9th-12th Grade Prose Winner
Don’t ask me what community I most identify with, because, honestly, I have no idea.
Every morning, I throw nutty sangak bread into the toaster, toss quince jam on the table, pull on my morose gray and white uniform, and frantically review my study sheets for that day’s contrôles. My mother yells in Persian at my siblings and me to hurry up, and we are shoved out the door.
I’m part of a distinctly Iranian household: my brother, the only male, is the favorite child; my mom burns incense out of paranoia, fearing the “bad eye” of others. On the morning of my SAT, my mom held an ornate Koran over my head. I had to kiss it and walk under the tunnel formed by her warm arms and the Koran. I brought #2 pencils, a scientific calculator, granola bars and a little green scarf that my mother got from Mashhad, a holy city in Iran. My mom and dad and grandparents are all Persian, though there are some exceptions—my Japanese grandmother for example. While I am wholly Persian, I do consider myself an honorary French citizen. Anyone who willingly submits herself to national French exams, exams much harder than the SAT, should have the right to claim a French citizenship. I have adopted myriad French habits. For one, I mostly speak in colorful “Frenglish,” a creative mix of French and English. I used to use a stylo plume to write in my cahiers. Now I type. My American friends are in awe of my French notebooks, bursting with absurdly large, glossy, squared and colorful paper, a stark contrast to the simple lined American versions. Walking from my Persian household to my French school, to my all-American swim team, I transition from one community to the next within a matter of minutes.
The Persian and French communities reflect my public and private selves. Like scholar Richard Rodriguez, for whom Spanish was a “soothing, consoling reminder of being at home,” hearing Farsi, a pretty rare language in New York, reminds me of my extended family in Iran. Sometimes, I’ll hear snippets of a conversation in Farsi. I instantly feel a connection to the speakers. We might even start a conversation. It isn’t difficult to make transitions between public and private lives, provided wehave a strong sense of self. Our heritage and histories will always be with us, so no matter where we go, we will find people to share these gifts with. My mom, for example, met her best friends in a supermarket 15 years ago. She was speaking Farsi to me, begging me to stop crying. Two Persian ladies, also mothers, stopped and helped her. They immediately bonded over commonalities like motherhood and Iranian families. Gourmet Garage frequenters milled around them, yet these women were impervious to their confused stares. In the bagel section of a downtown supermarket, the three women formed a community. The tenet that bound Rodriguez’s Mexican family was, “We are alone—together.” This tenet is what brought three Iranian ladies together in the bakery aisle. My family makes no effort to speak English at home. Why should we? We want to preserve our Persian legacy, and holding tightly to the language is our means to do so. Perhaps paradoxically, the tighter we hold on to our private lives and identities, the easier it is to make transitions between communities.
When we have a sense of identity—for me, my Persian heritage— we can strengthen our existing communities and create new ones. Sometimes identities are slapped on like shallow labels, simply because we innately crave a sense of self, a place in society. But when we embrace and project those identities, we can seamlessly travel through communities. I remember my mother, who never abandoned her Iranian habits. She spoke loudly in Persian, in a public space, in the wake of 9/11, when having a Middle Eastern name or accent was humiliating and a target for bigots. Despite these potential constraints, she continued to be her Iranian self and created an Iranian community outside her home. Now, she bounces between public and private Iranian communities. Marjorie Agosin, a human rights activist and a professor at Wellesley College, shares the struggle of holding onto one’s roots. She writes that “nothing else from her childhood remains,” only Spanish. She misses that “undulating and sensuous language” and the “sense of being and feeling that Spanish gives [her].” Agosin keeps writing in Spanish to maintain a connection with her Chileanroots. She needs to make the transition between Chile and small-town Athens, Georgia, more bearable. I believe that my family clings to Farsi for the same reason. My mother needs to make the transition from her birthplace, Tehran, and New York easier, and my siblings and I follow her because, well, she’s our mother.
Every day, I make transitions between my private Persian life, my public French community, and my predominantly American swim team. The constant changes in behavior, language and personality are enough to make me dizzy. And I do struggle with it: in the morning, I fuse French words with Persian ones. I never know how many kisses to place on others’ cheeks. When I lean into my American friends, they probably ask themselves if I know the concept of boundaries. I eat ice cream rather than sweet faloodeh or baklava after a full plate of khoresht e gheymeh, a “despicable” clash of cuisines, to quote my grandmother. Sometimes I confuse my French feminin and masculin prepositions. My confusions in every community prevent me from fully assimilating myself with the other members. Writer Dinaw Mengestu feels this same alienation. He and his family fled war in Ethiopia when Mengestu was only two. After college, he moved to Kensington, Brooklyn, a lively immigrant hub, which he describes in Home at Last. Despite the quantity of people living there, he stood on the outskirts, unable to find his community. So he just “watched, hardly understanding a word, hoping somehow that the simple act of association and observation was enough to draw [him] into the fold.” Mengestu is unable to make transitions from one community to another because he feels that he doesn’t belong anywhere. He is an observer. I don’t feel like an observer, yet I stand on the outskirts of each group. Unlike Mengestu, I know my identity, even if I am not completely immersed in my communities. My sense of self is the map that prevents me from losing myself when jumping from one community to the next. However, the frequency of my transitions between private and public communities has blurred the boundaries between mypublic and private selves, which leads to cultural and linguistic confusions.
I don’t know if I’ll ever gravitate towards one community more than another. As schools and friends change, so do communities. Identities are less volatile than communities. Perhaps, then, the most important communities are our private ones, the communities that build our identities and remain constant for our entire lives. These are communities that we share with our family and our ancestors. Yet, we cannot limit ourselves to one private community. We are not ascetics—we need outside communities to enrich and entertain ourselves. The only way to assure healthy transitions between communities is with a strong sense of self. The hard part is building that identity in the first place.