Iran. Mentioning the land once highly revered as the Persian Empire brings images of oil companies, controversial presidential elections, and debates over nuclear weapons. To many Americans, this contentious country represents nothing more than another foreign relations issue mentioned in the morning’s newspaper. Raised in America, I am technically a full-blown English-speaking, pop music-listening, American Idol-following US citizen. But to describe myself as 100% American would be a lie. In reality, a stranger walking into my house would swear they had stepped into a teleportation device and walked out into a home in Tehran, Iran. From the Persian rugs to the Persian china in our display cabinet, everything is authentically Iranian. The fragrance of saffron and rice wafts so frequently from the kitchen, the wandering stranger could claim it has embedded itself into the walls. If he were to open the pantry, he would see countless Persian cookbooks shelved neatly next to the Persian Yellow Pages. If he were to press “play” on the CD player, he would undoubtedly hear the distinct rhythm and melody of the latest Persian musician singing of his nostalgia for his homeland. The only thing missing is a Persian cat, which would also be in our home were it not for my merciless allergies. Some say that living a Persian life in America causes culture shock. I believe I suffer from a case of culture confusion.
When my mom revealed that we were traveling back to her native land after a lengthy six years, I was ecstatic. I would finally be given an opportunity to witness the land of my heritage at an age when I would actually remember everything. The two weeks before departing from LAX were nerve racking. I did not know what to expect of once again coming face-to-face with my family or living in a foreign country for a month. In my mind, I imagined something similar to the Persian community at home in Southern California just with women wearing scarves over their hair. Because my family life is centered on Persian culture, it came as a great shock when I witnessed first-hand the Iranian culture on the opposite side of the globe.
The depth of culture in Iran is boundless. For weeks, we traveled from city to city, including Tehran, Shiraz, Tabriz, and Hamadan. From the palaces of the Pahlavi period to Persepolis, we toured every historical monument possible, including the resting place of Cyrus the Great in the outskirts of Shiraz. During the two weeks we traveled throughout Iran, we also visited countless mosques, which gave me a better sense of understanding of Islam. Although the scorching heat of July was not pleasant, witnessing the laudable accomplishments of past Persians made me proud to have descendants of such a race. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was a part of a larger network of people than those who I had met back home. These monuments made me realize that my descendants, as well as those of everyone around me, were hardworking and prosperous despite their technological limitations. This connection I felt at that point with the people of Iran embellished the universal kindness I later felt every person my family and I encountered in the multiple cities.
While walking through the streets of Tehran with my mom to buy vegetables, we came upon a disabled, middle-aged man with a single arm and his six year-old daughter selling parsley, mint, radishes, and other herbs and vegetables on a coffee table-sized cart. Immediately, I felt guilty for being so privileged when this poor man must toil to earn a living. However, my feelings altered when his immeasurable kindness and his daughter’s instant charm won me over. Instead, I felt empathetic toward the couple who, despite their underprivileged condition, still managed to lighten the mood with kind words and a positive outlook on life. Few people left an impact on me like this man and his daughter. One of these people was a girl of about eight years of age who I encountered after exiting a kabob restaurant with a box of leftovers. As my family and I walked into the bazaar, she came and tugged at my sleeve, motioning to the box of food and mumbling some words about it. At first, I thought she was like the other poor children in the streets who wanted money, but before I understood that all she wanted was food, a younger boy who appeared to be her brother came up behind her and held her other hand. The girl continued to motion to my leftovers and I, not needing them like the desperate children, obliged.
The encounter with the young girl was the second lesson I learned from experiencing life in a distant place. Since my trip to Iran, my outlook toward life has changed. Never before had I felt so blessed to life in a comfortable house with no worries concerning food or shelter. Every day I wake up with the knowledge that life in itself is a blessing and by keeping a smile on my face and happy thoughts within me it is possible to make even the worst situations pleasant. I remember driving past the Pacific Ocean for the first time after returning home and feeling infinitely thankful to live in such a beautiful place; I had never appreciated my home to that extent before.
The average Iranian, who I expected to be just like the Persians at home, was much kinder and more neighborly. Taxi drivers would undoubtedly start conversations, as would the owners and employees of mini-markets called “baghalis” scattered throughout the streets. The tenants living above and below my grandfather’s apartment building often visited and always wished us a good day and asked if they could help us with anything when they saw us going out. In the streets, the word “jaan”, meaning dear, is heard often when friends reunite or happen to see each other in a store. Everywhere we went, the love of the people for each other was palpable. I had scarcely seen this much kindness in the Persian community at home. The people as a whole showed me the importance of loving your neighbor; benevolence is never unjustified.
Returning from my adventure, I could not say I became more Persian, but I absorbed many of the Persian ideals I witnessed. My “culture confusion” disappeared as I learned the true meaning of my culture. More than the music, food, and rugs, being Iranian means having persistence, showing kindness toward everyone, and being thankful for everything, even when life seems unbearable. The culture I was submerged in gave me a new image of what I had believed to be the Persian lifestyle. Given my initial admiration for my heritage, this trip deeply increased my respect for the Persian ethnicity.
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