My visit to Iran over winter break was like catching up with your best friend from elementary school years later, as an adult: awkward, albeit familiar.
My journal entries from the last time I visited — five years ago, when I was 15 pounds lighter and had recently rapped all of “Thrift Shop” in a live acoustic performance in front of my peers and World History teacher — were mostly about how weird the dubbed Turkish soap operas on satellite TV were and how everyone suddenly got really into volleyball. I spent most of that visit sleeping until 3 p.m. and then playing Super Mario flash games with my cousins until it was cool enough outside to go stroll through historic Shiraz and all its stunning mosques and mausoleums.
This time around, though, the entries have scribbled-in sentences like “Everyone keeps asking if I have a boyfriend,” “so many people got divorced” and “apparently depression runs in my family.” Trips to Iran used to be a welcomed hiatus from East Coast cynicism and a rare chance to have fun with some of my favorite people in the world who I missed so, so dearly; instead, this visit got really real, really fast.
My best friend from back home just landed in India last week. She makes similar observations: “It feels harder to hang out now that everyone’s grown up, because we don’t talk about kid stuff.” Questions like “How’s school?” or “What movies do you watch?” no longer suffice.
“Now I’m like, ‘So, uh, are you happy?’ or ‘What do you think of cousin X’s wife?’”
And it’s not just us. Many so-called “hyphenated Americans” in our generation can viscerally sense the gap between them and their family abroad widen as they evolve into young adulthood. As one first-generation Cornell student tells me, “When I was a child, I would happily play with my cousins even if I couldn’t exactly speak with them. Now that I’ve matured, I’ve become more closed off to the idea of interacting with my relatives. I have no motivation or interest to keep in touch, because I don’t know them personally.”
Or, take it from Varun Iyengar ’21, The Sun’s web editor, who points out that the discomfort of growing up between two cultures goes beyond just relating to your family. “I didn’t dress like other people my age, couldn’t speak the language, didn’t know how to cross super busy streets, etc. I felt very lost and incapable. It’s a really strange feeling, being an adult but not knowing how to do or say anything.”
This “strange feeling” is what it’s like growing up between two nations, like punctuated equilibria for immigrants: Long periods of stasis or gradual change when you’re living your life in one home, interrupted by bursts of rapid development on the visits to the home abroad. What makes this coming-of-age period particularly tough is that the expectations and responsibilities of adults — both social and intellectual — are so vastly different from those of children and teenagers, and the freshly minted young adult hasn’t had a chance to ease their way in.
I felt Varun’s observations first-hand: I’m fluent in Farsi, but I couldn’t seem to string a sentence together when it came time to chat with the merchants in the bazaars. I looked ridiculously dorky because I didn’t realize open-front manteaus were legal, let alone in fashion. I couldn’t explain my studies or talk politics because I couldn’t translate academic lingo. It felt like the little version of me that sits in my brain and usually runs the code-switching machine had instead decided to just light the machine on fire and jump out through my ear.
This awkward, stumbling growth exists both on the mundane, interpersonal level that Varun describes, as well as on a higher, more unsettling level. In Iran, I still saw tremendous love, compassion and humor, but I also finally noticed the upsetting realities that I had ignored as a kid. Divorce rates are on the rise, and so many young Iranians are suffering from mental health problems that the most popular major in the social sciences is now psychiatry. I cringed as my cousins in college told me stories of drug abuse, unsafe sex and abusive relationships. We drove by dusty rivers and reservoirs that have dried up in a long-term drought that is only projected to worsen with climate change.
The growing pains cut deep. The punctuated equilibrium effect is clumsy conversation and fashion faux pas on one side, and learning about some of the darker, heavier parts of this world on the other. Growing up means dismantling your perception of the “motherland” as a source solely of wholesome childhood naiveté. The sterile, kind nation from your memories becomes a fantasy.
But who knows? Maybe we’ll grow out of it.
Pegah Moradi is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. All Jokes Aside appears alternate Mondays.