Most who know me well have endured my many lectures about how (insert any European country’s name here) is ‘doing it right’ or how my country, The United States, could ‘learn a thing or two’ from (insert another European–most likely Scandinavian–country’s name here). What I seldom say, but should shout from the rooftops, is that there is one thing that happens in the US that I’ve never seen happen anywhere else in the world. Something so incredible, yet nearly unattainable by other countries in the world. Yes. Even by other western countries.
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So what do we, the USA, have that every other country should actually try to mimic (as opposed to our terrible food habits, consumerism and other obnoxious things I try to escape from by living abroad but sadly encounter everywhere I go)?
It’s the ability to be you–both in ethnicity and nationality.
For someone like me whose parents sought asylum in the US 35 years ago, I was raised with dual and often competing cultural norms. In my home, it was all things Iranian: speaking Farsi, drinking tea and celebrating ancient traditions, like NoRooz (which happens this Friday! Happy NoRooz everyone!). Outside of my home, it was all things American: eating burgers, going to school dances and working hard to achieve The American Dream. For a long time I’ve felt grateful for having been raised with two different cultures since it allowed me to incorporate the best of both cultures into my everyday life. But that wasn’t always the case.
Before my first experience living abroad, I had felt as though I didn’t quite fit in with either culture. I was neither fully American nor fully Iranian. Once abroad, I felt at ease since there was no expectation to belong. It was this pressure-free situation that allowed me to relax and just be myself. Perhaps this was the underlying reason I chose to spend so many years living abroad.
I could be as much or as little of either culture as I wanted to…and no one cared. Or so I thought.
Recently, I realized something. When I’d traveled or lived abroad, especially in Europe and the Middle East, my perception of the situation was false. Although it’s true that I didn’t have to fit in, the local population didn’t see me as I saw myself. When I’m at home or abroad, in my mind, I’m both Iranian and American. All.of.the.time. But when I’m abroad, people see me as one or the other. Never both. And oftentimes, they completely ignore one part of my identity–usually the American side.
For example, I just spent the last year living in Turkey, where my husband and I taught English. Although it was clear that we were both native English teachers from America, my husband was often referred to as a real American and I was referred to as Iranian (Side Note: I’ve never been to Iran).
Just yesterday, here in Venice, the breakfast chef–a very sweet, Venetian man–asked us, “Where are you from?”.
I knew what he was asking, but I played dumb and answered, “I’m from Wisconsin“.
Then he asked again. This time I said “United States”.
He asked again, but before I could answer, he said “Where are you really from?”.
Where am I really from? My standard response, which I can now say in 4 languages, is: “my parents are from Iran, but I was born in America”. He immediately smiled and then began a 15 minute conversation with me about Iran, it’s government, people and history.
It was like he didn’t hear me say that I was born in America.
I know that these conversations are all innocent in nature, non-aggressive and stem from a general curiosity about other people. In my 25+ years of travel to almost 30 countries, I have learned that I can only be Iranian-American in the United States of America. It seems trivial and maybe even stupid. But when your identity is questioned, rejected, or faced with unwelcomed modification, you too would feel a deeper sense of appreciation for growing up in a place which truly embraces all sides of you–even the parts which were in direct conflict with the social norms of your community.
So thank you to my country, The United States of America, for allowing me to be who I really am. It’s refreshing that I don’t have to explain myself when I’m home. I’m simply a Wisconsin girl with an interesting family background. And for that, I’m truly grateful.
This, my friends, is America’s greatest achievement.
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How are you/your identity received when you’re abroad?