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Finding appreciation for my culture, homeland while growing up in immigrant family

Kimia Rategh and her family pose for a portrait. (Courtesy of Kimia Rategh)

By Kimia Rategh

June 4, 2023 11:01 p.m.

“Dad! Please stop whistling so loudly!”

I have probably repeated that phrase thousands of times since my very first volleyball game in sixth grade. What I didn’t realize until almost eight years later was that I was subconsciously saying, “Dad! Please stop being so Iranian!”

I was always the only Iranian kid growing up, despite going to diverse public schools with many other children of immigrants. Being a part of an immigrant community made me think that I would fit in with the other kids.

Their parents had also left their families and everything they had ever known behind to move to the United States. They had also settled down in Silicon Valley and overcame both outright racism and various microaggressions along the way. And yet, the fact that they were not from an Iranian Muslim family made me feel isolated when I expected to feel understood.

Because of American society’s limited and often inaccurate exposure to the Iranian community, I knew that my family and I would define Iranian culture for those around us.

Thus, while my dad’s whistling was not directly tied to Iranian culture, I knew that any deviation from the norm would instantly be equated with my culture by those observing me. This pressure made it difficult for me to comfortably express myself. I always felt I had to be the type of person society wanted to mold me into.

It was also why I was always so embarrassed by my dad’s theatrical show of support.

My house has always been filled with love. My parents showed nothing but endless support for my brother and me. Yet somehow, I often found myself feeling ashamed of my background when I stepped outside those walls. Today, not only do I feel proud of my Iranian family, but I feel ashamed of ever feeling otherwise.

The mixture of pride and shame has only deepened since Sept. 16, 2022, when Mahsa Amini was brutally murdered and a second revolution broke out in Iran.

Ever since the Woman, Life, Freedom movement took off, my understanding of my identity has turned upside down. Growing up as an Iranian Muslim girl in the U.S. was something I deemed to be a struggle, but it has also proven to be a privilege.

My life has been defined by choices. My parents chose to move to the US to pursue higher education, then chose to stay and build a life for themselves here in California. Every summer until 2018, my family chose to visit Iran. At the age of 11, I chose to wear the hijab. At the age of 18, I chose to take off my hijab.

So many Iranians did not choose to leave Iran. They were forced to. So many Iranians did not choose to forgo higher education. They were banned from pursuing it. So many Iranians did not choose to never again visit the country they once called home. They were effectively exiled. So many Iranian women did not choose to wear the hijab. Worst of all, no woman in Iran has the choice to take off the hijab.

My parents, just like any immigrants, faced their struggles moving from Iran to the US. They had to deal with racist comments about Iran being nothing but a desert, despite its rich and beautiful history, and mockery of their accents and culture. They had to deal with the separation from their families.

But they always had the chance to go back. We often did, which is why my brother and I can speak Farsi as well as we do. It’s the reason my heart aches when I have to spend Nowruz away from home. It’s why I constantly long for the same home-cooked meals I was made fun of for eating in school.

While being an Iranian Muslim woman comes with the struggles of confronting hundreds of misconceptions both about Iran and Islam, that struggle feels like nothing compared to what women in Iran face every day. Nor is it comparable to the struggle of the thousands of Iranians displaced from their homes because of their identities.

Despite how I felt being the only Iranian kid growing up, my life as an Iranian woman is highly privileged, and I hate that reality. I hate that not every Iranian, or person, for that matter, has the right to self-determination that I have.

I hate that every time I think how much I miss Iran, my friends and family back home are thinking about how to survive and escape the danger they feel in a place that once provided them with such comfort.

I hate that my biggest complaint as I make my way to class each day is the trek up Bruin Walk while halfway around the world girls are being poisoned at school.

I hate that we are approaching nine months since the revolution first started and not only is Iran still in shambles, but the world has stopped caring. News cycles have moved on, but Iranian lives are still being lost.

I used to be embarrassed by my traditional upbringing. Now, I am eternally grateful that my parents raised me in touch with my culture.

It’s been five years since I visited Iran and I long to visit again, but I can’t bring myself to walk into a country where women and men are dying for their rights and walk right back out to my privileged life a few weeks later.

I want to visit a free Iran. An Iran where the pride I now unconditionally feel for my culture also extends to how the people of Iran are treated.

If I could turn back time, I would change that one little sentence to “Dad! Thank you for showing me how beautiful it is to be Iranian.”

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Kimia Rategh
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