Where #ImFrom: A little darker

By Ali Hajighafouri

In Indiana I was “Mexican,” but in Walnut Creek, California, I was a poor “Arab redneck” (never mind the fact that Iranians are Persian, not Arab).

According to my elementary school classmates, I was the first Mexican thing to arrive in the small, southern Indiana town in which I was born. Taco Bell was the second.

Ali at a southern Indiana town, his birthplace. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Of course, neither of us are authentically Mexican.

In case you hadn’t guessed, “Ali Hajighafouri” isn’t exactly a Mexican name. But my semi-brown presence baffled my white-as-snow town and, to remedy their confusion, some of the other kids decided that Iran was too distant (and quite possibly made-up) to serve as an explanation for my ancestry.

I believe they only knew of Mexico’s existence thanks to Boys’ Life magazine and its mascot donkey, Pedro. And, for a time, I was called by that cartoon character’s name as well.

My father was born into a Muslim family in Tehran, moved to the UK for a year of graduate school and then transferred to the University of Evansville in Indiana. There, while working at a fast food joint in the mall, he met a young woman — the daughter of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She decided, one day, that proposing to a foreign guy was a bright idea.

I grew up hearing the question “Where are you from?” It was often not a half-hearted courtesy, but a sign of intrigue at my darker features, or perhaps concern that my young, chubby person might conceal un-American values (or maybe a suicide vest). However, it should be mentioned that I lived in Indiana pre-9/11, back when Americans mostly thought of terrorism as a great action movie premise.

As the kids got older, they only got meaner. Though I’d grown up alongside them, they seemed to only grow more aware that my skin was a little darker and my name harder to pronounce.

One day when I was 10, I sat crying at a school cafeteria table because a dozen kids seated all around me kept chanting, “Pedro the donkey.”

When I pulled my sweatshirt hood over my head to hide my tears, someone got the idea that dumping spare change into my collar would somehow make things better.

Of course, when I moved to California at 13, I lived happily ever after, right? Not exactly. I may have been taunted by the Hoosiers, but it was a Californian who thought so little of me that he literally spat on me.

I can’t seem to shake my curiosity about the motives behind the question, “Where are you from,” but the question doesn’t bother me. It’s answering it that now makes me pause.

Where I’m from is the place that I once called home, and also the place from which you would start if you want to follow the steps that led me to the moment of our meeting.

If that’s your intention when you ask, then I welcome it.

This is part of a series called #ImFrom, where members of the AJ+ community share personal stories about the question, “Where are you from?”

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