“Where are you from?” Is not a loaded question!
I took a quick sip of breath while I thought, “Oh Gosh, is this still OK?”
“I hope I did not make her feel uncomfortable!”
“Oh fudge it, I really don’t want to live in this kind of atmosphere. “
“Well, if you don’t like something you may as well DO something about it!”
These were my thoughts a week ago, when a beautiful lady came to Spira. So here I am doing something about it. Writing is a way I engage with the universe. I firmly believe that when we share our stories and discuss complex issues, we add a drop of peace to this world. So here goes my story, it is a short story with a romantic background and an important message for our future.
I was finishing up some administrative work at Spira’s front desk late at night when a lady with bouncy curly hair knocked on the door. I let her in, she left her personal item at the studio, and she wanted to pay for this morning’s class. “I did not have my wallet with me this A.M.”, she explained, she also mentioned that Chuck was an excellent teacher. I smiled, it is lovely to have an honest community where students come back to pay. It is a small, but a very honorable gesture. It is also fantastic to hear that Chuck is a good teacher, he is part of my team, and I am proud of his work.
At this point, I paused and smiled from a deeper place in my heart. I detected an accent, an accent that for a second seemed familiar. As a reflex, I asked: “Where are you from?”
For the record, I did win that 400m dash!
I say as a reflex because to me asking another person with an accent where he or she is from is a way of bonding. As an immigrant, somehow, I feel a kind of kinship with others who had the experience of shifting homes. Ever since I was a teenage girl, a freshly immigrated soul, I had this habit. I started asking folks their country of origin in my school in Los Angeles. I was part of the cross country and track and field teams whose members came from all over the globe, we could have represented the UN. I was running with Americans, Finns, Japanese, Iranian, Mexican, Bolivian, French, and Costa Rican kids. These athletes were my friends. Well, they were all my friends except for one…the Iranian boy, he was my boyfriend.
His mom was Jewish, and his dad was Muslim, you can imagine why they ended up in America. I have sweet memories of learning better English from Faraz. Yes, his command of the English language was beautiful, he was in AP English and AP everything. We used to giggle at my lack of English together while listening to Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits. He had a warm, lovely family. We parted ways after high school, he was headed to a different University.
This first experience of being held and comforted in a foreign land must have carried a strong memory for me. Well, it is either that or Southern California has a disproportionately large Iranian immigration that prefers blonds because at the end of the second year at UC San Diego, I fell head over heels with another Iranian boy. He lived at home with his parents, and I tell you if I must psychoanalyze myself as a 40 years old adult, I am not sure if my feelings were for him or I adored his father. Yeah, a bit Freudian, and a bit T.M.I. but look, I got to keep you reading somehow. You know I write really long blogs…
Anyhow, his dad was one of the most wonderful father figures I have ever seen in my life. He was quiet and nurturing, unassuming and humble. He was an amazing artist, he made the furniture in their house, he drew and painted beautifully. He was a great cook, and he loved his family greatly. He helped his sisters to come over to the United States, and supported them financially to live independently. His devotion and hard work to keep his family together stayed with me for all these years as something that I admired. Did I mention he was a good cook? I still have memories of family gatherings with Persian food: Ghormeh Shabsi, Baba Ganush, Duck Fesenjan, Khoresh Bhademjan. Oh my, I am getting hungry just writing about it!
Girls of Cross Country in my high school.
Our relationships in our youth can have a lasting effect on how we view the world. I developed a lifelong love for middle eastern cuisine in my early years. I also developed a love of Persian accents. I smile when I hear the soft z-s sounds of the Farsi language. I learned to respect the ancient culture of Persia with its strong bonds within family units.
In Seattle, there are very few Persian immigrants. So when I asked this lovely woman with the bouncy hair, who loved Chuck’s class “Where are you from?” I had nothing but loving thoughts and a wish to bond, and maybe in some ways to dip back into my youth if for a second but to touch the past. But as I gazed at her, I realized she was uncomfortable. She paused, and I clearly sensed a reluctance to answer. This happened maybe a day after President Trump announced his first attempt at travel bans. I held my breath as at first, I felt stupid and insensitive about my question. Then soon after, I felt angry. Why should this be a bad question? What kind of a crazy world do we live in where being from somewhere is better than being from somewhere else?
As my anger slowly simmered at our current global situation, she softly said “Middle East.”
I could not stop myself, it just came out of me without censorship, “Which country?” Right when I said it, I recoiled in horror thinking to myself, “Dear God Dora, you just had to keep on asking!” I felt at this point like I was a conductor of a slow train wrack.
She hesitated again and then said “Georgia.”
In my confusion, I mumbled something, but all I could think is that Georgia is in central Asia, it is not part of the Middle East.
She left as elegantly and gracefully as she came, and I just stood there at the front desk without breath or movement for a while. What just happened? Is all this drama just in my head or do we really live in a world where it is not always good to ask someone their country of origin? Why did she say Georgia when someone from Georgia would surely know that Georgia is not part of the Middle East? Am I just over analyzing this? Or do Georgians associate with issues in the middle east? I had so many questions for her, I wanted to know so much about her world. I wanted to talk longer because when we truly talk to each other, we break down barriers. But she was gone, and I have not seen her since.
When I finally took a long deep breath, I realized a reality that maybe always existed but for now unfortunately sharpened in our perception. Folks are sensitive about where they are from. I know, I at times hate to identify as Hungarian-born because I am so ashamed of current Hungarian government policies. How crazy is that? How can one person be judged by place of birth?
I don’t know the big picture, but in my small world, the middle eastern immigrants became very useful additions to the United States. My high school boyfriend turned out to be a civil rights lawyer, my university love a cardiologist and myself from Easter Europe, I own a small business where I try to teach people to breathe and love one another.
As I write these words, I conclude that I will keep asking people their country of origin, and I encourage everyone to start that conversation. It is only by learning more about each other will we as a nation recognize our collective humanity.