Reading: Maisami, “Born in Amrika”

Mona M. Maisami

The following selection was written by college student Mona Maisami when she was a junior at Franklin and Marshall College; it was published in 2002 in the College Dispatch, a print and online journal that specializes in literary nonfiction.

Born in Amrika

I see the life that I could have had in the faces of my Iranian relatives. They are like ghosts of the life that my parents left behind when they moved to “Amrika,” haunting us with a vision of what our lives could have been. Their lives are not reality to me—I was born in the U.S., and it is the only reality I know. My overseas relatives say that I don’t even look Iranian anymore, as though it has faded out of me like the color from a pair of old jeans. I have even heard them compare my accent to that of an illiterate peasant’s daughter—they say I am “de-hauty.” I hear them innocently laughing at me when I say, “Salaam,” hello or “Quelly-mam-noon,” thank you. I smile politely or even laugh along: But in my heart, it makes me feel incomplete, as though a part of me is missing.

My cousin Nina is an “F.O.B.,” which means fresh off the boat. Her family has only been in the U.S. for three months now, and she still wears a chador and scarf. She and her family are guests in our house today, and I am in charge of entertaining her. Nina is my age, so I feel comfortable around her and think that we may have some things in common. She may be the link that can help me relate to my heritage. I am anxious to be alone with her so that she can teach me how to be more Iranian.

I take her to a park that is within walking distance from my house. Nina’s younger brother, Ali, comes along with us, too. It is a hot, sticky, humid August afternoon. I am wearing a tank top and the jean shorts that my mom bought me to wear for our dinner party. Nina has on her traditional Islamic clothing—everything is covered except for her hands and her face. Looking at her, I begin to wonder what my friends will think if they see my cousin and me at the park. Ali, on the other hand, is wearing khaki shorts and a black Adidas t-shirt. He will be able to blend right in with the other kids at the park. Nina and I walk over to two swings that are next to each other. Ali heads over to the basketball courts where a group of boys are playing “H-O-R-S-E.”

She appears to be shy to me, so I decide to initiate the conversation. “Don’t you ever get hot wearing a scarf and robe? I’m hot right now in what I am wearing. If I were you, I’d be jealous that Ali gets to wear shorts and a t-shirt.” I look over at Nina expecting her to give the obvious response, that she is in fact jealous of Ali.

“It’s not a robe, it’s called a chador. You should get your facts straight if you are going to make fun of other people’s lives.” She says this to me as she sharply turns her back. I can tell that she is not happy spending the afternoon with me. All of a sudden, I feel like I am not good enough for her. Her scarf is made of silk and is light pink with tiny green and purple flowers on it. The colors are pretty to me, but something inside of me screams that it is morally wrong for her to have to cover her beautiful thick brown hair. I want to tear the scarf off her head and set her free. I want her to be more like me—is there something wrong with that?

I am afraid to ask Nina any more questions. We are both staring out into the distance in silence, swinging back and forth, side-by-side, listening to the sound of the other children having fun. Nina kicks her feet off the wood-chipped ground to swing faster and higher. Just then, her scarf begins to fall back, revealing her hair. She instinctively tucks her hair back and readjusts her scarf within seconds. “That was close,” I think to myself. “Someone almost could have seen her hair!”

The sun is now going down, and it is time to go home for dinner. The walk home is silent as the tension between me and Nina builds. “Why must she be so cruel?” I think to myself. “What was preventing us from being friends?” I could not think of the answer.

My mom is preparing a traditional Iranian meal in honor of our guests. All day she has been in the kitchen with the other women in the family preparing chicken, fish, rice with saffron, and chopping up vegetables, nuts, and feta cheese. Nina, Ali, and I walk into a house filled with the aroma of tea rose, saffron, and spices. Immediately, Nina rushes over to her mother’s arms and begins whispering something in her ear. I am positive it is about me.

I feel the urge to walk over and defend myself. But my Aunt doesn’t understand English well, and I might cause more humiliation if I attempt to speak in Persian. Instead, I squint my eyes and purse my lips, snarling at her when she looks my way. From the sour look on Nina’s face, I can tell she got the message.

“Mona-joon,” my mom calls out my name. “Joon” is Persian for dear, or sweetheart. My mom usually calls me Mona-joon when she wants me to do some chore around the house. I guess it’s her way of coaxing me into helping—it almost always works.

She wants me to pass out tea with sugar cubes, hard honeyed candies, and golden raisins to the guests. This is a traditional chore for a young Iranian girl. The most important task is to smile and make direct eye contact with each person you serve. I serve my grandfather first, because it is customary in Iran to respect the elders. Everyone’s eyes are on me as I gracefully walk around the living room with my silver tray in hand. They all smile at me, including Nina’s mom and dad, saying things like “Azizam,” which means “precious one.” My tray is empty when I walk back into the kitchen.

“Thank you, Mona-joon, you did a wonderful job. I am proud of you,” my mom says with a warming smile on her face. I feel a sense of pride and happiness that only my mother can give me. Her affection extinguishes the fire that has built up inside of me since the park.

“Mom, am I Iranian or American?” I look up at her confused—not knowing whether I would rather be one or the other.

“You are the best of both, azizam.” As she says this, she bends down so that we are face-to-face. “You have to look at yourself in order to find out who you are—it’s not where you are from that defines you.” She kisses my cheek and then hurries back to the dishes. I’m not satisfied with her answer. I would be asking myself that same question for the rest of my life.

But then, in the middle of the chaotic kitchen, busy with women putting the finishing touches on the Iranian feast, I hold up the silver tray to look at my own reflection. “I don’t have to decide,” I say to myself. I place the tray down on the counter top and walk away quietly with a smile on my face.


Mona Marimow Maisami. “Born in Amrika.” This essay was originally published in Franklin and Marshall University’s The College Dispatch, September 6, 2003. Used by permission of the author.