A Report of Love and Hate from America,by a First-Generation Immigrant-American.Discretion
| America initially came to me in the form of audio and video cassettes. She came when I was just beginning to see the generation gap in my family, just old enough to understand that such a thing exists. She came larger than life, as the sight of my brother the rebel’s first guitar, his Guns N’ Roses and Michael Jackson tracks and my mother’s musings of Kenny Rogers and Elvis Presley. She came as my brother’s obsession with The Terminator in his small room, on the roof of our Tehran house, and the constant replays of The Sound of Music in my grandparents’ lavish living room, across the yard. Moreover, America came as Cinderella and Mickey Mouse, wind-up toys, Kit-Kats, Ray Ban Aviators, Mother’s Marlboros and the moonwalk. If you couldn’t afford something with “Made in USA” stamped on it, you hoped to get a Japanese knockoff. Yes, America came to me in the 80s.|
To me, America slowly came to be, symbolically, the ultimate frontier in the search for human prosperity. America was endless possibilities. America was the future, and Iran was the past. She was the ever-present, hovering over everything, even our daily lives, our thoughts, our hobbies and work. Good or bad, America was everywhere.
America, as my friends and I understood her, was made up of a people who were different from the rest of us. This is no exaggeration. It was common to catch a group of kids my age praising America totally unprovoked. Talk about America was never out of context. The Americans do it, so it must be a good way to do things—and it often was.
My uncle would say, “The American government will support their people even outside of America.” A person would speak; proud that he or she not only had some knowledge of America, but also knew someone who had been there. “What are you—stupid? Of course, they will. They are not like us. They care about their own people.”
Every claim to a connection to America was suspect. If you claimed that you had been to America, you were immediately challenged, as if you were insulting the group’s intelligence. “No one who sets foot in America will ever come back to this! What do you think I am? A donkey?” If your family was trying to go to America, you never spoke about it. First, you would be spreading rumors, and in Iran, such rumors were plain dangerous. Second, you would be ridiculed for daring to consider that you would ever be able to set foot in America-the-great. Blasphemy!
Going to America was a dream, and the fact that this dream rarely became reality for even the most resourceful and wealthy of us made us seek it even harder. However, in complete secrecy behind drawn curtains, in small and well-knit families, the same dream was being weaved differently. The American government organized then, and still does, a lottery of sorts, and the winners get to go to America. Nobody I knew ever won, but people do occasionally—or so I hear.
Also, I often heard jokes about people who got lucky and made it to America. It became a joke because we felt that they would act stupidly, even to the point of shocking the Americans and embarrassing themselves: that is how we felt about our own ways. As youngsters, we would imagine such scenarios and laughed about them. “My uncle said that this poor guy tried to bargain at a fancy American store as if it were a bazaar in downtown Tehran. Hah! Poor guy—he knows so little.” We found such stories hilarious. “My friend said …” “I read …” “I heard …” That’s all there was—hearsay.
We grew up in a generation that never forgot how we felt about America. Our taste in music, fashion and hair, our views on sex, our philosophy and our values—even our private thoughts—were influenced by America. We saw spotted pictures of our parents with bell-bottoms and side burns, and we laughed, because we thought that was old fashioned. And for a while, we wore everything related to the Chicago Bulls—everybody knew Michael Jordon. “Your cap is a fake. Probably made in Taiwan or something. The authentic ones have seven stitches across the front, on the shade. They fooled you, stupid.” Yes, America was everywhere.
The fact that we hated our government gave us a mischievous sense of camaraderie with America; in some way, we were on the same team. We didn’t share the mistrust our previous generations felt for America; the religious right who were and still are in power believe that the Shah’s evil Kingdom was America’s pony. On the other hand, the pro-Shahs and intellectuals believed and continue to believe that the current regime was secretly set up by the Americans and the British.
We were not so immersed in the politics. We were caught between Michael’s dance moves and Kirk Hammett’s lead, between Robot and Head banging. Yes, America came to me in the 80s, as it came to everybody at some point. America was always in the pipelines.
I landed in Los Angeles International Airport. LAX is massive. It’s impressive. But if the people designing the interior to that faithful gateway had known any of the kids from our 80s circle, they would have designed it differently—but then, America is missing that touch all over her massive landscape. You will find varieties of opinions on immigration here, but for a country that has a large part of its infrastructure, history, policies and political activity tied to immigration, whether for or against it, the majority of the people have a disproportional disconnect from the subject. You have to love America a lot to overcome the sudden let-down of its unwelcoming spirit. It’s like the disappointment you feel after a highly anticipated film: the movie may be great, but your expectation was too high.
I am going to indulge myself here and compare the way I felt about America to how the Greeks may have felt when they entered Persia. They viewed Persia with awe. The empire’s appeal was based on their high expectations, justified by all the stories and tales they had heard about it, but its infrastructure couldn’t live up to its image. Persia was a magnificent, giant fairyland that had become corrupt and was crumbling at the core.
To some immigrants, especially the 80s circle, disappointment with America was like a hangover that would not go away. Some come to America for the opportunities, the possibilities, but others like me wanted to be here because we were in love with America and what it represented. I am sure many would disagree with me on this (call me an idealist if you wish), but that spirit is gone. America has moved on. That is not necessarily a bad thing; the problem is that nobody knows what has replaced it. Salman Rushdie said, “Doubt, it seems to me, is the central condition of a human being in the twentieth century.” I will add that there is more of it in America than anywhere else, and the immigrant community understands that doubt better than almost anybody.
It is important to add that since almost all Americans are immigrants or their descendents, the term immigrant usually refers to recent or first-generation immigrants.
I could relate part of that letdown feeling to Hollywood and rock ’n roll. We didn’t have the Internet in the 80s, or even the early 90s, at least not where I lived in Tehran. We didn’t trust our TV news, either. Most of what we knew about America was presented to us through movies and music. Well, maybe, just maybe on the canvas of our hopeful minds we painted an inaccurate portrait of America. On that issue, the immigrant community’s beliefs are split. I believe that America has moved on, but there is a large group in that community that believes it has been nothing but smoke and mirrors all along. Many believe that America actually deceived the world, and that she has always been less perfect and less powerful than she pretended to be.
I have found part of this feeling of disappointment to be more personal, or at least more obscure, than most would imagine. It is sometimes accompanied by the stain of bitterness. (Seeing myself write this reminds me of the fact that the relationship between America and some of us is one of love and hate. To most of humanity, this is a testament to human nature in general, but America represents it so well. If you think about it, our combined feelings towards our species in general can be described as one of love and hate.) With America representing humanity’s ultimate frontier, to me and many others, the sudden realization of her deficiencies and imperfections accentuates the point that we have not traveled as far as we should have as a species. This thought is depressing.
Another interesting observation I have made in America—my America—is the islander state of mind. “If it ain’t happenin’ here, it’s happenin’ in Bumfuc, Egypt.” There is an exaggerated feeling of self-importance in America. Looking back through history at her role in the world, and even today, this feeling is justified at times; and even when it isn’t, it is certainly excusable. This sentiment reflects in its sports, politics, policy, science, education and day-to-day events. Just like everything else, it has its pros and cons.
Certainly the confidence this sentiment brings is often, from a sociological and business point of view, productive. America is always ready to extend a helping hand beyond her borders, but the average citizen can be oblivious to the rest of the world, containing his or her concerns within a limited local purview, which often turns out to be good for that community’s productivity.
But then there is a sense of being adrift, straining for a sense of identity. Stereotyping is frowned upon in America, but consciously or subconsciously, many strive to fit the stereotypes and the status quo, as if to gain some sort of identity from them. This isn’t always the case, and in fact, this identity issue, its presence or absence, is a new subject to me. We were raised in Iran in the 80s. To us, identity crisis and stereotyping were the least of our problems. We were raised in an environment underlined by unshakable fear and a sense of the forbidden, bar none. Just the thought of admiring America in any social circle was a risk. We took it.
Well, the idealistic kids of that time and place are no longer part of the circle. We are all grown up, and, I am sure, scattered across the world. I presume that the majority are still in Iran, oppressed and abused, many may be in Europe and some, like me, are here in America—fortunately. Though our beliefs are divided, even among those who live in America, each of us knows something that we didn’t know before: No matter how organized and systematic she may seem, and regardless of her efforts to present an image of intent and resolve, America is mainly chaotic. This could give the restless hearts of kids from the 80s circle, especially the ones still in Iran, some much needed rest.
America’s seeming omnipotence, her superhuman aura, represents an intent that gives birth, specifically in the Mideast, to rumors and claims of conspiracy where chaos would be so much closer to the truth and much simpler to comprehend. We believed that America was perfect: she didn’t make mistakes. We also believed that America thought out everything well in advance. This may come as a surprise to some, but this was the only belief we shared with the extremists who wished for her demise, protesting that there were no mistakes and everything was well planned by the all-powerful Americans. They challenged our idealism with historical facts: the CIA’s pretend-coup against Mohammad Mosaddegh, the Iran-Contra Affair, the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655, American hesitation and lack of medical care for the ailing Reza Pahlavi and so much more were thrown at us to counter our pro-America arguments. We stood there, taking the heat, fingers in our ears, singing, “La la la … I can’t hear you.”
Well, I can now. America isn’t perfect… just like the rest of us. With that understanding, we can be set free.
We also had the impression that America was uniform—one nation with one banner and one resolve. That could not be further from the truth. Being here, I have discovered that America’s people and their beliefs are diverse, and the outcome of national debate—the government’s actions—do not necessarily represent the people. Learning that, for me in particular, has clarified the misled image of America of the 80s, based on a couple of rock bands, some clever speeches and a few products.
America, with all her valor and power, is no different from anything a child discovers while growing up. In some ways, she is as much a mystery to the world as the world is a mystery to her. Due to this growth, no matter when America comes to you (in the 30s to my grandparents, the 60s to my mother or the 80s to me), when you come to her, you are going to find a different America. America always moves on. She meant military might to my grandparents—that is all Grandpa and Grandma could possibly know. She meant hippies, Vietnam and disco to my mother.
To me, she has become a totally different country. I don’t know how many of us in the immigrant community have realized this, but I am sure I am not alone: when you ignore the shine and glitter and get a closer look at America, you will find that there is so much more to savor than her image. America isn’t one people under one flag. America is a diverse people, whose foundation is based on very few but very profound values and principles, including a sense of human decency, while they may differ on everything else.
Those values—not the things—have made America a country whose personal journey has had a worldwide impact. America may never be able to live up to those values to the extent they deserve, but without her struggles to do so, the modern world would not have so much of what it values most but takes for granted.
When you drop the massive buildings, the freeways, the cars, the fancy malls and the glamour, beneath it all is Joe, my neighbor, who has showered me with kindness and generosity, for no apparent reason, since I have here. Underneath all that is my friend, Ernest, who is fluent in Spanish and French, who has been a steady friend and supported me through this time of transition. There is Keith, an engineer who can build a plane from scratch, but whose creative passion for making and painting model planes produces art that will take your breath away. A Spanish woman brings me tamales and Mexican delicacies at work, simply saying, “You work a lot.” Before I reached America, when my grandma was alone here, the Indian shopkeeper at the corner would insist on driving her home every time she shopped at his store, thinking she was too old to walk. I knew a nurse who quit her job so she could go to Haiti to help the needy. And when my grandma was ill, my boss called me at work from the hospital, saying, “Don’t worry. I am here with her.”
But the best example I know is myself, who, after arriving here with just forty dollars and minimal skills but an open mind and outstretched arms, have been able to own my home and my transportation, maintain self-respect and, most importantly, uphold my own opinions after just a few years in America.
So, when I raise my right hand next year to take the oath, I will do so with tears, goose bumps and pride. I will walk out of that hall, not a changed man, but the same man under a new flag—my own flag, the American flag!
Should it ever happen that I hear from those who used to challenge my love for America, and if they still wonder why I love her or why I have decided to become an American citizen, I will have only one thing to say, all they need to know: “I just couldn't pass on the Tamales"