Mayela’s story reminded me of my year in Iran. Like Mayela, I felt both welcome and unwelcome. Rather than freedom, I felt oppression.
In 1976-77, my wife and I taught literature, culture, and language to students at an Iranian university for one year. We lived on campus in faculty housing on the outskirts of town. Iranian people from all walks of life welcomed us as valued guests.
Neighbors, colleagues and students served as interpreters. They oriented us to the basics of everyday life, such as how to replenish the propane tanks that fueled our appliances.
They helped us understand the culture. The student who tutored me in Farsi, for example, once confided that he had come to the university from a small provincial town. His exposure to women consisted entirely of his female relatives. At the university he was suddenly expected to interact with young women classmates who had been to European prep schools. Their casual western dress made them look to him like prostitutes. His conflicting feelings about intellectual class discussion with these young women helped me understand the tension that rapid westernization created for many Iranians.
The rumored presence of CIA and Savak informers in my department created a steady undercurrent of oppression. I felt that I always had to be careful what I said. Who could not be trusted? It was very stressful. It made me homesick for America’s freedom.
I was also subject to local prejudices about Americans, many of whom had been recruited to teach Iranians how to operate and maintain aircraft. They were led to believe they would get rich in the process. However, they were frustrated with their students and resented that duplicating an American lifestyle thwarted their expectations of wealth. As a result, many locals found them disrespectful and exploitative. I was fortunate to be affiliated with a university and able to differentiate myself from other Americans.
Nevertheless, as an obvious American, strangers laughed at, insulted, and yelled at me off campus. I felt invisible. The city traffic was constant and appeared to be unregulated. As a pedestrian I could wait a very long time for the traffic on a busy boulevard to give way. I noticed that drivers seemed to communicate many messages with their horns: “hurry up,” “get out of my way,” “it’s a fine day” “see my beautiful car.” So I decided to get a horn, too. I bought a klaxon-style bicycle horn and strapped it to my belt whenever I went walking. At busy intersections I honked: “look at me.” The traffic parted, and I walked on. There was an unintended, benefit. When people who wanted to make fun of a foreigner saw the horn, it drew their fire. It was something we both could laugh at. It broke the ice for conversation.
My one year in Iran was wonderful, challenging, and life-changing. Now, it helps me empathize with immigrants like Mayela who come to the US and change their lives permanently. They must be welcomed, not hurt and lonely for their former homes.
Frank L. Dallas, Texas