When I was maybe eight or nine, some of my mom’s family members from South Korea were visiting. Through the haze of my childhood memories I recall a particular car ride with my cousins. I had recently started wearing glasses to correct my eyesight, which was rapidly deteriorating from years of squinting while trying to read books in the car, at the dinner table, and in the dark. At some point during the ride I took off my glasses, upon which my cousin exclaimed, “Tara, you have such big eyes!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I demanded, upset.
She laughed at me. “It’s a good thing. It’s a compliment. They’re pretty.”
Momentarily proud of my newly-discovered appeal, I let it go.
Fast-forward six years. My memories sharpen. This time, I was in Iran for my first and (to date) only visit. Now I was the guest, meeting and greeting and drinking tea with what must have been a hundred of my dad’s closest relatives in Tehran and Esfahan—consistently unfamiliar and welcoming people who all somehow knew of me and loved me.
It was the last day of our visit, placed strategically during Norooz (New Year’s) to maximize our visiting and tea-drinking capabilities. I was sitting in a room with some of my Iranian cousins. One of the younger ones looked at me. With his index fingers he pulled his eyes backward into stereotypical east Asian slants, so far his wide, round eyes became slits.
“Tara, why are your eyes so small?”
This time I burst into tears and left the room.
These experiences stand out in my memory for their remarkable symmetry: first my mom’s relatives, then my dad’s; first the comment about my big eyes, then the jab at my small eyes; first entertaining visitors from elsewhere, then becoming the visitor. They’re also representative of a certain “identity confusion” that’s plagued me, tugging me this way and that, my whole life.
Growing up mixed-ethnicity in white suburban America was made even more confusing by my already shy, naturally lonesome personality. Elementary-school Tara didn’t know what it was like to fit in with a group, whether an ethnic or cultural or social one, so I focused on individuals—a best friend who moved away, a crush I admired for years, a brother that drove me insane—and my love of writing, which kept me up at night dreaming about book sales and literary fame to rival JK Rowling. But I always had a nagging feeling that something was fundamentally wrong with me. This feeling manifested as an especially strong sense of shame when, for example, kids made fun of me at recess for my thick, dark eyebrows or fake-gagged seeing my Iranian lunches of stew and rice. Like any other kid, I wanted to be cool, but fitting in seemed vaguely unachievable—as unachievable, in retrospect, as forgoing the ethnic and cultural identities to which my name, features, and family were bound.
This became more clear to me in middle school. My understanding is that the “oh wait, I’m not white!” moment is seminal in the childhood of many non-white Americans, especially those who grow up in predominantly white communities. I’m no exception. My pivotal moment occurred while reading Teen Vogue, which I regret to say was one of my middle-school hobbies. I was studying a freckled, dark-haired, blue-eyed model in a fashion spread, wondering what combination of advertised products and careful styling would get me to her level of perfection. After considerable frustration, I realized that nothing would. It wasn’t just that we had different features. It was that she was white and I was not!
In the years to come I slowly arrived at an equally important realization, a sort of follow-up to the Teen Vogue moment. Not only was I not white, but I was also never going to have an “I’m <something else>” moment. There would be no “I’m not white—I’m Korean!” moment, no “I’m not white, I’m Iranian!” moment, not even an “I’m not white, but at least I’m a true American!” moment, despite my selective pride in my country, which waxes and wanes according to the latest in music and politics and school shootings. Of course there are moments during which I relate strongly to an identity. When I write my name in its “native” characters, تارا صفوی, even though I still don’t really pronounce it right. When I teach a friend to use chopsticks or introduce someone to kimchi for the first time. When Barack Obama was elected president. When I go home for the holidays and make a list of foods I’d like to eat with ghormeh sabzi and fesenjoon invariably at the top. When my friends joke around about Asian parents with high expectations—doctor, lawyer, engineer!—and I laugh along because there is some truth to the stereotype. When I devour stories of the unique “American” experience told by Kendrick Lamar and F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Office (US version, of course).
No matter how close to home, though, these experiences always leave me with a feeling of inauthenticity caused by my inability to fully relate. The shame of my childhood has faded, but the uncertainty remains.
These days, the conversation usually starts like this:
Q: So, where are you from?
A: I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, but I live in Michigan now.
Albeit truthful, my first answer is almost never satisfying. We continue:
Q: No, where are you really from? Like, where are your parents from?
A: My dad is from Iran and my mom is from South Korea. Like I said, though, I grew up in the US.
Now come the follow-ups:
Q: Do you identify more with your Korean or Iranian side?
A: Neither, really.
Q: Do you speak either of your parents’ first languages?
A: No, unfortunately. They only spoke English at home to me.
Q: You’re so exotic.
Some people merge the first and second questions into the more concise “What are you?” (Emphasis on the “are”. The emphasis is very important. Without it, the question sounds even worse). This question initially took me by surprise—to what degree of specificity and scientific accuracy do I answer this question?—until I learned its true meaning: “What’s your ethnicity?” I had a similar journey with the word “exotic”, a descriptor of choice for ethnically ambiguous people like me. The designation confused me at first, but I’ve come to learn that it mostly means “different than the norm”, mixed occasionally with hints of mystery and tropical breeze.
An interesting consequence of these conversations is getting to observe how the human mind works in the presence of ambiguity. People seem to use a sort of “familiarity spectrum” that ranges from “very familiar, she’s one of us” to “very unfamiliar and I (dis)like that”. The resultant interactions are similarly varied, from hilarious to fascinating to insulting. On one side of the spectrum are those—for example, the ajummas in Korean grocery stores—who assume I speak their native Asian language, prompting me to apologetically explain in English that I don’t understand. On the other side are those who fixate on differences, like the Airbnb hostess in Paris who got upset at me for taking too long a shower (I swear it was a normal duration) and literally brandished a knife at me, screaming all the while about why I should have known better like “my people in Asia”. And in the middle of the spectrum, where outcomes are the least certain, are those who aren’t sure. The people here are just as interesting to me as I am to them, like the stranger on my flight from Detroit to San Francisco who slipped me a romantic note written on the back of a receipt half in English and half in gorgeous Chinese characters, then disappeared silently into the crowd of the airport.
I recently read The Return by Hisham Matar, in which the author describes his return to his native Libya after many years of exile. It was beautiful, harrowing, and totally unrelatable. Beyond being mainly about a father-son relationship, the book deals with displacement and longing for home. You can tell that every aspect of Matar’s existence is Libyan, in some way related to, infused with, or caused by Libya. Reading The Return, I thought to myself: I’ll never be able to talk about a place the way the author talks about Libya. I don’t think I understand how it feels to be connected to a culture like that. Like Matar is with Libya. Like my dad is with Iran. Like all the people in the world who can answer questions about their identity without thinking twice.
It took me a long time to write this. Years, in fact. Beyond worrying that I might resort to self-pity, whether accidental or on purpose, I struggled to come up with a “theme” for this essay, a takeaway or two to neatly wrap up my narrative, something as compact and elegant as the abstract of a well-written research paper. Unfortunately, I don’t have one. I’m starting to think I never will. Life didn’t impose any strict cultural identities on me, and I haven’t (yet) succeeded in defining my own. If it’s not already obvious, I struggle with my own ambiguity as much as do others. Maybe that itself is what defines me.