03.28.142:14 AM ET

An Exile Searching for Home

Her mother took her out of Iran when she was a child. She’s made her way in places as disparate as Amsterdam and Oklahoma, always searching for true identity.

A few nights ago, I met an old friend for dinner at an Afghan restaurant in the East Village. He came from his uptown finance job, wearing a suit and carrying a long umbrella. I came from a downtown café where I had been writing, my hair a messy knot. In terms of work, lifestyle, and interests, we couldn’t be less alike. And yet, ordering our food was seamless. Though we hadn’t sat down for a meal together in years, we assumed we would eat family style and chose the foods that belonged to both our cultures, the ancient stuff that both Persians and Afghans claim—eggplant stewed with lamb, basmati with raisins, yogurt and cucumber. Before long we fell into talk of his native Kabul and my native Isfahan with great nostalgia. Though we had each left as children under dangerous circumstances, we had never talked about it in any depth. We didn’t meet in an exile community, after all. He went to Harvard. I went to Princeton and we met as 22-year-old yuppies at McKinsey. Back then, we cringed at any mention of home.

Back then, we lied a lot.

Now at 34, after decades spent living and working in Europe, Asia, and on both American coasts, we marveled at how our disparate lives resembled each other in this one respect: we were uprooted, always searching for home. He showed me his college admission essay (posted on the Harvard College website) and it was all about freeing his young heart from the memories of Kabul and trying to make California home. I wonder if it worked. Maybe—it sure as hell never worked for me and I suspect that, in writing out the story, he was trying to convince himself.  He let me read the essay on his phone between bites of lamb. The last lines read: “Perhaps one day I will go back to see what is left after the years of war and strife and once again relax in our old backyard, or go to pick apples in an orchard in the Maymana district. But I will go back only to visit.”

Maybe to the admissions officers at Harvard, these lines showed resolve, hope, willpower. To me, it read like a boy under unfamiliar blankets, telling himself stories, repeating again and again, I love it here, I love it here, I love it here. This is precisely what I did at ten years old. This is what I do today, in every strange bed on every strange continent where I find myself suddenly living, a victim of my own wandering nature, the immigrant girl still flailing somewhere down deep.

“You seem much more authentic,” my friend said over dinner, “really comfortable in your skin.”
To me this is the highest compliment. To be authentic. Not a liar. I wonder if he is aware of this, given his own experience as a child immigrant. We’re not alone in our strange ways, after all. Many of our friends are thirty-something exiles, people who moved to the states at ten or eleven and grew up hungry to succeed in the Western way. Many of us grew up in poverty and became super-educated, over-achieving, highly nomadic. Displaced to the core, we fell into our work. We made money. We saw the world. And now …  a certain conversation keeps recurring: what is this skin I now inhabit? Where did home go? Why didn’t it wait for me? Is this instinct, or this one or this one, the natural or the refined, artificial version of me?  

As a child in Isfahan, I never wondered about the genuineness of anything I did. Of course this was me—who else would it be? I went to school with children that looked and talked like me, who found the same jokes funny and ate the same dishes for lunch. My father was from a small village that I visited every weekend, and even this didn’t make me an outsider. That tiny township, two rivers in the middle of a desert, claimed me as its own. I belonged to it. I showed off my village-girl accent, hamming it up for my Isfahan classmates. I had respect—I delighted in it.  

Then my mother took me (and my younger brother) out of Iran to escape the war and the hostile regime, and I spent two years as a refugee in Dubai and Rome. The Iran that had been my entire identity began to fall apart. My home country had tried to kill my mother; they had chased us out; they had terrified me and shook my hinges loose. I had lived through bombings and threats to my life and much uncertainty. In the refugee communities, my mother taught me English, working her fingers raw to erase other people’s old school books, every trace of pencil gone so that I could finish each assignment with integrity. In Rome where we were allotted three meals a day but had little disposable income, she would take our dinners from the night before and make sandwiches from them, hanging them outside on the balcony so that we could eat them the next day at the American school an hour away. Other refugees would then save our lunches while we were gone, so that we could eat those for dinner.

Because of such pains taken at giving me an American education, I began to hope and dream about our new life. I obsessed about having a house again. Once we get to America, I thought, I’ll have a real school, and lots of friends my own age.  I’ll still be essentially me, because people will see and love something in me that my mother and father, and my family in that riverside village, saw and loved. 
But in those first immigrant years in the early ’90’s, everything was a struggle. Nothing was easy or given, and my instincts were useless to me. So I stopped trusting them, becoming a little unnatural in my demeanor. My hair and accent were wrong. My clothes were old and out of fashion. Each basic activity took a second of doubt, and those seconds added up. Having attended three years of Isfahani school, I made all sorts of mistakes, kissing my girlfriends hello and goodbye, inviting my teacher to dinner in front of the class.

Over the years, growing up American, my brother and I learned to become other people. And we learned to claim authenticity for everything we did. This became an issue because we now had more than one culture to choose from, and so it was important to convey that we weren’t faking—faking would be a heavy failure because it would prove we weren’t assimilating. Thoughts and behaviors and interactions that were taken for granted by our peers were, for us, one of two distinct ways to live. Simply “being normal” was an active daily chore.

After a few months in Oklahoma, I realized that there was a ladder, each person stacked up according to her worth, and I was at the bottom. I learned that my school’s ambition for me was that I go unseen. I learned that I was strange and so the best I could do was to fade to the background. No one asked about Iran, not even my teachers, who chastised me for not knowing the 50 states as well as the other children. In math class, where I was three years ahead of my classmates, they chastised me for goofing off. I squinted to see the top rung of the ladder, and it was far beyond what Oklahoma could offer. So I began to hope for that.

I had no desire to look back on Iran, or my old life, wanting nothing to do with it. I wanted to be extraordinary here, to be a successful and authentic American. I hated being asked where I was from. Sometimes in school I lied about it. I imagined myself growing into a confident woman, a New Yorker or a Bostonian. The idea of marrying an Iranian man was so disgusting to me that my family often teased me about it. I learned to adapt quickly, lost my accent and, at 18, had my distinctive Persian nose altered, a decision I’ve recently come to regret. 

For a decade I suffered, and for another decade I lived a kind of immigrant fantasy. I grew wings. In my adult years, I never lived in the same city for more than three years (in fact, I get anxious when I start to acquire too many things, when I and my possessions become too ungainly to relocate overnight). I made a home in six cities and three countries and collected two citizenships. None of it felt remotely permanent. I unpacked in each new spot already anticipating the next move, throwing away every non-essential scrap, selling furniture, buying everything in a single easy-to-match splash of color. I adapted in a week, filled any holes in my heart, found a new espresso place, emailed alumni lists to find new friends, and moved on. Every few years the itch to uproot returned and I scratched it.
In a moment of rest, I looked up, waiting for contentment to arrive. But something crucial was missing. Home. Roots. No country felt natural to me.  

One day in Amsterdam, I stumbled upon a small teashop called Mezrab, a refuge for Iranians, for music and storytelling. It was serendipitous and so I started going there, just to see. Then the elections of 2009 were stolen, the Green Movement sprung up around the world, and everything changed, for me and for a large segment of our young, previously disengaged diaspora. I went to protests and talked about Iran. I read and read. I wore green discreetly here and there. I remember wondering as I did so, is this authentic? Is this the real me, or am I doing it for another reason? But the drive was so intense. Suddenly, I wanted to spend all my time around these Iranians, to wallow in the scent of home. I considered visiting Isfahan for the Persian New Year. How wonderful it would be, I thought, to see previous generations who look and act like me. How amazing to share a Norooz with a large group of relatives and be able to pinpoint why I have this habit or that quirk, this nose or this mouth. Maybe nothing I do would seem strange there. Maybe I could sit on a cushion and sip tea and test out my instincts—and have them be right.

I began to listen to Iranian music.

Soon I fell into a private infatuation with an exiled singer called Vigen, possibly the most revered musician of my homeland. I didn’t tell too many people about it. Then, a few months later, I sent one of his songs to an Iranian-American friend of roughly my own generation. He too was hearing it for the first time. He was blown away, and he showed it to his mother. “It was as if she became a young woman again,” he said, “swaying to the music with her eyes closed.”

This image of her, a woman I’ve never met, dancing around her American living room after decades away from home, becoming a young girl again, moves me. What a thing to try and picture: a mother glimpsing backward, inward, resurrecting her natural self with music.

Who is my natural self?

“You are a liar,” I have been told by more than one close relative.

“You are a chameleon,” one of them said, “You will change yourself entirely to fit the next thing you want to be. You’re very good at it, and I don’t trust that.”  

Am I a chameleon? A liar?  

Maybe. I am reminded of a William Maxwell line that speaks to me. You ought not to trust me … because all my life I have been a stranger to myself.

Lately I’ve tried to befriend Iranian exiles. There is a gulf between us. They comment on my accent. I don’t understand their slang, though I’m delighted when it’s explained to me. Sometimes they become cruel when they hear names like Princeton and Harvard. I proudly confess my love of Vigen, that I’m versed in his hundreds of songs. They find that cute, because he is our parents’ idol. They have their own. “There’s an entire underground music scene in Tehran, you know. Modern music.”  
My Iranian-American friend, maybe because of his mother, seems to understand the obsession. “Isn’t it funny,” he says, “With all our sophisticated tastes toward world music and culture, we basically end up in love with the Elvis of our own.” He adds, and I shiver, “You can never get it right.”

You can never get it right.

You work and work and follow the rules. And you still end up in love with the damn Elvis of your village. In my experience, that’s when you freak out and fall into a pattern of migration, always fitting in, never finding an ending point. You look for security in experiences. You suck the marrow. You suck so much marrow. You suck marrow until you’ve got a little of everyone, of every place, somewhere inside you and you are no longer purely one thing. You are made up of other people, other places. Then you sit back and wait for happiness. It doesn’t come. You listen to Vigen. People call you a liar. I’m not sure what happens next.

Did I suck too much foreign marrow? Could my soul have been lost somewhere along the way, in my struggle to survive and to flourish in the West?

Some nights I sit at home, listening to Iranian music. I cook Persian food for my friends in New York. But, let’s face it, I’m no Iranian anymore. 

“You can have wings or roots,” My favorite professor at Harvard Business School said, during an inspiring final class, “not both.” Wings, I thought, an easy choice. But maybe my professor’s tradeoff wasn’t such a no-brainer. I have wings but no place to land, and so I am constantly circling.

Rumi, the great Persian poet wrote, There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss and the ground.
 I think that, finally, after much searching, I have come to a tentative understanding and peace with the issue of home and honesty. Maybe being your truest self, your best self, is about kneeling and kissing each ground upon which you’ve touched down. Some people are blessed with one trajectory, one identity, roots and family. Others have to keep adapting, start over again and again, caught between locations, always longing for a place that fits. They could ignore some of what they’ve experienced, missing entire aspects of themselves. Or they could struggle daily to honor each and every attempt to rebuild. To me, that means respecting the girl in the headscarf learning Farsi letters as much as the woman in Amsterdam straining to remember those letters. It also means drawing on all my exile stories to create art, weaving Farsi thoughts and English words and all of my tangled roots and mismatched feathers into stories that are somehow truer than the facts, because they are complex and messy and they come from that unchanging place inside that I keep trying to reach—the voice of my truest self.

 And that may have to be enough.

The dark side of all this is that now I know that authenticity will mean a life-long search for home. Iran may never again resemble my memories. And are those memories even reliable? In talking about the past, says Maxwell, we lie with every breath we draw. My Iran may never have existed. Or, maybe one day I’ll go back to it and it will find me unpalatable and spit me out. But maybe it won’t. Maybe it’ll all cycle around again and I’ll retire to the Caspian Sea. Or maybe I’ll just pack up my music and my spices and live my own version of Iran, wherever I am (authenticity be damned; I’m a storyteller!). And some nights I’ll sit down to dinner with this or that uprooted friend and we’ll eat family-style, maybe show each other some relic of an old life, talk a little of home and think, “How comfortable you seem in your skin.”

Dina Nayeri's debut novel, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, was published by Riverhead Books in 2013 and was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick. Her work is published in over 20 countries and has appeared in Granta New Voices, Salon, The Southern Review, Glamour, Marie Claire, and elsewhere. She holds a BA from Princeton, an MBA from Harvard, and an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, where she was a Teaching Writing Fellow.