Friday, March 4, 2011

Moving to the US (Part 2)


The people on the plane were mostly Iranians. Two of the four flight attendants were American. I had seen 2 or 3 Americans in my life before, so seeing the very fair skinned, tall, blue eyed and light haired women was interesting to me. The flight took about 22 hours. We stopped in France and England. With each stop more Iranians left the plane and more westerners got on the plane. I started to hear less and less Persian spoken on the plane. We landed in New York City at about 2:00 AM. Going through the customs was a huge challenge. The immigration agents had all sorts of questions. My parents didn't speak any English, and I only spoke a few words. I had to run around and ask the other Iranians who spoke English how to say what I needed to say in English. I remember feeling overwhelmed and scared. I thought, “What did I get myself into? It’s going to take me forever to learn English and until then I don’t know how I’m going to live.”

My brother and his American girlfriend were waiting for us once we left the immigration area and officially entered the country. That night we drove about 4 hours to Maryland where my brother lived. His house was entirely made of wood in contrast to the houses back home that are made of brick with very thick brick walls separating the rooms. The house seemed fragile and paper like to me. It had 4 small bedrooms with wood floors, and you could hear people talking in other rooms, since the walls were made of thin wood (drywall). When I woke up the next day, I looked outside the window and saw how lush and forest like the area was. I couldn't believe that I was in the US. The scenery around me was so different from what I was used to. It was all very surreal. It all seemed like a dream, the feeling that I was in a dream lasted for several months. Every so often, I would stop in my track and remind myself of where I was and be amazed by it. Everything was so different, the people, the places, the language, the cars, the food, the signs and etc.

I remember on the second or third day of my arrival, my brother's girlfriend accidentally dropped something on the kitchen floor and said, “Oh shit”. I didn't know what that word meant. At night, when my brother came home, I asked him what it meant. He told me, but I didn't believe him. To me the “S” word was a very dirty word to utter loudly for something so minute. It’s equivalent in Persian was not even in my vocabulary. I could never say it out loud. I thought, “How could she say that word so causally in front of someone else?” One of the things that I soon realized was that Americans are totally comfortable using vulgar language in routine conversation. Over the next two years, I heard all the common vulgar words in the English language. I was shocked every time I heard a new one, but eventually I got used to it. Ten years later, in an argument with my first husband, Paul, I heard myself say the “f” word. I was shocked and appalled at myself. It was a word that he and every young person around me used often. I had become numbed to it.

Another thing that was a huge adjustment for me was the food. On the second night of our arrival, my brother took us to McDonolds and said, “This is a place were all Americans go to eat.” He ordered Big Macs for us, since we didn’t know what to order or how to order. I didn’t like the smell of my Big Mac. With hesitation, I took a bite and nearly threw up. I could not swallow it. I kept it in my mouth for a few minutes before I finally swallowed it. I thought that it was the worst thing I had ever tasted. The taste and smell of the sauce and melted cheese were unbearable to me. I put the Big Mac down and didn’t have another one until 4 years later, at which point my taste had changed so much that I loved the Big Mac I ate, and it became a part of my unhealthy college diet. There were a lot of foods that just tasted so odd to me that I could not bear to eat them for years. One of them was cheese. I was used to Feta cheese and variations of it. I had never had American cheese, Cheddar cheese, Swiss cheese and etc before. The texture of the cheeses common in the US felt like plastic to me. It took years before I could eat cheese. It took 10 years before I could eat a grilled cheese sandwich. It took about 10 years before I could eat Nachos. I couldn’t stand the texture of melted cheese for many years. A lot of these foods, I now love.

It took a few weeks until I was able to register at a high school. My brother was very busy with his job, and it was finally his girlfriend who took me to a school in Washington DC to register. It was a huge school with a very diverse student body. About one third of the students were African American, one third white and one third were foreign students. Since the high school was in Washington DC there were a lot of kids from other countries at that school. I was supposed to be in 12th grade and already had enough credits to graduate, but because my English was so poor, I was told that they wanted to hold me back one year, and have me take some of the classes that I had already taken back home again, so that my English would improve. The classes that I enrolled in were physics, Algebra, Physical Education, English As Second Language and an English reading class. The school was huge, and I was lost in it. I had a hard time finding my classes and once I got to my classes, I didn’t understand anything that was going on in the class. I would leave the classes with a ton of homework, but I couldn’t read any of my books, since I didn’t know English. I went through my days with a strong sense of doom not knowing how to read, write or do my homework. It felt like I was in an impossible situation. There was only one class that wasn’t horrible and that was my English as a Second Language class. That class was at my level. The teacher spoke very slowly and used very simple words. I would translate each word in my head and then put the whole thing together, and if I knew all the words then I understood the sentence. I was at that school for about 2 hellish weeks. My teachers didn’t even care that I didn’t understand anything in the class. The only students that occasionally tried to talk to me were the foreign students. The path that I was on was familiar to them.

Getting back and forth to school was difficult also. I had to take the city bus and walk a mile or so each way. Since I didn’t understand much English, the first week or so, I kept taking the wrong bus and it was an ordeal finding my way home. It seems that I was always lost and had to rely on the kindness of some poor soul that would take the time to explain to me how to get home in the simplest possible terms.

One day when I was standing at the bus stop, I saw 2 young men talking. I didn’t understand what they were talking about, but they kept repeating the words “thirty three”. That was the first time that I became aware of the “th” sound. It is a sound that we don’t have in Persian. It sounded very odd to me, how you put your tongue between your teeth to make the sound. That was the first time I realized how the “th” should be pronounced. Back home in my English class, I had heard my teacher pronounce that sound like the letter ‘t’. Another sound that was one that I eventually realized we don’t have in Persian was the “w” sound. So I used to pronounce “w” like a “v”.

One afternoon when I was walking home from school, I saw some construction workers. They started talking to me, but I didn’t understand what they were saying. One of them said something to me, which I didn’t completely understand. I thought he asked me if I had a boyfriend, and I just lied and said yes so that he would leave me alone. When he heard my reply of ‘yes’ he smiled and said, “I’ll make you happy.” I paused and translated that sentence in my head and understood what he meant. Suddenly, I felt terrified. I thought he might want to touch me. I said, “no, no” and walked away really fast looking back to make sure he wasn’t following me. What he had asked me was if he could be my boyfriend, and he thought that I said yes. In my mind’s eye, I still see that man’s face clearly. In the first couple of years of my life here, there were a number of times that guys approached me for a date, wanting to talk or get close, and I never knew how I was supposed to handle those situations. Part of the time I didn’t fully understand them and when I did I didn’t know what to say if I didn’t want their attention or if I did want their attention. So there were a lot of awkward and weird moments as far as men were concerned. I probably came across as very odd to them. I was in a deep culture shock for the first two years of my life here. In my culture, the relationships between men and women are much more guarded, formal and have the appearance of aloofness on the women’s side even if they are interested. Of course, all of that is changing with the ever-growing influence of American movies and culture in Iran.

After a couple of weeks of school in Washington DC, one day I talked to Mahta one of my relatives who lived in Olathe, Kansas. She said that when she came to the US, she went to a high school in Olathe, Kansas. In that high school, all of her credits from Iran were accepted, and she only studied American Government, American History and English and was able to graduate from high school in a year. She told me that if I move there and go to school there, it would be easier for me. That sounded great to me, since I had taken a lot of math and science courses in Iran, and at the Washington DC high school, they wanted me to take all those courses again, because my English was so poor. I didn’t want to repeat all those courses. I wanted to learn English and take the classes that I needed in order to graduate. So two weeks later, I alone was on a plane to Kansas.
To be continued...