Starting from Scratch
After one family immigrated to the United States from Iran, one of the side effects was that gender roles reversed in the household.
First went the mustache. He didn’t tell anyone he was going to do it. None of us had ever known him without it, so when he walked into the living room of our Second Avenue apartment in New York City, we slid from shock to horror to uncontrollable laughter in a matter of seconds. After decades of a thick middle-eastern-man-mustache, his upper lip, for a brief moment, looked long and turtle-like.
Then the gray hair disappeared with the help of a bottle of cheap store-bought black dye. He went gray in his early twenties, so none of us had ever known him as anything but salt and pepper. That silver plastic bottle sat in our bathroom for months as his hair went from a deep black not found in nature to a burnt brass at the roots.
The final phase of the transformation was the name. HOSAYN. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t find a job here in America? It’s just too Muslim, even though we are decidedly secular. After much consideration, my parents finally settled on a new name: Hanson. But the night before the official change, Baba threw up. He vomited in the same bathroom where that silver plastic bottle of dye lived.
Stern, strict, dignified, the definition of traditional masculinity on the surface, these were all very shocking moves on the part of my father. Moves that inspired unidentifiable emotions in me as a girl, but now as I approach the age he was when he underwent this slow metamorphosis, they look increasingly like displacement with a dash of desperation.
He spent year after year hunched over a text book. Nine years, to be exact. Sometimes it was at a table, but more often than not, he sat with his legs outstretched on the bed with a pillow on his lap that doubled as a plush desk. A small lamp stayed on morning, noon and night because for some of those years, his “room” was actually a hallway that connected two other bedrooms. There was no natural light. Hour after hour. Day after day. Life moved on, my sister and I went from being children to teenagers and Baba remained with his legs outstretched, underlining pages in a book.
“Already, my mother’s professional move was mostly lateral. My father’s was a steep downward slope.”
Was he actually studying that entire time? I never assumed anything but, until higher education granted me a glimpse into what copious hours of studying actually entails. Namely, a lot of procrastination in any form possible. Anatomy of the human body, the inner workings of the respiratory and circulation systems, congenital diseases in children.
He was a pediatrician in Iran, before we moved in 1985. At first, our family was in Tehran, but for the two years before we abruptly left, he was a physician in his hometown in northern Iran. The Islamic revolution had already changed everything in 1979, but it was compounded by a brutal war between Iran and Iraq that started shortly thereafter, in 1980. We had a nice setup in the north and even had visitors escaping Iraqi fire that rained from the sky in Tehran. My cousin lived next door and I always had a playmate. Life was good.
At that time, the United States granted very few tourist visas to Iranians. If you were young and may have harbored a desire to stay in the land of the free, you didn’t have a chance. If you were a family of four, you really didn’t stand a chance. Who in their right mind would return to the Islamic Republic in the middle of a war? But in the summer of 1985, we went to visit my maternal aunt in London and my parents took a stab in the dark. Maybe we could visit uncles in New York and Dallas. So they headed to the U.S. Embassy one day, and much to their surprise, we got a visa. Wow.
My sister, mother, father and I headed to New York soon after, and after a few weeks, to Dallas. The way they tell it, they had every intention to return. Yes, things were beyond shaky in Iran, but we were OK.
“My sister only admitted later how difficult school was for her and how even though she did not want Baba to know, she preferred to walk to the school bus herself, so that the children wouldn’t make fun of his mustache.”
Once in Dallas, the adults conversed late into the night over tea in my uncle’s kitchen. During one of these conversations, the idea of staying emerged. Suppose we could stay. Technically. Not legally, but technically, it was possible. My mom had toed the line of political dissidence while back in Iran and many of her family members were high-profile activists who had been jailed or worse. She had been questioned once before we left and that was enough to shake everyone up.
So when the proposition rose to the surface, it could not be ignored. Baba, being a man of respect, deferred to my grandfather—my mother’s father. He said if he says we should stay, then we will stay. Later, he confessed that he never thought my grandfather would vote “Stay”. But he did.
My mother spoke English, my father did not.
And so it began, at the age of 39—and not a 2017 39 where extended youth is socially acceptable—the doctor shed everything. The house, the clothes, the photos, the trinkets, the friends, the career, the license to practice medicine, the societal respect. And whether they understood the true long-term consequences of the decision at the time or not, the paradigm shifted.
“it is undeniable that society at large bestowed respect and privilege on my father simply because he was a man. This privilege was never afforded to my mother, which may be why she was able to adapt more easily once we shifted worlds.”
Baba briefly worked as a busboy in my uncle’s restaurant in Texas while my mother was a cashier. Already, my mother’s professional move was mostly lateral. My father’s was a steep downward slope. The restaurant days did not last long, however; we moved up to New York City by 1988, a city that was a little more reflective of Tehran and the places we knew. A city that was also more welcoming to immigrants of all kinds.
As luck had it, the Iran Contra scandal broke while we were still learning English in Dallas. So Oliver North’s puppy dog face act was on the television all day long. “We interrupt our regular scheduled programming…” That did not help with the assimilation process. In fact, my sister only admitted later how difficult school was for her and how, even though she did not want Baba to know, she preferred to walk to the school bus herself, so that the children wouldn’t make fun of his mustache. Yes, THE mustache.
Back in New York, somewhere along the lines, my parents decided that Baba should focus only on studying. She went to work as a receptionist at a real estate firm and he studied. That firm soon closed shop, which turned out to be another major turning point in this paradigm shift that they had set loose a few years earlier.
While looking for new work, the idea of Group Family Day Care made its way to the table of decisions. Through another long tale, we lived in a two-bedroom apartment on Second Avenue on the Upper East Side of New York, an affluent area where, at the time, many people of color worked there . A light bulb went off. “Why take care of other people’s children in their homes, when they can bring them to our home and I can be the boss?”
And so our family business began. Baba would open early in the mornings because my mother was not a morning person. From there, she would take over and he would recede to his position on the bed, studying. The parents who brought their children to us liked the fact that there was a pediatrician in the house, even though he was unlicensed. The business was good. Soon after we expanded and it is still there, supporting us all.
Yes, so we were undocumented immigrants, father had no license and mother starts a business that pays the rent and takes care of us all. Who would have thought these gender roles would reverse so completely? And for so long. They only began to even out again 10 years after the initial move.
“She made the money. She took care of the bills. He made our lunches and brought us water in the middle of the night. What does that do to a man?”
We were never the kind of family that lived according to traditional gender roles. There are many people who lived, and still live, in Iran who have balanced, healthy ideas of what a man does and what a woman does, despite attempts by an Islamic government to regulate those roles. My parents came from a revolutionary, leftist, exciting time just like the hippies in the United States, maybe with just a little less free love. Do not judge from the heights of where a person soars, but the depths from which they came. Isn’t that a Christian saying I learned along the way?
They were equal partners from the beginning. That said, they were equal partners in a time and place where the idea was still fairly new and slightly radical. And no matter what balance the two negotiated between one another back in Iran, it is undeniable that society at large bestowed respect and privilege on my father simply because he was a man. This privilege was never afforded to my mother, which may be why she was able to adapt more easily once we shifted worlds.
She made the money. She took care of the bills. He made our lunches and brought us water in the middle of the night. What does that do to a man? Even the most enlightened among us, whether American Christian or Secular Iranian or Arab Muslim.
For starters, it makes him grumpy. He always had a short fuse. Everyone who loved him knew it. But everyone also knew that under that tempestuous, easily ignited veneer was a very concerned, thoughtful, generous man. Those are not attributes that a man is supposed to exhibit though, right? Even if there is sensitivity inside the shell, it must never ooze out—except maybe at a tequila-driven holiday every once in a while. For all the “progress” my father made as an enlightened man who came from a small town in Iran, from a religious and strict household, he could never completely shed the toughness. That would just be crazy — and probably elicit the same reaction as when he shaved his mustache for the first time.
“It’s a person who sacrifices and exhibits perseverance and tenacity with no outward reward in sight. Is manhood about taking all the power or giving it up? Does it take more strength to wield power or to surrender it?”
He was settled. She was flexible. And those differences became stark when we overstayed our welcome in the United States.
Many moons later, my father and I graduated in the same year, me from high school, him from his residency (his second in a lifetime). From there, we watched him make up for lost time. Pushing 50 years old, my father started to do overnight shifts in far flung hospitals in Brooklyn and Queens until he eventually landed a full-time gig at a clinic. He kept hours that would make the most youthful of us drop to our knees. He made it. He is a man in the eyes of society now.
But in my eyes, as a girl, and especially now as a woman, he was always the definition of a man. While we watch this society that we have adopted slowly cannibalize itself, led by the macho ideals of men who think they know what manhood is, it becomes increasingly clear that his story, and the stories of immigrant men across the country, is the more accurate model.
It’s a person who sacrifices and exhibits perseverance and tenacity with no outward reward in sight. Is manhood about taking all the power or giving it up? Does it take more strength to wield power or to surrender it? In that case, what is womanhood? Is it taking power without letting anyone know you have it? Is it gently filling the gaps that traditional notions of manhood gloss over?
These are the questions that still linger. Leaving Iran, living in Texas, settling in New York, these circumstances forced us (or at least me) to examine relationships and gender roles we would not otherwise scrutinize. Had we stayed in Iran, I would probably be a doctor, as would my dad. My sister would likely be one too. Imagining my mother’s life would be more difficult. There is no doubt she would find her way, though.
Here in New York, she is still chugging along, plotting for their retirement, albeit delayed, which, as it turns out, keeps them young.