Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
― Brené Brown
All my life I’ve hit the ground running. My mom says that I was speaking full sentences at age one and that I was fully potty trained by age one and a half. (Side note: I wonder if that’s related to all of my current-day bathroom issues…? More on that later. Or maybe never.)
When my family arrived in Germany after leaving Iran, hitting the ground running was a coping mechanism I was not consciously aware of. I knew that the sooner I learned the language and the more I acted and looked like everyone else, the sooner people would stop treating me as “different”. My need to belong was so strong that I even stopped speaking Farsi for a while. I surrounded myself with German friends, I learned the language fast and worked on my accent until it was barely detectable. I listened to German pop music and watched German films. I remember as a teenager, my friends’ parents taking a liking to me because I followed German pop culture while their own kids idolized American singers and actors.
At first my parent’s encouraged me to blend in. They praised me for my language skills and they liked that I was able to make friends easily. Language acquisition wasn’t as easy for them. From the time we arrived in Germany I became our family’s translator. I was in charge of reading all of our mail and translating everything for my parents. I was also in charge of all of the correspondence between my parents and my school. Everything from doctor’s visits to bank loans to my younger sister’s educational needs was handled by me from the age of 10 and all through my teen years. My parents wanted me to do well in school and to have lots of friends, so they didn’t question my total immersion initially.
Eventually though, they noticed that I was starting to “lose touch” with my Iranian upbringing and they became a little more concerned. They would listen to classical Iranian music by acclaimed singers and composers like Mohammad Reza Shajarian, Shahram Nazeri and Hossein Alizadeh and would encourage me to listen too. They tried to teach me Persian cooking and encouraged me to talk in Farsi to them. They even dragged me to Farsi school! Once a week, on Tuesday afternoons, a bunch of other teenagers and I would meet with a Farsi speaking teacher at the local elementary school for Farsi lessons. I started making Iranian friends again, even developed some crashes on a couple of the guys, but I always felt different from them. I had been in Germany the longest. I spoke German better than any of them. I wasn’t as interested in all the “stuff” about Iran, the art, the music, the poetry…. I felt more German!
Looking back, I can see how some of that detachment from my own background was based in fear. Germany in the early 1980’s was not a friendly place for immigrants and refugees. Back then, like in recent times, there was a rush of refugees (mainly from Iran and Lebanon) and not everyone in the country was happy about having to take in so many people. I know some of my friends were having a hard time in school. The ones that had it bad were being bullied and made fun of. Others experienced discrimination in a more subtle way: Teachers who never called on them because it was assumed they didn’t know the answer, landlords who knocked on their door the moment something went wrong or something went missing at the apartment complex….. I hadn’t thought about this before, but I just realized that most of the boys in my Farsi class were in Germany without their parents. They were teenagers who lived either alone or with roommates, went to school, worked part-time jobs and had to take care of themselves and all of their needs at the age of 15 or 16. My boys are 15 and 17 years old today…. I can’t even imagine…..
I didn’t want to be treated like them. I wanted to “fit in” and I did most of the time. I wasn’t in the popular group in High school and I didn’t get asked out to parties. But I had German friends. They were nerds like me but at least we had our own group. Whenever teachers questioned my capabilities, I went out of my way to prove them wrong. I worked my butt off to get into a Gymnasium, the most advanced of the three types of secondary schools in Germany. While there, I picked German as my major. I was the only foreigner in a class of only 9 students. The teacher looked at me and asked if I was sure I was in the right class. After I got a “C” on my first assignment, she responded to my disappointment by saying: “German is not your 1st language. A “C” is good enough for you. You will probably not get anything better than maybe a “B” in this class, maybe you should adjust your expectations.” Yes, the class was that hard! And that teacher apologized to me when I received my first “A” on one of her assignments. I hit the ground running and I’m good at blending in.
In the 10 years I lived in Germany, I don’t remember ever referring to myself as a refugee or as an immigrant. If someone asked me where I was from, I’d say “I’m Persian” (not Iranian) and then would try to change the subject. I think my parents did the same. They tried their best to blend into the community as well. They worked hard, saved their money and started their own business when I was in high school. But I still watched as over and over again, customers would look past my mom or dad and ask to speak to their supervisor. Prejudice is a deep-seated disease…..
I moved to the US after high school to attend college and I did the same thing here. I have more Iranian friends here than I did in Germany, but I never talk to anyone about my history, about my upbringing, about my family’s journey out of Iran. I had to get used to American English but I picked it up pretty fast. I do have an accent, which interestingly is more German than Iranian. My motto was still the same: Keep your head down, blend in, and fit in. San Diego is a pretty diverse city, this made it easier to blend in. Most Iranians I met here, are affluent, highly educated, and middle to upper class citizens. I felt safer here than I had in Germany. I don’t mean that to sound conceded. We live in a society where wealth and education buys you a certain kind of security. You are less likely to become a target of discrimination and prejudice. You are guaranteed certain comforts and securities. At least I thought so, until recently…..
Last year, as more refugees poured into Europe and the United States, I became more aware of a rumbling inside my gut. As the world had to shift to the new reality of their demise, I too felt a shift within me. I found myself grief stricken with every news report and every image. The children especially, caught my attention and broke my heart. I felt such empathy and kinship with them, relating to their suffering and yearning deeply to help in some way. I felt a need to let people know that these refugees we see on TV, are just like you and me. They had a life, they had a family and friends, they had jobs and went to school and were minding their own business when war and violence took all of that away from them. If they could stay in their homes, they would. If they could go back, they would. That kind of desperation is difficult to relate to, if you have not been exposed to it. I struggled for months, trying to figure out what I was being called to do. On the one hand I felt such an urge to share my story and on the other and I still felt safer in hiding. How could I own my history and still blend in and pretend, I’m just another American citizen? Was it safe to share? Was it my place? Would I be judged?
The US election changed everything for me over night. One moment I felt nice and comfortable in the bubble of protection I had created around myself and the next moment the rug was pulled out from under me. For close to a year I had listened to the hateful, divisive rhetoric of one candidate and thought “That’s not America. That’s not accepted here.” I thought that the collective consciousness would prevail and that the results of the election would send a clear message that racism had no place in this country. On election night that illusion came crumbling down all around me. People had listened to the hateful talk and accepted it. They had heard the lewd comments about women and had minimized their effect. They had heard his promise to build a wall, to ban Muslims, to take health care away from millions of people and had voted for him anyway! I cried for days. First I cried incredulous tears. Then there were tears of fear and grief. With time I cried tears of guilt and shame. My silence, my “keep-your-head-down-and-blend-in” strategy had given me the illusion that I was in fact safe; that I would go unnoticed and therefore could avoid discrimination and bigotry. Meanwhile my friends in the African American community were facing racism on daily basis. My friends in the LGBTQ community were fighting a war trying to protect their basic rights. Racism and bigotry was raging all around me while I had my head in the sand. My silence isn’t helping anyone and in the recent months it has felt like it is suffocating me as well.
So I want to connect! Being a therapist with a focus on trauma healing, connection is the one factor that shows up over and over again as one of the most important resources in my clients’ healing journey. We are tribal animals. Our biology needs connection to others for healthy regulation. Keeping to myself and hiding away my history isn’t serving me anymore. I wonder if we would have had the same results in the last election, if more people had shared their stories…. I feel ready to embrace all of mine and all of me: my Iranian parts, my German parts, my immigrant parts, my divorced parts, my fall-head-over heels-in-love-again parts. I want to share my story and I want to hear yours. I want to exchange family traditions and secret grandma recipes. I want to hear about your struggles and triumphs. I want to share stories of healing and of finding and rebuilding home again. Let’s connect and learn from each other’s experience. Let me open your eyes to a world you never knew existed and show me what it’s like in your world. I’m not going to hit the ground running on this one. I’m going to take my time. I’m sure I will stumble and I’m certain I’ll make a fool of myself at times. This still makes me feel exposed and vulnerable but as Brene Brown says: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” I haven’t figured it all out and I am a work in progress. I have a lot to learn and I’m willing and open. It is time for change! Let’s do it together. I hope you join me on this journey. Cheers.