Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Has it really been three years since I’ve been in Iran? Sometimes I find it hard to believe myself, but it’s true. In this time, I've learned some pretty valuable lessons, and here are just a few that I’d like to share with you.

Sometimes explaining yourself is useless, so let it be

The single question I've had to answer the most since being here is, "Why are you here?" (crooked eyebrow, skeptical look). If you've read Tina Fey's Bossypants, she mentions that you can tell a lot about a person by the questions they ask. I couldn't agree more. This question always gets me. Iranians LOVE telling foreigners about their safe country, breathtaking sites, magnificent history, hospitable people, and the fact that you MUST NOT listen to the rhetoric and #MustSeeIran. But staying here longer than a few weeks for vacation is not only unfathomable, it’s unacceptable. Reactions I've gotten have ranged from "Did you fall off the stairs and suffer brain damage?" to an angry "Go back to the US! It's no good here!” I’ll never forget the one man who muttered in Persian (because he thought I didn’t speak it) that I was “0 kilometers” and “wouldn’t last 2 months.” And a woman once told me that it wouldn’t take more than 3 months before I ran away like a bat out of hell. 

But there are actually a whole slew of us here from the other side of the water (as Iranians like to put it) who love it. But most Iranians speak of immigration. Is it a “grass is greener” phenomenon (or in the Persian version- “the neighbor’s chicken is a goose”)? Possibly. But the fact remains that those of us from the other side know that Iranians don’t have it as bad as they like to think they do and that things in the US aren’t as rosy as they imagine…now more than ever. 

Looks matter

For better or worse, looks matter, and Iranians have a high standard of beauty. In the late 80s and early 90s, my clothes and shoes were the tell-tale signs that I wasn’t from Iran. My cousins used to love showing off their American cousin to their friends. It was cool then. And their friends would look at me like a side-show and gasp “wow”. Nowadays, though, my clothes and shoes no longer give me away. (If anything, I actually take fashion tips from girls here.) I stand out now more because of my minimal make-up, uncool clothes, and mannerisms. My cousins' friends' reactions have changed into an unimpressed, “You’re from the U.S.?" (And that hint of disappointment and skepticism in their voices doesn’t escape me.) In fact, the word most commonly used to describe me here is sâdeh (plain/simple/modest). My colleagues even once told me that I wasn’t “luxury” enough, otherwise I could charge a fortune for my classes as a native English speaker. Ouch.

Then there’s the opposite side of the spectrum, the US, where some might say that the idea of comfort is taken to the extreme. (Just think of your stereotypical American tourist on summer vacation in Europe.) When I told my American friend that I do a little touch up before going to the corner market, she laughed in my face. “You mean you actually put on make-up just to go to the supermarket!?” As much as I do miss not being so self-conscious about my looks, they matter here. And I must admit that every time I go back home, I breathe a sigh of relief upon landing in Europe for transit knowing that I’m still lovable even if I'm not “luxury.”

Take every opportunity (and bebinim chi mishe, let’s see what happens)

I am a total introvert. Reading that book Quiet by Susan Cain was like therapy for me. Before, I always had a vault full of excuses that I could whip out at any time to get out of doing something or going somewhere. In Iran, however, I've become a total "yes (wo)man”. My vault of excuses still exists (old habits die hard), but I now approach things with a sense of curiosity to see what happens, which has led me to countless wonderful experiences. So now, I just dive in every time... and I haven't been disappointed yet.

Enjoy the now (because donyâ do ruze)

There are a lot of holidays in Iran, and there are few things Iranians look forward to more than beynol-ta'til, what the Spaniards call puente, and what I have no idea what the Americans call. It's when, for example, Tuesday is a holiday, Wednesday is a work day, and Thursday starts the weekend, so people also take that Wednesday off to turn it into a long weekend. Tehranis head to the north, and the city and its remaining inhabitants can breathe easy for a few days. 

But Iranians don’t necessarily need beynol-ta’til to have a good time. They’ll trek out to some place in nature for just a few hours to enjoy a picnic or stay out late despite having to work the next day. I really admire that. They really practice and take to heart the idiom donyâ do ruze. I once tried to go home at 5pm because it was Friday (the Iranian Sunday), and I felt like I needed to prepare for my coming work week. My cousin wasn’t having it. “Are you kidding me? Ku tâ fardâ!” (It’s a long time until tomorrow.) And I’m pretty sure it was this exact moment that I went through a metamorphosis. Since that time, I feel like I live in the moment a lot more instead of holding on to that American mentality of “work, work, work” and only having fun on the weekend (but getting back home in time to prepare to work again). It’s no wonder Iranians jokingly refer to the US (or America, pronounced Âmrikâ) as Omri-Kâr (a lifetime of work).

All your problems can be solved with a Persian poem or proverb

One of my very first students became a good friend of mine. After hanging out a bit, I one day realized that he answered most things I said with a beyt (couplet) or proverb. To this day, no matter what we talk about, there’s always some relevant proverb that he teaches me. And if ever I am venting about something, he never agrees or disagrees, tells me I’m right, or offers his own opinion. Instead he listens, nodding his head, and then says, “You know, there’s a poem by Sa’adi/Hafez/Mowlana/etc. that says…”. And like throwing water on the fire, my fumes die out. Problem solved. 

A little bragging never hurt anyone

I grew up in a family that valued and taught modesty and humility. Well, that has no meaning here, which is ironic considering the entire concept of târof is based on being modest and humble. But if there is one place to toot your own horn, it's Iran. Though this type of self-promotion could really be said about anywhere these days, it rings more true for me here where people tend to size you up by your appearance (see lesson #2: Looks matter). It's still really hard for me to do this, though, something my cousin can’t seem to understand. "If I were you, kune âsemuno pâre mikardam,” (I would rip up the ass of the sky). Beautiful. She expects me to tell brag about my whole life story within the first 2 minutes of meeting anyone. In fact, she does it on my behalf when we go out together. Why does she do that? Nobody cares. “Because you have to,” she says. “You have to be in people’s faces here. That’s how they respect you.” Let’s just say that I’m finally starting to believe her.

Country of Contradictions

I came here in an effort to understand my people and culture on a deeper level. The only thing I've learned, in fact, is that I will never fully understand it the way I had hoped. It’s actually a very complex culture with many contradictions that leave me just as confused as the people who ask me why I moved here. I quote Pee-Wee Herman in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, one of my favorite childhood movies, "Some questions get answered. Others come up. It's like unraveling a big cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting...". 

What I can say for sure is that some days I love it here, and some days I don’t. Some days I feel at home, and some days I feel like a stranger. Some days I love the deep sense of culture and humanity that I feel, and other days I can’t stand the superficiality and endless nose jobs. But in the end, this is where I come from. These are my roots. And none of the other 5 countries I've lived in have ever given me similar experiences or affected me quite as profoundly as my time here has. And at least for the moment, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. 


Lessons learned in Iran


  1. Omri-kar,.....! That's a good one. In Dutch there's the phrase "je naait het steeds" Pronounced almost like "United States" It's kind of obscene and means something like "you're always messing up".

    1. Hahaha, how funny, I love it! Thanks for sharing.

  2. I've tried to find "the neighbor's' chicken is a goose" in several books of Persian zarbomasalhaye Iran but cannot find it. How do you say it in Persian,.....morghe hamsaye ghaz e? Thanks!


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