being “Iranian” means. Being Iranian, as being any other ethnicity, is relational and is constantly negotiated, defined, and redefined through contact with an other – whether this other is a person, one’s ethnic group, a nation, or even the media. Thus, when we ask questions of “authenticity” we must consider who is “checking our credentials”. Our claim of authenticity is subjective and is influenced by our own location and our own perceptions of what is and what is not “Iran”.
As such, it is vital for Iranians, regardless of their country of residence, to realize that while “Iranian”, “American”, “French” and the like are cultural placeholders, they are not defining markers of an individual’s identity. Our relations with others, our perceptions of other peoples from varying nations and ethnicities are what contour and give shape to their own sense of identity. Similarly, the forging of relationships with different peoples of the world, the continuous back and forth tug-of-war of ideas and opinions is what makes us into unique individuals and further reinforces our own sense of cultural identity. These interactions are a needed, if not necessary prerequisite in creating a globally aware society that is attuned to the needs of others and that can forgo bias in favor of mutual aid and understanding. Cultures, just as homes, live in the minds and souls of those who create and nurture them; living in and interacting with a national culture distinct from that of our own does not make us into lesser forms of “Iranians”. Indeed, it provides the skeletal framework for a more peaceful and just world order and enables us to find a space, no matter how abstract, which we can call “home” and to which we can all belong.
-“Reflections of an Iranian in America”, Oct. 2006, tehranavenue.com