Shining Hope Through the Lens of Adversity
A journey of claiming independence, selfhood, and values of disparate cultures. A journey of healing traumas to change our biological expression. A journey of hope to improve the lives of the next generation.
“For us the body is much more than an instrument or a means; it is our expression in the world, the visible form of our intentions.” (Merleau-Ponty)
In our connected world, what does independence really mean? What does independence weigh? What does this abstract term cost? What value does independence bring to our everyday lives? How does it feel, and how does it really taste?
I have been thinking quite a bit about this subject for a while, now, without summoning the courage to bring forth my own answers in a public forum. I could make this a political piece about the pitiful Brock Turner sentencing, or about the horrors of safety for my beloved LGBTQ communities, or about the rampant violence against women and minorities in the United States and abroad — as truly the resonance of these stories poignantly points back to the fundamental denial of the right to defend independence equally among all people — but independence reverberates more personally to me. It was no longer something I could ignore, or say did not matter. Indeed, it ended up mattering the most of everything.
Though I do not wish to present myself as any voice of a generation, I am compelled to write from a place none other than my own heart — and I am willing to sacrifice anonymity to tell a story that I could not share without claiming my identity.
I am a first generation American. Refugeeism and moving to another country for a better life conjures up the high value placed on independence for many who have walked the path. Yet, my family did not place any importance on this value. Unlike my classmates, I would get stern lectures from my parents about how the only reason we were in America was for my education, and that if I did not focus entirely on my education then there would be no point in staying. They would return me back to Iran. If I socialized too much, if I behaved in ways they did not like, the threat of Iran hovered like a dark and ever-present cloud above me. At that young an age, I did not understand much more than the notion I would be separated from those I cared about, my friends, and the home I grew up in — all those memories of the places I knew, like the playground at the beach we would go to each weekend.
So, as I grew out of elementary school, there were certainly some hilarious circumstances that came of this bicultural dissonance. I remember being in the fifth grade when my parents told me that in Iran boys and girls were separated in school. In Iran if a girl were caught talking to a boy, they would stone her to death. I took these stories with my heart the following day to school, mistakenly told some of the kids I thought were my friends, and then spent the entire day avoiding talking to the boys. This ruse either did not last that long, or more than likely some confidants blabbed about the reasons for my awkwardly executed avoidance. Inevitably, the boys during recess would take to chasing me around and watching me run away in horror. For the boys, and the giggling girls on the sidelines, it was just a light-hearted game. But none of them knew that in my mind, I feared my ‘virtue’ (whatever that was, since in fifth grade I did not know) would be compromised, and I was certain should my parents find out, Iran would be next.
Not having been raised under patriarchy and in Iran, I had no concept of what ‘independence’ really meant there. But that knowledge gap would not matter — I excelled academically to a degree that the whole point would be moot. I became a perfectionist, an honor student with perfect GPA, who then went onto an elite private school where I continued to maintain my top-honors grade average. Imagine my relief when I learned that I was in fact a US Citizen, and that being born in this country I had rights that could keep me from Iran.
I don’t think it was coincidence that shortly after became a legal adult, I started to fervently invest in parts of my life that had been deemed irrelevant by my family. Having been kept on a ‘short leash’ for much of my life, I wanted to see the world and explore. I wanted to feel this independence that was lacking, to feel like I could go out into the world on my own and be my own person.
What I did not expect was the ways in which patriarchy would take my own voice even in the United States.
Patriarchy being established in my life meant that when I was sexually assaulted, I had too much shame to come forward and tell anyone about it. I had too much fear that I would bring shame upon my family, that I would be returned to a country that was not my own, and that I would be blamed for the actions of another person upon my body. I told no one until I overdosed on painkillers because I no longer felt I had any control over my own life.
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” (Barack Obama)
Therapy taught me that I should be open about my experiences, rather than silent and filled with shame. I summoned the courage I could find to be able to talk with my class Dean and professors about taking a leave of absence and returning once I had worked through the still-fresh trauma. I expected it would take time to re-establish my sense of self, my worthiness, my independence. What I did not expect was the harsh reality of stigma and judgment from the professors I had confided in, and that their judgments would ultimately ruin my fate worse than my having run the trauma gauntlet. What the hell, America?
“Start with what is right rather than what is acceptable.” Franz Kafka
Patriarchy meant that I would get no justice for this crime, nor any understanding. I am grateful each day that the world is progressing forward more each decade. I survived the lab hazing from women professors at my university because they grew up during a time where harassment from professors themselves was an established ‘norm’ — that growing thicker skin may have been their intention, but in practice led to my feeling like a shitty scientist.
The world was simply not ready for women independent of patriarchal values, and to treat them as people worthy of a right to not have their bodies violated. Male science professors failed me for exams my Deans had given me an extension for, and the school did not stand up for me. There was one instance of a take-home exam where I scored above the rest of the class with an A+, but because my Dean forgot to send in my extension letter, the professor failed me for, even after the Dean made clear it was his own mistake the letter did not arrive in time. The professor, male, was also from a patriarchal culture, and he had heard what had happened to me. He stood firmly by his judgments, leaving me with a C- in a class I had otherwise excelled in. I could not understand what was happening… I was doing my best, and actually doing well despite the flashbacks, and yet I was being punished for it still.
As insulting as it is to defend my own honor, and I should not have to even say it, but I had never been to a frat party. I never drank beer from a keg. I was a girl that enjoyed small dinner parties with friends, lived alone, and had to be dragged by friends to even attend one of our formal senior cocktail events. My rape, in the eyes of the university, in the eyes of my professors, in the eyes of the people I had looked up to and admired professionally, was my fault. My Dean’s List GPA plummeted, and I got out of the toxic environment of my university as quickly as I could. I graduated on time, completing a four year degree in three years, but the damage had been done. And I am not talking about the psychological damage from my rape. I am talking about how the stigma from my rape influenced my academic achievements, and ultimately affected my career for years to come. My transcript became abhorrent, not because I was unfocused or because I was ‘too damaged’ from the rape, but it was shaped by the judgment of others in light of my honesty.
“Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” (Hippocrates)
Truly owning your independence should mean not having to defend the autonomy of your own body to anyone. Independence means being judged for your merits, and not for what has been done to you against your will. Independence means being respected as a human, and being allowed the basic rights any human should be afforded. It would be a decade before I truly learned that independence reaches beyond judgments, and speaks to the right of all people to live and write their own narratives.
I cannot honestly speak my narrative because I do not live in a world that affords us independence equally. I live in a world where the crimes against women are such a part of daily life that we are becoming numb to it in order to cope. We are not surprised by rapes, we are not surprised by the injustices following the prosecution of rapes, we are not surprised by the murders or acts of violence against women and minorities. When we are no longer surprised, would that not mean we are no longer shocked? If we are no longer shocked, what happens to outrage? We need the shock, the surprise, the outrage, and the anger to push for change.
Change does not happen when we are complacent in our sadness.
When you give away your power, how can you hold onto your independence? What would any of this look like in my other culture? I shuddered at the thought.
It took many years to piece together parts of the divided story of being a family across two sides of the globe. Learning about the circumstances that brought about this division brought forth a grief that remains hard to articulate for those who are not of two countries that have a history such as the United States and Iran. Moreover, as I grew and came to understand culture and identity, the division of the self in me grew as well. I was to be perfectly behaved if I were to remain in the States for my education, else return back to Iran. But it was my Iranian identity that remained the heaviest mask to my self.
My father is a well-known healer, a surgeon, a bringer of sight, and to say a ‘self-made’ man does not do his experience justice. He grew up on the streets in city suburbs, working two jobs when he was six years old — one in a cloth shop where he learned to sew, and one carrying blocks of ice for the ice boxes people kept (before refrigeration). He remembers the first paved road in his town. He remembers the first time they brought electricity through there. Seriously. This guy is my dad. And my dad, through whatever combination of determination, luck, will, and powers that be, was not only accepted to medical school in Shiraz, but also accepted as the first Iranian to John’s Hopkins University, Wilmer Eye Institute, in the United States. He was also stingy as could be when I would ask for an allowance to get my friend a birthday gift. He wore the same suit for 40 years, and never paid more than $9.99 for a pair of shoes in his entire life.
Growing up, I would be told many stories about how he would teach elementary school in the day and miss his medical school classes, only to catch up with a classmate at night and review the material before exams. On the date of his final exam, his professor wanted to refuse to let him take the test because he did not recognize him as a student there; after some pause, and convincing him to just let him try to take the exam, well, a story wouldn’t be a story if my father did not get the highest mark.
His work ethic and personal ethos drove him to return back to Iran year after year, particularly in the years of the Iran-Iraq War, to treat those who had sustained eye injuries after chemical attacks. Being that we normalize what we grow up with, I thought all doctors had patients that stayed in their basements that they’d fly around the world to get the best care. I thought all doctors would take months off to do as much as they could for those in need without asking for anything in return. It took time to know our family was somehow different, but how different and in what ways took a long time to grasp.
When I say I am the youngest of five children, I should clarify that I am twelve years younger than my closest sibling, and twenty years younger than the eldest one. Growing up post-Revolution, I was unlike my siblings — I never had to leave one country for another.
I imagine they, too, are divided, though differently.
Being the child of someone revered, loved, and adored by many is its own experience, and comes with its own shadow. What people do not understand, however, is the humanity underneath. What I mean by humanity remains precisely that — being human. I do not know the drive that fuels my father, but I also know that along with it has come a workaholic attitude that has meant I do not know when I last had a vacation with my family. Having gone through the trauma of leaving a life behind, losing those you care about pointlessly, and rebuilding in a culture alien to your own does things to a family unit. I have also learned that we all cover and react to past trauma in very unique, but very real and human ways.
Where does that leave me? My divided self that struggles to understand, in this journey? My divided self has learned imposed modesty through particular religious interpretations actually breeds excess in other arenas. For one year, between public and private schools, I went to a Catholic school. Let me tell you, those kids wearing those uniforms had to prove so hard as twelve and thirteen year olds that they were something other than that uniform. When I realized the private school I was fortunate to attend was a daytime school that did not have uniforms, I was relieved — not just for what it meant for the fashion freedom, but rather that in that freedom the students could actually end up focusing more on the education itself than proving themselves. My parents were quite disappointed about the lack of uniform, as my dad valued the regimented routine and believed it would cut my time to get ready for the day. This example stands out to me about the paradoxical nature of the intention of the uniform — that it is meant to set things aside, have everyone on a level course, focused on a more important goal. Yet, in practice, I saw it do the opposite — everyone obsessed with what they can get away with in terms of rolling up the skirt at the waistline, or how to tie the shirt tighter in the tuck, and give major sass to show they are not just the plain plaid checkers.
(Yes, I start this article with that picture, and talk about going to Catholic school and the uniforms there instead — I know, I know.)
That one uniform-marked year was a valuable year, and I will never forget that one other kid, Sanjay, who sat out of religious ceremonies with me because we were not ‘deserving’ of whatever special cookie-shaped representation of the body of a holy figure that they told us died for our sins. The most appealing part of my next private school, ironically, was that I saw many kids from other backgrounds. To this day, these are the people I feel understand me the best, as they know what it is to balance such varied selves, with cultures in transition and flux.
In what I have seen, experienced, witnessed, and lived through my time and travels, it became clear that I am not just a divided self. I do not identify with either of these sides in their current states, and I identify with parts of the values of both of these sides. I often joke that I do not like many people from my own cultural background because I find them shallow and petty… but we know that jokes are only funny if they have some basis in truth. What I see portrayed of Iranian women, perhaps acted upon in the veins of a desire to show they remain fashion-forward and modern in the eyes of the rest of the world, ends up filling me with sadness at their collagen-filled lips, repeated nose-jobs, and haute couture obsessions. More plastic surgery is done in Iran than anywhere else in the planet. Iranian men seemed no different, perhaps with an added machismo and need for flash of a fast car. My divided self remains confused that the culture of warmth and genuineness I knew has been replaced with a living shrine to Hollywood where what matters most is how much you have and how you flaunt it. My divided self remains confused where the fierce loyalty and down-to-earth generosity went, and then realizes that the sanctions imposed by the country I currently live in has pushed my other country to such economic hardships that people will do anything to get ahead. The very things that I loved once upon a time are being lost, as the young generations there worship the pieces of Western culture they get. My fabulous education has given me the understanding that the reason the current state exists is because of repercussions of a CIA coup Project Ajax which sought to overthrow the Iranian government in a conspiracy for oil and profit. They may not know that the country whose culture they idolize had fueled both sides of the Iran-Iraq War, hoping the two countries would destroy one another silently. Most of the population is too young to remember, too young to know. Others reading this piece may understand what it may be like to be part of two countries that struggle to have better relations, to put it kindly.
And yet, when I am there, I cannot be myself. I am my father’s daughter. I play a role, and yet I do not feel like I have the character sheet or lines down. I tried to move back, at one point, in hopes of pursuing medicine, healing, and furthering the values that I kept with me. One day, someone had stood me up maybe more than four hours for an appointment and I was waiting at home; when they had called to tell me of the change in time I asked politely that the next time they try to give me some advance notice if possible. A young woman, witnessing this exchange, looked at me with wide-eyes after I hung up the phone. Thinking I had stuck my foot in my mouth again, I asked her (in Farsi) “What? Did I do something wrong?” “Oh, no, that’s not it. You… just…. spoke like a man,” she replied, with awe. That reply hit me like a cold, wet rag to the chest.
What I soon realized was that I was not someone that could be directly spoken to, and whether that may be culturally or legally enforced, my words as a woman simply do not measure to that of a man. In being raised abroad, my parents thought they gave me a better education, but what they did not quite expect was that I would actually grow up knowing what it was like to have the freedom to say what is on your mind. Looking for safety, I turned to my brother with my concerns, who only could say he did not want to be associated with my ‘reputation’. Reputation? What reputation? I had been quite careful to not cultivate any signs of an identity there at all; moreover, I had moved across the world to work together and spread an ideology of healing and caring for those in need. It was ‘what I was born to do’ (p.s. don’t bear children to ‘do’ anything, it just is not a good idea for anyone involved), and here I stood, realizing my own values were not shared by brother, and that I needed him to stand by me to feel safe with my voice. And although we still face inequalities in many shades of ‘other’-ness, whether class, culture, race, religion, sexuality, or any other measures of identity, the difference is that in the United States, we know that we should have equal voices, and that we try to uphold law that unifies such equal rights to speech. So I flew back, which may have been one of the biggest mistakes of my career.
For all these freedoms that I have in the US, I have been too afraid to be myself. I have been too afraid to talk of my life publicly, of my family, of stories that could prove connecting or valuable to others, for fears of repercussions. Not just because of my disjointed dual cultural identity, but also because I am my father’s daughter. Everyone loves a great story, particularly of his hero’s journey from street-urchin ashes rising to a sterling-surgeon Peregrine Falcon. (You’ll have to pardon me, as 1) English is not my native tongue so turns of phrase are not my strong suit, and 2) Peregrine Falcons are way cooler that Phoenixes.) My divided self holds two cultures, one that gave me the values to quit my job and care for my father through his fight for life as much as I could, even helping to progress science itself, and one culture that does not understand an employment gap and what it means to care for aging parents at my age, as insurance dictates what is way past FMLA leave allowance.
Yes, my other divided self has lived in San Francisco with radical self-expression. Yet, still with all its punk-rock-rah glory, I still do not find my full self here, either. The emphasis on amassed wealth in the Silicon Valley dream does not resonate with my values. I have seen dire poverty, women dying of preventable cancers under buses, and was raised differently with service to others being part of home. I do not understand how we can have so much wealth here and have so many on our streets needing help. I used to think that I did not feel like I fit in anywhere because I have such separate cultures within me. Now I’m wondering whether those cultures will be lost entirely as we globalize further — assuming we don’t annihilate one another or anything else idiotic — and then what is left? What are left are the parts we value. What I value may be neither here, nor there, but it is in me, so that is somewhere. We all have to start somewhere.
“To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity.” Douglas Adams
To be honest, I do not know if in writing my peace, here, if I will be able to continue being a citizen of two countries that hate each other — two countries that do not wholly fit me but to which parts of me belong. I do not know what the future holds, and I can only hope that I can add sound to a middle ground. We are modernizing, we are trying to find ourselves in what this great technological leap means. I should hope it would mean greater chances for connection, but as with languages across two sides of the world, there may first just be some mouth noises. I fear what happens when we hold our egos too tightly, toast to money over family, worship beauty over substance, rather than remembering something we cannot be ‘other’ from — human.
Here, I start as just a human, with some values, hoping it will lead somewhere. In my humanity, I can be clearly, understandingly whole.
Above, I use my body to express a cultural divide, wherein the same values are still vibrantly displayed — money, power, beauty, all flawlessly upheld. My whole may differ from the whole that may belong to someone else, but we know that when our own values differ from those values we see around us, the resulting incongruence leads to suffering. To be clearly, understandingly whole in my humanity means I need to exist within the realm of humanity as myself. No more masks. Those who wish to judge will always judge, those who wish to devalue to elevate themselves will continue to do so… lessons I wish a younger version of myself had heard from someone else.
“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” (Aesop)
This story is an act of kindness to others for whom there may be resonance, as well as an act of kindness to myself. Omar Khayyam says that we must “be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” Here, in these words, we find connections in our common humanity. Our circumstances may differ, but our humanity is also a shared journey. Hope is what happens when we see our values shared around us.
The kindnesses matter, not only as acts of kindness from others, but also as acts of kindness to ourselves. In the fields I have studied — neuroscience, psychology, neuroimmunology, to name a few — a pattern emerges from the literature. This discovery was not mine alone, which makes it all the more resonant. These instances of trauma, whether lived or inherited, affect our genetic expression. We biologically carry the weight of trauma, even if we do not realize it. More importantly, we also have the power within us to change our genetic expressions of trauma. This realization changed the way I live and approach life — the things we say, the way we think, the things we actually *do* — they have an undeniable effect on our biology. Taken into context, the way that we approach trauma and heal from it has the ability to make the genetic inheritance of our children less burdensome.
I admired my father greatly for breaking the cycles of violence and abuse that he grew up with, and more so for realizing his resilience in the light of the difficult childhood circumstances. Working two jobs when he was six years old, losing a parent at a young age, growing up in a post WWII era where food was scarce, and yet having the ability to rise above these adversities… not only to change the world with his actions as a physician, but to change his family with his acts of love and care. No one is perfect, and certainly there were bumps along a long road of healing, but those imperfections are precisely what made his continued striving all the more impressive. Success is never a straight arrow, but a long and winding path.
When I think about who I am writing this piece for, or the nuances of such a broad scope, the perfectionist inside me shudders. Yet, it is more important to do than to be perfect. (Aside: I highly recommend Brene Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection.”) The perfect is the enemy of the good, as they say. Our experiences may be our experiences, but I now have the scientific evidence that my acts of meditation, mindfulness, dancing, hiking, and even moments of appreciation and gratitude for the life I have make a difference. They make a difference not only for myself, but they affect the interactions I have with those around me. It is our interactions with other human beings that affect our personalities and shape our journey in this life. Our actions and mindset have the power to change our genetic inheritance and improve the life of the next generation. What can be more hopeful than this knowledge?
“Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” (Aldous Huxley)
“The only way round is through” (Robert Frost)
References upon request for journal articles.