Regardless of your views of Shahs of Sunset, the Bravo reality show, it is becoming eminent that Iranians have come a long way. It is not the rhetoric of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the achievements of the Diaspora, that has put Iranians under a microscope to be studied ever so closely these days.
On December 18th, PBS ran its much-anticipated documentary entitled, Iranian-Americans, showcasing the plight of the Iranian Diaspora in the United States -- something that was long overdue and significant for the media attention of the past year. I was not able to watch it when it debuted, but managed to get a hold of a copy over the holidays.
I thoroughly enjoyed the stories of how Iranians "made it" in America. The accounts shared were compelling ones I grew up hearing from friends and distant relatives about making a new life in the United States pre or post the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Albeit satisfied with the outcome, I could not help but feel my parents' story was left out, as were many others: the interracial marriages of the Iranian Diaspora. We are the forgotten ones, often times frowned upon for not being Iranian enough even though we are the embodiment of our Iranian family histories. We are mixed with European, black, Asian, and Latin American bloodlines, and are indistinctly proud to be of two completely different cultures, or even religions.
My parents met in Los Angeles in the early days of the revolution. Ironically, it was in 1991, when the controversial film, Not Without My Daughter, came out when my parents divorced. In short, their marriage did not work out because of their cultural differences. They could not agree on how to raise a girl in an era when contraceptives were easily obtainable, and sexuality was out in the open. My mother wanted to raise me as a traditional Iranian, while my father, American as apple pie, made that impossible.
Over the years, I became accustomed to the looks of awe I received every time vibrant sentences of Persian escaped my mouth. "Are you Persian (or Iranian)?" They would ask, eyes wide as if they have discovered a new species. I became equally accustomed to explaining my background and my life in Iran. Holly Mae Dagres is an American name that throws people off, although some Iranians like to assume my Iranian name is 'Haleh,' which is not the case. Interestingly, it was my Iranian mother who chose Holly, the name of a model on The Price is Right, one of her favorite shows back in the 1980s. The only supposed Iranian part of my name is in the middle: Mae, a contribution from my American grandmother that is associated with the meaning, "wine" in Persian. With this word, my mother made sure I would not forget my Iranian roots.
Despite my fluency today, my mother did not want me to learn Persian. When the current regime took over her beloved homeland, she ripped up her Iranian passport in disgust. I cannot imagine the tension that must have existed in my household when the Hostage Crisis took place. My father, at the time deeply involved in advertising and marketing, decided to make t-shirts with Khomeini's visage captioned with "F**k You". Despite her discontent, my mother felt very offended. Iran was her homeland, regardless of who was in power.
My first trip to the Islamic Republic, at the age of five on a visa -- Iranian law states that citizenship is patriarchal, so I only hold an American passport -- somehow broke the language barrier and brought me closer to the Iranian culture. Years later, when my mother would remarry and I would spend seven years in Tehran on a residency visa, my Iranian side came to dominate my WASP half.
Oftentimes, those involved in intermarriages have to sacrifice more than Iranian couples who left their homeland. Some couples tell stories about giving up their families and culture, all in the name of love. Not every story has a happy ending, or is as compelling as a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but the culture clash of two completely different backgrounds is much tougher than two Iranians starting a family together.
The story of interracial couples moving to Iran is uncommon, but many can relate to my plight growing up with completely two different backgrounds. Given my experiences, I can shift in and out of being Iranian and being American. Some are compelled to be one or the other and it can be overwhelming to find an identity. Others might cling to one dominant side in hopes of feeling a sense of belonging. The balance between my two identities is where I came to realize how some intermarriages succeed and why others fail. My experience says that for it to be successful, one must adopt to the other's culture and/or faith almost in entirety, or else there will be conflict. As a little girl I never understood this dichotomy, but now it completely makes sense.
I definitely felt different than most others I knew, but I also never felt indifferent or less than others. Some of my friends, particularly those of Latin backgrounds, have unfortunately not been treated as well.
Although my story may be different to my peers, I feel it is important to acknowledge the fact that we are here too, and that we matter. We, the product of beautiful interracial marriages, are a unique bunch and we are not going away any time soon.
We are the future of the Iranian Diaspora.