“Your face looks weird.”
I had meant to say, “You’re making a weird face,” which, in hindsight, would have caused less of a conflict.
“Shut up, terrorist.”
I’d never considered myself to be a danger to society, but a fellow fifth-grader named Anthony did not think the same. I was ten, and at that point the most harm I’d ever done push over a boy being mean to my friend while at a cotillion class. (This unraveled six weeks of etiquette training and got me into severe trouble with my grandmother.) I often took the bus home from school and had established a group of friends that liked to play Pokémon and hunt for fairies with me. I cooked Persian food with my family but spoke no Farsi, watched Cartoon Network and was occasionally allowed to indulge in a fast-food dinner. For the most part, I fell into a certain standard for a fifth grader in the Midwest.
At this point, my dad had already left, but I had his nose, his hair, his sad eyes and big teeth to keep reminding me that he was the reason why I got called a terrorist.
Kids at school of course knew about my dad, the few times he had picked me up and I would have to explain that he’s not from the U.S. and yes, he has a weird accent and yes, he is my real dad and no, I am not as dark as him I can see that and yes I do call him Baba and no we’re not Arab, we’re Iranian, there is actually a difference, I know that much. No, I don’t know why he doesn’t pick me up more often and yes you can come over on Wednesday, let me ask my mom, no you cannot go and stare at him while he’s in the garage working.
I went home that day to my mother, heartbroken and confused, asking why somebody would call me a terrorist. She sighed.
“A boy in your sister’s class would call her a dirty Muslim when she was in middle school. This kind of thing happened even before 9/11, It’s just how some people think. It doesn’t make it ok, but you can’t control how people feel about you.”
I could only think of how unfair it was. I never had to think about it before that day. I deserved a snarky comeback but I didn’t deserve this. I didn’t know how to defend myself. In a way, I resented my dad, and I wanted to slink back into a hole and ignore that entire part of myself. I didn’t know how to explain myself and my brown father and my sister, how we weren’t dangerous. It hurt me to think about what my dad and his family had gone through before this.
My father immigrated to America in 1979 at seventeen years old. He came on a scholarship, a year younger than I am now, and survived in a country that wanted to reject him for reasons out of his control. Revolution made him an outsider. It made his oldest daughter a “dirty Muslim” and his youngest a terrorist. It made his brother-in-law a target while serving in the U.S. Army, and forced a wedge between my mother and her family.
This was only the first time it had happened to me. I had avoided negative comments about my heritage for a long time. (Unless you’re counting comments on homemade lunches, in which case this essay would be much longer.) It helps that I’m paler than my father’s family, and neither my sister nor I ever practiced Islam. As I got older, I kept looking back on this incident, wondering what would have gone through the minds of my other family members. How many times had it happened to them? My cousin who, for many years, covered her hair when leaving the house or my uncle living in a majority white suburb in Toronto? My youngest cousin? I haven’t seen her in years, but I know how sensitive she is and I still want to stand up for her against any negative force that comes her way. How did kids at school treat her? How often does she have to deal with ignorance?
I began to care more. I wanted to educate not only myself, but other people in my life about unknown facts that led to the fear of absolutely nothing. After many years I was finally able to ask about my dad’s first experiences in America, his own struggles and his life before his wife and children. I found out that my dad was fairly lucky. He was young and impressionable and a partier, all great things to be when you’re a college student in the 1980s. He talks about him and his friend getting high and watching Tom and Jerry, pissing off the other Iranian students who were struggling with assimilation into American culture.
Assimilate. Forget yourself. Drop off your inconvenient half to survive.
Respect your past, but only in a way that’s comfortable for others.
We have matching teeth and tattoos, and I ask him more and more about his life after Iran every time I see him.