“Where are you from?” Startled, I looked back toward the voice. I had just said goodbye to Neda and was still in the process of hanging up the phone.
A blonde lady was looking at me. She had braided hair neatly aligned on her left shoulder and was wearing a blue biking outfit with white stripes and a white cap with blue stripes. Beside her was a brown-haired guy with a bit darker complexion who wore a biking outfit, too. While still on the phone I noticed them a couple of minutes earlier parking their bikes on the rack across the street from the cafe where I stood waiting in line to order. The couple saw my hesitation in responding, and the blond lady added, “You have such a nice accent,” she smiled bigger, “Which language were you speaking?”
I thought about the conversation I just had with Neda and said “Farsi.” I paused and remembered their first questions. “Iran. I am from Iran, and I was talking to my friend in Farsi.” I waited to see their reactions. I have observed a variety of responses to introducing myself and my nationality over the past few years. You could say I’ve created a collection: from horrified faces who probably connected Iran with all the negative headlines about war, terrorism and nuclear power; to confused or pseudo-excited ones who had no idea where Iran was–these ones would mostly pronounce it “I…Ran” and pretended they knew about it, while my well-trained eyes could see they were searching their memories to try and share some interesting facts that didn’t exist in their mind so they would change or cut the conversation short and disappear; and finally to really excited people who would share with me some facts they knew or the name of an Iranian friend, their favorite Iranian dish (which they tried their best to pronounce correctly), or a strong desire to visit Iran.
“Oh, nice! How fun is that? I had a classmate who was Persian,” she replied, her eyes full of sparkles.
Here they are, the last category, I heard the voice in my head say. The voice added, It’s not that much fun, really! But I smiled back and nodded my head in agreement and courtesy.
There was silence for a few seconds. They were looking at me, and I was looking at them. I turned my head to see whether the line in the coffee shop had moved, or whether I needed to walk closer to the counter to order coffee. The line was the same. I looked back at them, automatically wearing my painted-on smile. I knew it looked like I wanted to continue the conversation even though I was not in the mood to talk. The head voice said, Ugh, why did you do that?! This good girl programming sucks. I tried not to laugh.
“Do you have a family there?” the guy asked. My eyes jumped from her eyes to his. He was touching his beard and looking contemplative. He had a perfectly symmetrical face, dark blue eyes with bright brown eyelashes and a beard on his skinny and boney jaw. It always amazed me that when you look at people’s eyes, you can see their entire faces and the harmony between different parts.
“Yes, everyone is still there. I am the only one who left.”
“Wow!” His eyes widened, and he looked at me with something between pride and surprise. I could not tell which, but it didn’t matter.
“Can you go visit them easily?” She followed up with curiosity.
“Yes I can, I have a green card.” I responded abruptly, sounding so powerful, like I had the keys to heaven or something. It was not always easy though, do you remember?, the head voice said and I realized that they may not know what that really meant. As they leaned toward me to hear more, I continued: “Well, before the green card, I had a single-entry US visa.” I paused; now they looked confused, so I had to backtrack and explain that, I inhaled and added, “When you are an international student, you get a single-entry visa.” Then I corrected myself. “That is not true; if you are a student from a developing country like Iran that is on the black list in the US,” I paused to breathe and then added “…you will receive a single-entry visa in most cases. It means you can leave the US, but you cannot come back unless you go to the embassy and apply again.” I paused to regain my breath and added: “It is always risky to apply for a visa, as you could get rejected, so you don’t want to leave especially, in the middle of your study. Now I have my green card, which means I can go and come back without problems.”
“Oh! I see! It sounds tough,” he said with a frown, his forehead wrinkling.
“Well, it is!”, the head voice added do you want to tell them about the embassy? and I felt obligated to explain more, since they did not know the depth of the story, yet still looked curious. “The fact is, we don’t have a US embassy in Iran, so you need to make an appointment in Turkey or Dubai. Again, it is tricky to find an appointment, and it costs a lot plus no guarantee to get a visa. So, most Iranian students do not leave the US while they are studying.”
“Oh no! That is a lot,” he said, releasing a big sigh. Yes, the voice said. I felt relieved and even joyful to be able to transfer the depth of misery of being an international student from Iran to my audience.
“When was the last time you visited Iran, I mean, visited your family?” The woman asked, while fixing the tail end of her braids, tightening the black hair tie, and moving it from the left shoulder to the right.
“Mmm, a while ago! Actually right before COVID.” I said.
“Oh! Almost 3 years ago, then!” She almost screamed, her voice becoming pitchy as it escaped her throat. Very quickly, she fixed her voice, looking around to see others’ reactions. Then, she continued with a hushed voice: “Do you miss them?”
This question always confused me and to some extent, pissed me off. To be honest, it bothered me. How could it be possible for anyone not to miss their family? It is like asking someone who had open heart surgery “were you scared?” I got this question a lot, and I used to feel the need to explain and justify how I loved my family, why I left Iran but not abandoned my family, and why I made such a decision. But I have learned that it was just too taxing on me to justify. Plus, it wasn’t really a stranger’s business. So I simply said, “Yes, of course.”
There was an awkward silence. Maybe they expected more explanation, but I was not willing to give it away to anybody.
“Are you visiting them sometime soon?” he asked while checking out some of the pastries behind the glass on his left-hand side, wearing the same contemplative face he had a couple of minutes ago. I could see his gaze linger on the croissants mounted on top of each other and then move to the lemon bars that were cut evenly into cubes.
“Yes, probably in June.” The answer jumped out of me, without my control. I had no plans yet. It was May, and I had not even checked the tickets and prices and whether I could take time off. Why did you even say that? the voice said. I felt homesick, something deep in my heart was aching for my family. I have been dreaming about them the past few weeks, mundane things like having tea with my mom, sitting in grandma’s frontporch and chatting with her, and playing with my niece. Sometimes I would wake up looking for them and then realized that it was a dream. These were always the signs for me, the signs of homesickness and not having more strength to show that I was ok living miles away from them. Ohoh, you don’t wanna cry in front of strangers, do you? I heard the voice ask.
“Next,” the barista said, loud and assertive.
Oh, thank god, the voice in my head said as I moved forward. “Hi,” I said, looking at the menu behind her even if I knew what I wanted.
“Hi, what can I get for you?” she asked.
“Hi, may I have a latte with almond milk, please?”
“Yes of course. Which size?”
She picked a small cup from a stack on her left side and said, “Your name?” Her right hand was equipped with an uncapped black Sharpie waiting to write my name on the chosen cup.
“Maryam,” I replied and waited for her to ask me a second time.
“Excuse me?” she looked up, more focused on what I was saying.
I slowed down and repeated myself: “Mar—yam.”
“Oh, thanks” and she wrote something down on the cup. “Do you want any pastries?”
I looked at their collection and how they were placed behind the glass and overcame my temptation to get one “I’m good, thanks.”, I smiled and swallowed my slava. No sugar for me, I heard myself saying.
She passed the cup to another person behind the counter and called “next.” I paid and moved to the side to make space for the couple to order.
I saw the barista putting their names on two cups and then wearing her gloves to put a croissant on a plate for him.
In a minute or two, she called out the name “Mariah.” I did not move, so she pointed at me and said, “Here is your coffee.” I got my coffee with a white heart on the top and the name “Mariah” written in cursive black ink. I thanked her, picked up the cup, and chose a seat next to the window. I sat there, my head and shoulders in the shade and my arms and hands in the light.
The couple chose the table next to me. “It was nice meeting you. Enjoy your coffee.”
“You too.” My eyes were fixed on the croissant that was now shining under the light. Now that he was sitting in the sun, I could see how sparse his beard was. I could see the skin underneath the bushy beard, patchy like a golf course in desperate need of a landscaper. His symmetrical face still looked handsome though.
“Have fun visiting I-ran and your family,” the guy said. “I-ran is one of the places we want to visit.”
“Thanks,” I responded politely and busied myself with my book, Master and Margarita.
Have fun with my trip… I repeated that in my mind. Did I have fun last time?
Last time, I was visiting them after three years and so excited to see my family. It had been two years since my last visit which was right after I had changed my job and moved to California, and most importantly got divorced. Visiting them from California made the trip to get there even longer. I remembered how fast I had walked toward the escalator after the Iranian officer at the border stamped my passport at Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran. When I saw them, I burst into tears, waving my hands while coming down the electric stairs.
It felt strange. It felt purely safe being by their side, something that was strange to me after years of living in the US by myself and handling many things all by myself. It felt so good to see them. My dad had gotten older since the last time I saw him. My mom had more wrinkles on her face. I could see part of her hair tucked under the Roosari Veil, in dark brown contrast to the tanned face of working in her garden. Beside them were my brothers and my sister-in-law and my niece, Vianna.
Vianna was shy and avoided me for the first few minutes hiding behind her mom. I guessed I did not exist in her world, since she had always only seen me on the screen of a cell phone. It did not take that long, though, for her to approach me and give me a rose she had in her hand. “I have this for you. Do you like roses?”
“I love them, such a nice color,” I said.
“I picked it, I love red.”
“Red is my favorite too, especially a red rose!” I responded. And that was it. We bonded. It is so easy to bond with kids.
The first few days of jetlag, sleeping and eating my favorite home-cooked-by-mom foods every day were surreal and so healing. I felt energized, back to life, and most importantly safe. Then I stepped out to run some errands and visit places that were familiar to me and be more present with people in the street and see everyday life closely. I walked through our street to go downtown and check some of the stores. On my way, I saw Ali agha. He used to have a small grocery store, but now he was selling some seasonal fruits like peaches and grapes beside the street. He was gazing at the ground. I wanted to say hi but he seemed lost in his thoughts. The main street toward downtown was surprisingly full of street vendors who were begging to buy something from them “Hey sister, I have not sold anything yet, buy something and give us the money for my meal today.” I walked past them fast and next to a clothes shop that I used to go to, there was a woman sitting on the right corner of the stairs to the store wearing the black chador, a veil that covers a woman’s body from head to toe, holding a baby “His father died, help us.” she said and I looked at the child sleeping on her arms. I could see the trace of the tears on his dirty skin and the desperation in her eyes. I walked faster. It was heartbreaking to see the level of poverty, and how the harsh sanctions and the ongoing corruption in the government affected people during the past few years. People looked like zombies: everyone was stressed, anxious and angry. There were many street vendors begging you to buy things and lots of kids were working selling flowers, poetry, and small facial tissue packs.
“Iran is the land where its people sell poetry in the street,” I remembered a similar title of blog post that I had read a while ago, and how the tourists were mesmerized by seeing this happen and noted that as a beauty of Iran and the culture of its people. While poetry was a big part of my culture, the reality was that these kids were supposed to be in school, not in the street in the middle of the day. I approached one of them who was sitting on the pedestrian bridge on a busy street close to my parents’ house. “What is your name?” She looked up with big round eyes.
“Parvaneh, butterfly,” she responded with a big smile, showing off rows of beautiful white teeth and her dimples sprouting on her cheeks.
“Such a nice name!” I responded. “Do you go to school?” I asked.
“Yes auntie, I am in third grade.”
“Why aren’t you in school? It is Tuesday.” I asked, not knowing if it was nice to ask or not.
“The school was closed today… you know, because of air pollution, so my dad sent us here to work,” she answered matter of factly.
“Oh! I see,” I responded, thinking how awful the decision was for her. “What do you like in school?” I asked.
Without dropping a beat, she said, “I love reading, I love drawing, I don’t like math, but I am good at it.”
Now sparks appeared in her eyes. “Do you want to buy something from me?” she asked, pointing at the small spread with some soaps, packed sage, and small towels.
“I can’t unfortunately,” I said. I felt awful, but knew that giving money to them was wrong.
“That is ok!” She said.
“Did you have lunch?” I asked.
“Not yet, my mom gave us sandwiches.” Then she opened her bag that was hanging from her shoulders and showed me two little wraps.
“Wanna have lunch with me?” I asked.
“Yes!” She jumped and in a second collected her stuff and joined me. “Can my brother join us?” she asked.
“Of course!” I imagined an older boy would be joining us, since she was so young and her dad had probably put them to work together so he could support her. We walked a little bit as she looked for him, and then she called out loud: “Navid, messenger!” My eyes followed the direction of her gaze, searching for an older boy to look back at us, when I saw a younger child, probably 6 or 7 years old, coming to join us with a big smile and two dimples on his cheeks.
“Hi,” he shook hands with me. “I am Navid.”
“Salam Navid Jan, my name is Maryam. Would you like to join us to get some lunch?”
“Yessss” he said with happiness, and my heart melted.
We went to a sandwich shop that I knew in the area, a place I would go to during college with my friends. I asked them to choose from the menu, and since they were shy, I explained the different options. They chose chicken and burger sandwiches.
While the food was being made, I guided them to the sink to wash their hands. I checked their hands and noticed they were not as soft as the hands of other kids their age, like my niece. I took out the small hand moisturizer that I always carried, added some to my hand “Do you want to put some cream on your hands?” and Parvaneh opened her palm for me and Navid refused.
I put some cream on her hand. She rubbed two hands, brought them close to her nose and took a deep inhale. “It smells like roses!” she exclaimed.
I said “Yes!”
“What color of rose do you think?” she asked and before I could respond, she said “Probably red! Red is my favorite,” She was so innocent, like all kids.
“You can keep it if you want. Then every time you wash your hands, you can put some on.”
“Really?” She looked at the circular container and screamed “Thank you, thank you, auntie!”
I sat with them at a table and learned more. There were three kids in their family. The younger one was 3 years old. Their dad was a blue-collar worker, and they lived in a poor neighborhood close to the place that I grew up. They loved going to amusement parks, watching Disney movies, and eating chocolate.
The sandwiches got there, and they removed the wrappers and ate so fast that in a couple of minutes they were full. The big sandwiches were not even halfway gone.
“Where do you live?” Parvaneh asked while chewing a big bite.
“Well, now I live with my parents, but I am visiting them,” I said.
“From where?” she asked. I always liked kids’ directness.
“Well,” I began, not knowing how I should explain or even whether I should tell the truth for fear it might make them feel bad. “Well. I live in the US, in California. Do you know where that is?”
She said “Yes, I saw it on a map…Do you have a dog?” she asked right away.
“I don’t, but my friend does.” I pulled out my cell phone and showed them pictures of Foofoo, the black lab that my friend owned. I played a short video for them. They laughed and asked me to play it again and again. They wanted to know more about him so, I told them stories of Foofoo eating all the potatoes I made while I was out of the kitchen for a couple of minutes, and him hiding bones in the backyard and chasing the squirrels. They were so entertained, laughing loudly and unapologetically. People sitting near us were looking at us with kindness but also hesitation and pity.
After an hour of sitting and eating, Parvaneh said “I want to go back to work. Soon Dad will pick us up. Thanks for the food.” She wrapped the big sandwich that had some bites out of a corner and asked Navid to finish his drink. “Thanks, Auntie Maryam,”’ he said.
I gave both of them a hug and walked to Citybook, one of my favorite bookstores, where I was planning to buy some books for Vianna. I could not stop thinking about the two kids. Who would pamper them? Do they have an auntie to give them gifts?? In addition to the books for Vianna, I chose some books, a sketchbook, colored pencils, and markers for them, along with a couple of chocolates. I went back to the station where Pravaneh was sitting. She saw me from a distance, ran toward me, and gave me a big hug, “You are back!” she said.
“Yes, and I have a small gift for you, Navid, and your little sister.” I gave her all the small gifts. She screamed with joy and promised to share them all with Navid and her little sister.
That day passed, like many other days, and I saw many kids working, begging, selling poetry, and missing school, missing being a child and cared for.
During what was left of my vacation, I saw many other things. The terror following the assassination of Soleminai by the US Army, the turmoil left in its wake stirred up by extreme right-wing people, the intense political chaos between the US and Iran; the bombing of a US military base camp in Iraq, and the worst of all, the shooting of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 by the Iranian army in the sky of Tehran, full of passengers that were flying from Tehran to Kyiv, Ukraine on 8 January 2020. Photos of people my age who had left Iran to pursue their dream but were now dead flooded social media. Everyone was crying, every gathering was sad for the rest of my trip. I remember close to my return date, one day during breakfast when my mom and I would sit, have tea and chat, I started sobbing, and she started crying too. We did not explain anything, just cried together.
I was traumatized seeing all the events and how they impacted my people, my family, and me. I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the young people who were not among us, and how their family feels and review the stories I read about them in my mind over and over. I was searching the news to see what other things happened while I was asleep, what should I expect next? I would roll in bed vigilant, restless, and anxious waiting for another bad event.
Soon, it was time to return from this dark vacation. I was exhausted, hopeless, and weak.
The day before my trip, I was walking on the pedestrian bridge when I heard a joyful voice resounding with “Auntie, auntie Maryam.” I looked back, and it was Parvaneh with her shiny eyes, smiley face, and dimples. She threw herself in my arms “You are back!” she said.
I couldn’t take it, I could not take any more sad things, polluted air, hopeless people, angry drivers, poor vendors begging the pedestrians, beggars holding a sick or sleepy child, children who were supposed to be in school and get their education but instead were selling stuff in the street between passing cars, and on top of that the corrupted government in Iran that could not care less about its people. I could not tolerate feeling so powerless and devastated. I pushed her back. “Hey golam, dear, I am in a rush! I have to go,” I told her.What would happen to her and her future? the voice mourned in my head and I pushed her away.
“But…” I did not wait for her to finish her sentence. I continued walking faster and faster until I could not feel her gaze on my shoulders and then I ran. I ran through people, beggars, and street vendors. I did not want to see her or anyone else. I wanted to leave.
When I got back from this “vacation,” I was not refreshed or vibrant. The darkness I felt on the trip stayed with me. Something inside me had died, and I did not know what it was, maybe it was “hope.” Sadness and anxiety over leaving my family and the future of my people threw me into depression. I could do nothing but cry. I woke up to panic attacks wrapped in sweat and thinking about Iran, my people, and the children. I started therapy, made myself busy with work, and removed myself from any news, social media, or gatherings that were even remotely about politics.
A friend referred to a news story in Iran. I interrupted him, “I don’t read the news”
“Interesting! So you don’t care about what happens in your country?”
His sarcasm awakened a rage in me that came from inside, something that could erupt in the shape of a scream saying, “You have no idea how much I care!” I controlled my emotions, took a deep breath, and calmly said “No.”
Now, here I was, three years later, knowing the situation had gotten worse than last time. Along with COVID, there were more political problems and stronger sanctions. I missed everyone and everything, but I did not have the guts to purchase a ticket and go.
I heard the laughter that got louder and louder, snapping me out of my memories. It was the man with a symmetrical face. I smiled at him. I loved the sound of laughter. The sun had moved, and now it touched my shoulders. I moved in my chair, sitting up a bit taller to avoid its bright heat, my hands cradling my coffee, feeling its warmth. I looked at the name scrawled on my cup. “Mariah.” I wondered if I was Mariah, who I might be. Where would I be from? What would my story be? Would I hesitate to explain my language to strangers? Would I feel pressured to elaborate on green cards and single-entry visas? Would I know the heartbreak of being an auntie to kids like Vianna, Parvaneh, and Navid? Would I ache for a devastated place and people that I loved so much? Would I still love roses?
Dr. Maryam Ghadiri
Maryam is a first-generation immigrant to the USA who left her home in northern Iran in 2012 to pursue a PhD in Ecology at Purdue University. Her move to the USA was the beginning of a journey to redefine her identity, and over the course of this journey she observed repeated systematic discrimination against international students and scholars from developing nations. She shares her stories on this topic through the lens of visual arts, speaking and writing on being an “alien” in a land she now calls “home.” In her recently launched online discussion forum “Immigration Story Café,” she invites diverse speakers from throughout the USA who identify as immigrants to share their personal stories of struggle and triumph. She believes that by listening to the stories of immigrants, our society can expand beyond the collective narratives we see and experience in day to day life in the USA.