August 2010

Right when I was about to leave for work at 8:30 a.m., he stepped out for a smoke in the front yard. I smiled as I headed towards the car. We spoke little since I didn’t know French and he spoke little English. I backed out of the driveway and as I drove away, I thought about his impression of our family. I wondered if our habits- Maman’s sudden outbreaks of song and the rest of us following, my brother adding his own lyrics, my grandmother’s desperate gestures to try and communicate to none-Farsi speakers, our dirty jokes that became too hard and sometimes too inappropriate to translate- shocked or amused him. I was sure that a part of him probably understood us, that despite the language barrier, we were just like any other family that gets together and drives one another crazy. We learned that his mother was fond of the Shah’s wife, and had an interest about Iran’s history. These details perhaps helped us connect with him, and even put us at ease in that we weren’t so strange and incomprehensible to him after all. His mother was a small, but yet an important connection.
Having always had the immigrant perspective, I am constantly wondering what the other person thinks upon meeting my family and or learning about Iran. I feel that I have to explain cultural differences. I feel responsible for the other person, especially if he/she is a guest at my house. Do we laugh too much? I wonder. Are we too loud and obnoxious? Why do we burst out in song and why do we always speak in metaphors? There are times, though, that I realize how much I admire our differences, how much I love it when a stranger hears my mother sing. I admire that we are hospitable, even if we take it too far sometimes, like when we beg strangers to eat food and keep asking them if they wouldn’t like to have some more on their plate. I enjoy watching my sister take elaborate care to set up the table and prepare brunch, making sure everyone has plenty of tea and coffee, for instance. There is always a positive end to being an immigrant, but only when you learn to love and accept who you are and what your culture is. When you are 11 and you’ve been forced to move from home to a country whose language your mother and father barely understand, loving yourself isn’t easy. It is after years of embarrassment and self-pity that you begin to love again, that you decide to introduce your mother rather than hide her from your friends. After years of being unable to explain where you come from and what exactly you are, you find an urge to break the silence and say, this is who I am, this is my family, this is my culture.
While certain habits may be hard to translate, explain and or understand, I believe it is these very differences that make one memorable. Our non-Iranian guests and friends may not understand everything, but they get to see us for who we are, right in our very own living room where we drink tea a dozen times and break out in Persian song late at night. Sometimes, when the songs get too sad, just hearing my mother’s voice change, you know everyone understands the depth of its sadness. You don’t have to know the lyrics to understand that for a woman of 60 who has left her homeland for 11 years, these songs invite years of memories like a flood that fills up the entire house and buries you with it. And it doesn’t matter if you speak French or English for you to know how painful it is to still sing the same song while detaching yourself from what it once represented.
I came home after work and he was on the couch, reading a book. He asked if I had a good work, to which I smiled and said yes. I went into the kitchen, searched for left over lunch, and again wondered, had we both knew one language to communicate with, would we have still understood our differences? Later that night, when everyone began retelling past stories, laughing and then singing in Farsi, I saw his expression from across the room and I knew that he felt something, and that he was happy to have joined our strange, but amusing realm.

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