I never thought of myself as an immigrant until this past Mother's Day. The subject, too cliché, has been used far too often, overlapping stories told. Why be nostalgic over a mere piece of land with an irrational government eager to destroy her foundation, strip away her beauty, and chase off her many educated and educators? At least that's the story I have been telling myself all these years.
On Mother's day morning a Facebook dialogue between a friend of mine and her husband took hold of me. He had posted a comment on her status, which included a lovely picture of her exposed pregnant belly.
"Happy everything!!! Mother's day . . . my beautiful daughter's birthday . . . I just wish I was there."
In hopes of providing a better life for their little girl, Ramona, the couple had decided to move to Canada except that he, still awaiting his papers, is working in Iran to support his family, who now live in Canada. Away for mother's day, he will also be missing their daughter's second birthday. She posted the following response:
"Darling YOU ARE HERE. You know where Ramona is in the picture . . . you are slightly above it . . . in my heart."
Their touching exchange made me realize how freedom, independence, and opportunity come with a price: living apart from loved ones, be it parents, siblings, spouses or children. Even after departing the country, we tend to follow careers or schools not family. After all weren't the pursuits of a higher education along with better lives the reasons for leaving our roots behind in the first place? Hence, we forever miss weddings, birthdays, mother and father's day celebrations, anniversaries, graduations, births, deaths, illnesses, successes and failures.
Trying to hide the bad news from those who live far away in an effort to protect them, we miss out on the very support and connection necessary to heal us. We box our broken hearts in an excuse wrapped with a ribbon of fake smile while celebrating special occasions alone. We create substitute families but still yearn for our own during major life events, which now include the new culture's celebrations as well: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July. Uncertain whether we should observe them out of respect for our new country, or skip them for having come from another ethos.
I often ask myself have I been here long enough to be considered an American now. A country's traditions deserve reverence. Do I belong here? Have I earned the right to be a participant? Besides, will I still be considered an American, despite my citizenship, or the fact that I now think in English and can pronounce W properly instead of saying V, when an event such as September 11th happens?
Some years ago an older couple in the neighborhood had a barbeque party for their family. While washing the dishes, I looked out the window at the children running around as the adults grilled food. Seeing Mrs. White, the eldest, lounging amongst a group of younger women, made me think of my own grandmother, mom Mahin. She used to be the queen bee, the center, the glue that brought everyone together. Regardless of my age, she used to jokingly say: "Khanoom, khanooma (little missy miss), come sit on my lap and tell me what you've been up to." At the time, the teenager in me found her invitations smothering. But on that day, at age thirty-five, having lived away from grandma for so many years, I would have given anything to sit on her lap and wrap my arms around her. The longing, both for mom Mahin together with a community, unearthed a crater in my heart so deep that at that particular moment even a substitute would have worked.
Depending on political times, government relationships, schedules and finances we may see the immediate family members once a year. By then, however, having spent so much time apart, and in such different cultural settings, we forget how to behave or fit into each other's expectations. Those who live in Iran, still have a strong sense of attachment. They assume that the American loners understand Iran's system of relating. One, where personal boundaries blend, opinions interweave, and relatives offer unsolicited advice from the heart. Following that model, they give instructions about life, love, finances, as well as jobs just like any good Persian family member should. Such hints at likes, dislikes and expectations appear as personal attacks to us hyphenated folks.
Still in the business of wanting our parents' approval, any suggestion at questioning the choices we have made on our own, wounds the core of our fragile self-image. Having lived in a cocoon of loneliness, instead of trying to get closer, we ask for personal space. After all it took years to build a protective shell to shield us from pain. Breaking it down now, would mean feeling the warmth of the family for a short week, followed by a renewed sense of emptiness to cope with, when it's time to say goodbye again.
The Iranian-Americans who go back to Iran stand out too. Just recently I visited after 22 years. On several occasions people asked my mother: "is she a foreigner?"
The revolution changed our lives forevermore by tearing countless families apart. It made us strangers in both lands.
I missed celebrating mother's day with mom.
I missed grandfather's as well as auntie Ghodsi's deaths and funerals.
I missed my only niece's birth and first birthday.
I missed interacting with my relatives as an adult.
I missed having mom and dad at my Oral Surgery graduation ceremony. The day I had worked so hard for, to make them proud. To show that their sacrifices had finally paid off.
I shopped for my wedding gown by myself. At the bridal shop I remember wistfully glancing over at a bride-to-be, who was trying on a gown in the presence of her mother and grandmother. Then remember swiftly hushing my emotions: you are an independent woman and perfectly capable of handling any task on your own. Now come on. Focus. Being away from mom meant she had to make my wedding sofra all by herself after working long hours during the Holiday season.
I signed my divorce papers alone and walked out of that courtroom, trembling. Divorce meant learning to become not just the woman but also the man of the house. It meant loss of companionship of the only constant connection to my past, making important life decisions solo, plus supporting and protecting myself. Un-listing the home phone and address or looking into a house alarm now became considerations unanticipated before.
I continually search for the familiar in faces, gazes, and voices of strangers. In sounds and scents of strange places.
My parents are missing their children's lives. We are missing theirs.
Of course we chose to leave but in the process also lost the experience of community, family ties, embraces, warm touches, those whispered conversations during nap time, a relaxed get together on Friday afternoon at a relative's house, the unique smell of those houses, and the taste of noon kabobi: soggy lavash bread under beef kabob. A simple morsel of bread that releases the silkiest taste of butter mixed with beef juice with every bite, a taste so rich it calms your soul. A taste that only intensifies when your aunt hands you a piece.
For now we have found other ways to stay connected, to give each other support. Phone conversations, emails, texts, even Facebook have replaced actual contact.
I used all of those ways to congratulate my sister-in-law on her Master's degree graduation. What I could not give her were the screams, jumps, claps and tears of joy.
Bahar Anooshahr is an Iranian-American woman who moved to the U.S. at the age of seventeen after the revolution and Iran/Iraq war. Once a nonstop talker she had to remain silent for a year before she could communicate effectively in English. In her past life she was an Oral Surgeon. She is busy writing now. Her works have been published in Tea A Magazine, The Single Hound, Berg Gasse 19, Monkeybicycle, and Marco Polo, where she was recently invited to join as a regular contributor. Her micro-essay was a winner at Creative Nonfiction Online. Essays from her recent visit to Iran also appear in Pink Pangea, a travel site for women. She is currently working on translating a book about her ancestry from Farsi to English.