“WHERE is your home?” the consular officer asked me.
I was 13 years old. My parents and I had left Iran eight years earlier, at the onset of the 1979 revolution. Since then, they had bought a house and a business — a small roadside motel in California. I had gone to school and learned to speak English. Then, on a summer trip to visit my mother’s Iranian relatives in Germany, I made the mistake of calling America my home.
The trouble started when my mother handed me the visa forms. My father had stayed behind to run the motel, and even though my mother had learned enough English to get by, at moments like this, when it was just the two of us, I was still the translator and all-purpose intermediary between “us” and “them.” I took the clipboard and began filling in the papers. My parents and I were in the United States legally, but since we’d traveled outside the country, my mother’s business visa would need to be renewed. It was standard procedure — we wouldn’t have encountered any difficulties if, under the line asking where our home was, I hadn’t written “America.”
“Are you sure about that?” the officer asked me, her pen pointed at my adolescent cursive. When I nodded, she retreated to a back room. A few minutes later, she returned to inform us that our applications had been denied. We would not be able to return to America, because we had expressed an intention to stay in the country permanently.
Looking back, the certainty of my response astonishes me. The Iranian revolution and the vagaries of immigration law had dispersed my relatives all over the world. By the time I faced that consular officer, I had cousins in Wisconsin, Stockholm, Istanbul and all points in between. During our time in Germany, my mother stayed up long into the night, reminiscing with my aunts and uncles about Iran and speculating about the country’s future — and the possibility of returning there someday.
But by that time, I had spent several years distancing myself from the country then known as “Eyeran.” I had seen enough footage of the hostage crisis. I had been called a “smelly A-rab” at school, watched my mother get stared down in grocery shops on account of her accent and witnessed the sharp looks my veiled grandmother drew in the streets. I had quickly learned not to be Iranian in ways that showed. I plucked my eyebrows, bleached my hair with Sun-In and hitched up my skirts. My accent was pure Valley girl, heavy on the “likes.” By summer’s end, I was desperate to get back to California. A visa was the only thing standing between me and the only country I cared to claim.
The first thing I noticed at the American Consulate, where we went to fill out the necessary forms, was the line of people snaking around the building. Most were dark-skinned, and more than a few of the women were veiled. “Refugees,” my uncle explained. “They come every day in hopes of getting visas.” His voice trailed off, making it perfectly clear how they fared.
Because my father had German citizenship, I had a German passport, too, and that meant my mother and I were permitted to skip the line and enter by a different door. That door, and its false promise of entry, would soon become very familiar to me. And with each trip we made to the consulate and each denied petition, the distance between us and the refugees grew smaller, and the possibility of returning to America more distant.
OVER the next several months, the mattress on my cousin’s bedroom floor became my bed. I learned to speak Persian fluently again because it was the only language my family and I shared. Back in America, my father ran the motel, saved money for a lawyer, and devoted himself to filing appeals for us. He persuaded the local high school to let me take my classes through correspondence work. My German wasn’t good enough to enroll in a local school without intensive remediation anyway, and what was the point if we’d soon be leaving? Eventually, my mother rented us a basement apartment, but strictly on a month-to-month lease. “We’ll be back in a few weeks, you’ll see,” she explained.
When I wrote to my American friends, I never explained why I hadn’t returned at the end of the summer. I made it seem like a choice, like we were having such a wonderful time that we’d decided to extend our vacation. They mailed me letters and mix tapes, and I hoped they wouldn’t forget me. But despite my mother’s reassurances, the truth was that I started to think I might never return to America.
As it happens, I did return, nearly two years later. After several unsuccessful attempts at filing appeals for us on his own, my father was finally able to hire an attorney. Six months after that, my mother and I were free to come back, though with the explicit promise that we’d be staying only temporarily and only for business reasons.
Of course, so much had changed by the time I returned. The first — and in some ways most enduring — shock came at the airport in San Francisco, when I couldn’t recognize my father in the crowd. Two years of running the motel on his own and wrangling with immigration bureaucracy had left their mark. He’d gained a lot of weight, and wrinkles fanned out at the corners of his eyes. He was also much sadder than I remembered, but then I’d left as a child and returned much more grown up, and I could see him differently now.
America, though not wholly strange, was no longer familiar to me. Before, I’d willed myself into looking and sounding as if I belonged. Though I could still pass as American, I now had the sensation of perpetually looking at everything from the outside. Home schooling, paired with exile, had made me more shy and introspective, if also more independent. I was a real immigrant now.
Each year many thousands of children are brought to America by their parents. They come before they have any concept of citizenship, much less of belonging. Like me, they will draw their notions of “home” not only from what is familiar and desirable but also from what is permitted and denied them.
Today, I am a permanent resident. I can go and come easily, but at borders I am still reduced to the girl who once made the mistake of calling America her home. I check and recheck my passport for my green card. It’s always there, right where I put it, along with the uncertainty, the fear and, yes, the anger I’ll never quite outrun.
“Home.” At 13, I had that notion knocked out of me in ways that were useful, or mostly so. But the word still makes me uneasy, and even now, whenever I am given a choice, I leave the answer blank.
"Home Is Where They Let You Live"
The New York Times