A celebration of Persian voices and talent

Your Culture by Maryam Ghatee


Your Culture

by Maryam Ghatee
“In the arrivals hall of Shiraz Shahid Dastgheyb Airport, you fail to connect the faces with the pictures in your photo album and the voices with those you’ve heard over the receiver at odd hours, but you still let them hug you and smother you with kisses.”

Your Culture
by Maryam Ghatee

Y ou walk into a ladies room in London’s Heathrow Airport with your mom where you watch her put on a navy headscarf. You ask for one too, but to your disappointment, you learn that it’s not required; she doesn’t have an extra one, anyway. When you learned that your family is moving back to Iran, you complained, the way a seven-year-old would complain about going out for a walk; but now, you’re excited. None of your classmates from Gower West Elementary School have been on an adventure like this.

You have no memory of being on an airplane, even though you know you were on one when you originally left Iran for America. In the arrivals hall of Shiraz Shahid Dastgheyb Airport, you fail to connect the faces with the pictures in your photo album and the voices with those you’ve heard over the receiver at odd hours, but you still let them hug you and smother you with kisses. You stare in awe at the palm trees that line Shiraz’s boulevards, as your uncle drives your family to your grandmother’s house.

Your aunt takes you to a store to buy a gray manteau uniform and a navy satin headscarf. You are thrilled to be dressing up like all the grown women you have seen since your flight landed. As your aunt helps you try on the new clothes, you hear her mumble about this poor little girl having to cover up. You know nothing about religion, the revolution, or the eight-year war, and accept the clothing as the law of this new land. You start at the public elementary school in your grandmother’s district and make friends with many of the forty-something girls in your crowded classroom.

As you approach your birthday, you learn that you were really born in January. You find out that this is quite common in Iran, either to secure placement in an earlier school year, or to suggest a later birth year. It doesn’t make much sense to you, but you’re excited about this newfound birthday, and decide to celebrate it instead of the old one. You’re unhappy to learn that Santa Claus does not visit every child around the world, and the only thing that reminds you of Christmas here is Mickey’s Christmas Carol on television. You learn that the easy-to-forget March holiday that only your family celebrated in the U.S., is a big hit here. You’re as happy as an almost eight-year-old could be and you’re oblivious about your parents’ struggles to raise a family in this new country.

You’re twelve and your class was chosen to join the annual Aban 13th rally in downtown Shiraz. Everyone is excited to get out of school for the day. You remember how you used to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America every morning at school; you tell your friends that you will be chanting Death to that Reeka, the common dish soap brand instead. You all giggle and make up more words that rhyme with Amreeka.

You’re sixteen and crying, as your mom tries and fails to comfort you. You have been classmates with the same girls since sixth grade and though you’re good friends with many, none of your connections have felt completely fulfilling. You can easily change colors to fit into any of the friend groups, but underneath, you feel like you belong nowhere. Your mom can’t understand your pain and thinks you have unreasonable expectations of friendships. Even though the only thing that reminds you of your childhood in America is a photo album and your American accent, you sometimes wonder if there’s still a little bit of America left in you.

You’re twenty-one and you’re a junior at Shiraz University. There is a restlessness that is beating you down and you are intimidated by the adult world you are about to enter. With no significant ties, you get caught up in the hype of leaving Iran to pursue graduate studies. You don’t necessarily miss America as you don’t remember your life there, but that’s where you end up. With your unaccented English, you slide right back into a world where there seems to be an order to everything. You find it comforting that there are no double meanings to decipher and you let go of the little bit of taarof etiquette you had managed to master. Yet, you’re still having a hard time fitting in, either with Iranian or American students. Then you meet a Shirazi guy through an old friend. It is a long-distance relationship, but as you both reminisce about familiar places and names, you fall in love and get married. Just like your mom, he doesn’t understand what you want from friendships, but instead of calling you unreasonable, he loves how you are different. The rest of graduate school goes by easier, because you seize every opportunity to fly out to him.

You’re thirty and you just had a baby. As you look at this perfect, tiny creature, you are terrified about the role model you’re supposed to be. Everything that felt wrong throughout your life comes crashing down on you, along with or because of post-partum depression. With only a few friends, each from a different background, you realize that you are missing a support network. You find a book called Third Culture Kids, and you’re astonished to discover your experiences and characteristics intimately depicted in black and white. The term unresolved sense of grief continues to spin in your head long after you finish. You realize that your few friends aren’t random, after all; they are Third Culture Kids as well. This awareness about the complexity of your worldview compared to mono-culture people offers you insights and helps shift long-held anxieties about not being enough or fitting in properly. It is finally easier to make friends, and to fully be yourself.

You’re thirty-seven. Your daughter is the same age you were when your family moved back to Iran. You tell her that by the time you were her age, you changed daycares and schools five times and moved across the Atlantic twice. She shrugs and goes back to reading a Thea Stilton book. Her only transition has been from daycare to elementary school and her only move has been from a condo to a house less than a mile away. When life becomes mundane, you find yourself clicking longingly through your company’s international openings. Then you remember that unresolved sense of grief and go back to the work at hand. Even though you now cherish your ability to see the world from different perspectives, you do not want it for your daughter. As a second-generation child, her plate is already full.

Featured Image by Pavel Karásek via Pixabay


Maryam Ghatee

Maryam Ghatee is an Iranian-American Rhode Islander, a mother, and an engineer.