I've worked on understanding what I am for a long time. My Mom's Chinese, my Dad's Iranian, I'm a Canadian citizen, and I study in the US. All of these pieces are important, but I'm finding that more than these pieces in isolation, in today's political and social climate, it's their combinations that really determine my sense of self. And of course, with fear of Islamic and perhaps in particular Shi'a fundamentalism on the rise in the West, I am most conscious at the moment of being a composite of pieces that connect a historically bitter divide—of being an Iranian in North America.
I was born a few years before the Iranian revolution. I lived on a farm in Kashan before completing grades 3 and 4 in Tehran. Then my family left Iran in 1985 for England before finally settling in Canada when I was 10 years old. My Chinese-Iranian duality had been intense enough in Iran and Hong Kong, but it was only on reaching North America that I really became conscious of an identity tug of war.
I struggled a lot with my Iranian side as a teenager—the spectre in the eyes of other people was, or I perceived it to be, of Iranians as dark, dirty, smelly, sweaty hostage-takers. I was ambivalent over my Iranian-ness with friends and strangers: half-defiantly proud, and half sweeping it under the rug. For me, on seeing the reactions of friends coming to my house, the unwritten rule became clear: my mother, being Chinese, was socially acceptable. My Iranian father was not.
I knew somewhere deep inside that this was ridiculous. As a 9-year-old in England, I was put in a class of 12-year-olds because my Iranian elementary schooling had been so strong. My Iranian extended family would gather at my grandmother's house every Friday for heated debate on politics and the economy in a way that I have yet to see replicated in other households. So I knew that there was another reality to Iranian society that was more complicated than the ominous fanaticism implicit in media portrayals of chadori women and slogan-chanting masses of humanity in the streets.
But I didn't know how to articulate my inner frustration and doubts. I was young, and questioned my powers of perception—surely I must be wrong if all the objective, respectable, professional media outlets were saying something else. And as I grew aware that part of my background was utterly uncool, I felt shame when yet another negative portrayal of Middle Easterners hit the screens. While I knew this wasn't what Iran was all about, I couldn't actually prove it. And in many ways, I became racist against myself.
Of course now, as a media scholar, I'm finding my childhood experiences to be very interesting fodder for investigation into diaspora identity, cultural dualities, and constructed social worlds. While I don't like to generalize, I honestly feel that it's sad that the cultural wealth of the US is funnelled through such a culturally poor mainstream media. Other than Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan more recently, I can't think of any Chinese actors, singers, or pop icons. With all the talent and beauty streaming out of Bombay, I'd have thought that US popculture would have had at least one big name from India. And of course, while Middle Easterners are good enough as occasional goofy sidekicks or villains, I can't think of any who are household names in their own right.
I'd really like to understand the differences between people who are represented and those who are not in the main cultural flows of their environment. For me, the sense of being invisible in mainstream media has left me with a constant sense of being an outsider. I am looking in onto the ideal world - I am an interloper, the swarthy fringe friend on the outskirts of the circle of acceptance. Don't get me wrong—I've had a very healthy social life. I just mean that somewhere somehow subconsciously, I've learned that I don't exactly fit.
None of this is new, of course, and certainly a large part of the greater diversity of skin colours in media flows is testament to the courage of the civil rights movement and other grassroots mobilizations. I guess I just wish that by now this fight would have been over, and more of us would be represented in the social world that is reflected into all of our eyes.
I also wish that my reality was part of public discourse. You see, the bombed ruins of Bam aren't my experience of Iran. Destitute, wailing victims and nuclear facilities aren't my reality either. They make great front page news, but don't get anywhere close to what I know as Iran. My truth is that smell just after it rains in Tehran, the comfort of mountains always to the north, the stepped walls and the sound of rushing water from the canals lining steeply sloping streets.
My truth is warm liquid dark eyes and truly good people. That's what I breathed in and enjoyed when I finally went back to Iran after 14 years away. And that's what I wish would replace the 20-year-old highly unrepresentative media pushbutton of the Iranian bogeyman.
Now that I've had the chance to grow up, to revisit, and to choose, I've become a lot stronger in my sense of who I am and where I belong. I've come to terms with my ambivalent dualities: the pieces that conform, the pieces that don't. Personally, I like my many-sided identity. I keep the parts I like from each culture, and discard the rest. Easy.
The problem emerges in that my (for lack of a better term) "personal culture" has become so individualized, that it's hard to find my pack, my tribe. Who on earth is going to have patience for my bizarre mishmash of Iranian-Canadian-Chinese cultural moodinesses, superstitions, prejudices, and assumptions? I often hear this concern from people who have moved to countries very different from their own. Marriage prospects are difficult, they say, because people at home will never truly understand, and neither will people in the new country. So they could only find longterm compatibility with multi-nationals like them - with other people who straddle intensely different cultures and understand the funny invisibility and special several-realitied-understanding of never truly fitting in any one culture again.
I guess that means I'm kinda stuck. The only other Iranian-Chinese-Canadians I know are my brothers and sister. And you know, they're cute, but really not that cute.
But I don't mind. Here's to multiple layers of being! It's often an uncomfortable state, but I think a very privileged one. And I am very glad to have been born into mine.