My Journey as an Iranian-American

By Nora Farahdel

I was born an American. An American whose first language was Farsi and first bite was tadig, but an American nonetheless. My parents filled our home with the aroma of herbs and longing. They splattered the floors with Persian rugs and the walls with black and white memories. They were adamant that my Iranian identity was not forgotten–they made every right move. But outside of those walls, I kept it a secret.

Illustration of Iranian-American woman

I grew up going to schools that were made up of a predominantly white student body. My classmates were cookie cutter versions of the perfect popular kids, or at least perfect by my definition: PB&J sandwiches, Butter sweatpants, and hairless arms. I was painfully aware of the differences between me and perfection.

I knew that I had to keep my worlds separate–that no one would find my backstory important. So I spent the majority of my childhood putting on a mask in the school hallways, doing everything I could to blend in. And I did fit in–I had friends and functions and I felt like I was doing it all right. But when the time came to graduate high school I was met with the stark realization that I didn’t know myself at all, not even a little bit. This profound sense of lost identity struck me–I had spent so many years trying to fit in that I lost any semblance of myself.

I took college as an opportunity to start over. I moved across the state to Northern California with a strong sense of fear but an even stronger appetite for change. I didn’t yet know the many forces at work both outside and within me. I was finally on my own, I had the opportunity to finally reinvent myself, to erase everything and start from scratch, and it led me to look to my past. 

A blank slate meant rebuilding. I  thought about my family, who I wouldn’t exist without. My parents are from Iran, a country that one was home, a country whose government failed them. My family was a part of the small minority of Jews living under the increasingly restrictive Islamic Regime. Iran quickly transformed into an unfamiliar place and my parents decided to start anew, leaving everything behind in the hope of a brighter future. 

My relationship with my family is built on a foundation of sacrifice– their familiarities for my opportunities. They gave up everything to give me the ability to dream big, bigger than they ever could. This is an essential facet to my identity and the bicultural experience. I’m doing it all for them.

My Persian ancestry was always just a fact, an extra bullet point to the list of traits I was born with. But I began to reinvestigate the value of my heritage, having lost easy access to that world in my new college setting. I was stripped of coming home to Persian dishes and the lingering melodies of Farsi. I couldn’t see my father’s peppered mustache or hear his old jokes. Slowly at first, and then all at once, I began to miss it all. Losing the ability to connect with my culture allowed me to finally see the importance of my Iranian heritage. 

It became obvious that separating my worlds only harmed my sense of self. This unnecessary division broke me into countless confusing pieces–it didn’t allow me to see myself as a a whole person. Because I was never just American or just Iranian. Rather, I am the sum of both of those worlds and the uniquely beautiful experiences associated with each. It’s the duplicity of these experiences that make me who I am. I am defined by both long traditional Persian meals and boxes of Kraft mac and cheese. 

Getting closer to my Persian identity brought me closer to understanding myself. I gained a greater sense of appreciation for my tight-knit family and the many ways in which my parents kept me connected to my Iranian heritage. Each family meal and Shabbat dinner was an ode to their journey and ties to our Iranian background. I began to appreciate my Middle-Eastern features rather than run from them, finally acknowledging the power in being unique.  

Today, I stand proud in my Iranian-American identity. I’ve learned to embrace all parts of myself and let them shape my future endeavors and relationships. I was never just an American. I was always so much more than that. 

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