On Belonging in Trump’s America

Can this Iranian-American still feel at home in the country where she grew up?

I was born in Iran but raised in a small Ohio town, tucked in the southwest corner between Indiana and Kentucky. It’s where I went to kindergarten, learned to ride a bike, got my first job at Wendy’s, graduated from high school, and made lifelong friends.

Despite my middle America bona fides, President Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric make me question whether I belong here. And yet most times, when I hear his hateful speech it’s not my Iranian side I think of first. It’s my blond-haired, blue-eyed, American mom.

Growing up in Maryland in the 1940s, my mom never imagined one day she’d name her children after the kings and queens of ancient Persia.

But then she went to nursing school in D.C. and met my dad, an Iranian student attending American University. They met on a blind date. He had a pencil-thin mustache like Erol Flynn, and she found him exotic and charming. He introduced her to the world of Iranian immigrants in 1960s D.C.: students, diplomats, parking lot attendants, restaurant workers. Everyone argued about conspiracies and the politics of their faraway homeland. She was captivated.

There was only one problem. The director of her nursing school pulled my mom aside with a warning. My dad wasn’t a Christian and, even though the director didn’t know anything about Iran, she knew enough to consider my dad “colored.”

It was a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in close-by Virginia and several other states. Think of your future children, the nursing director said, encouraging my mom to marry her own kind.

My mom never liked to argue, so she just listened quietly. But then she married my dad anyway, holding ceremonies in both a church and a mosque, to cover all bases. It turned out her heart was bigger than the prejudice of the times.

The happy couple, undeterred by the prejudice of the times.

A few years later, my parents moved to Iran with a baby (my older brother) in tow. My mom didn’t know the language or culture; 1960s Iran was quite the culture shock for her. And to be fair, my Lutheran mom was quite the shock to her Iranian in-laws, too.

My father’s family could have rejected the foreigner in their midst, but instead they embraced her — and made sure others did, too.

What does it mean to be embraced? My mom told me a story about visiting distant relatives in another village who were devout Muslims. They refused to let her into their home because my mom was Christian. But then my grandmother said if her Christian daughter-in-law wasn’t welcomed, then the rest of the family wouldn’t come in either. The door opened. Tensions were eased. My mom was let in and everyone shared tea.

Time went on. Cultural differences mattered less. When I was born in Tehran, the hospital staff made my mom feel at home by playing their one American record, Connie Francis’s “Where the Boys Are,” on an endless loop. Bit-by-bit my mom learned Farsi, the Persian language. She learned how to cook tahdig rice and engage in the custom of ta’arof, the politeness Iranians display to show respect.

My mother and grandmother at a wedding ceremony for a family member.

My mom talks about her time in Iran as some of the happiest days of her life. She didn’t have running water or disposable diapers, but she had acres upon acres of orange groves and rice fields and the Caspian seashore.

Most importantly, she had an extended family who welcomed her. And made her feel at home. And helped her to belong, despite how foreign she seemed.

My parents eventually moved back to the United States, which is how I ended up in Ohio, far away from the Caspian Sea. My brother joined the Boy Scouts. I was a Camp Fire Girl. We were one of the few foreigners in our town, where most of our neighbors had no idea where Iran was.

But the 1979 Iranian revolution and subsequent hostage crisis taught everyone where Iran was.

The images on the nightly news weren’t from the Iran my family knew, the Iran that had so welcomed my American mother. And here’s the thing: it wasn’t the Iran our Ohio neighbors knew, either. It’s because they knew us: the American nurse married to the Iranian professor with kids at the same school as their sons and daughters.

We were fortunate. Despite the tension of the times, we were embraced, not rejected. And that town’s embrace meant that despite my foreign name I grew up feeling safe, welcomed, and at home. I belonged to America and America belonged to me.

It’s the same way my mom felt about Iran, the country that welcomed her so many years ago. Despite her American name, she belonged to Iran and Iran belonged to her.

My sense of belonging is being tested in today’s America. But my mom’s experiences when she met my dad are a reminder that prejudice and hate are nothing new.

I am now raising my own daughter in a country that is again questioning who gets to be called American, and who gets to belong. What kind of America do I want her to grow up in?

I think it was my Iranian grandmother and my Ohio neighbors who got it right. Despite their different religions and cultures and skin colors, they all shared a common belief. They believed that all people should be made to feel welcome in their communities. That everyone deserved compassion.

Making others feel welcomed and at home. Recognizing that no matter where you are from, you belong here.

That’s the America my neighbors believed in. And so do I.

Ketayoun — a Tehrani-Buckeye — believes black eyeliner is an essential life companion. And you should always do the most good you can.

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