Leilani Leila Riahi // Daily Nexus

Leilani Leila Riahi // Daily Nexus


If only you knew me before the summer of 2015. I would have told you firmly that I am an Iranian-American woman blooming with 22 years of existential experience. I would not have hesitated to tell you that I am Persian as well, as my DNA, my body and my mind come from a land far away from my birth nation. This land of distant familiarity is an Iran of my parentschildhood, where there still lie roots of their personal development in all spheres that make Persians as colorful as springtime flowers in Iran, like Persian rugs or Persian poetry. But if you were to ask me where I come from today, any details of my creation story will not be available for you. This is because my cultural existence has been questioned ever since I traveled alone for the first time this summer. I have a churning silence over this sect of my identity, and I can now empathize with other Iranian-American women who may be culturally confused as well.

What is the identity of an Iranian-American woman? I wish to deconstruct how we are supposed to have a clue when we are (all) intersectional creatures with no steady home. When the paths of our parents and the paths of our own stories seldom have room to fit into a pre-existing template of functionality, how do we exist? How are we supposed to be both Iranian and American at the same time? And be women and other identities that push and pull with time? Which identity speaks to us most? Do any speak to us at all? I ask you to come on this questioning journey with me, as I know that most of us have felt unsteady in claiming identities when ours are so intersectional that sometimes, none of them feel validated at all.

This questioning began when I traveled to Nicaragua this past summer. My intentions were to explore the phenomenons of other peoples and landscapes. I traveled between a host family and hostels across the entire country, and I soon learned that one of the first questions you ask someone who is backpacking, is where they come from. Before this trip, I had an answer on hand like dynamite waiting to be lit, being that I was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, but that I identify with being Iranian-American and Persian due to my parentsancestry because they are both from Iran, although they immigrated to the United States shortly before the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Abroad, this conversation kept rivers flowing.

So, do you consider yourself Hawaiian?

Would you say that you are from California now?

Have you ever been to Iran?

Do you identify with being Iranian or American?

OH, so youre American?

When you say youre Iranian, do you mean that youre from Iran?

Wait, so youve never visited Iran?!

Your parents havent been back to Iran since they left? So do they feel more American now?

Do you speak Farsi fluently? Can you read and write?

Are you Muslim?

Do you identify more with being from Hawaii or from California?

I would change my answers to these questions each time because, apparently, I dont know who I am nor where I come from. Sometimes I would just say that I am American, sometimes I would say that I identify more with being from California than being from Hawaii, or vice versa. Other times I would just say that I am Persian. So, the question is, when youre an Iranian-American woman who grew up somewhere in the states, are you all of the above or none of the above?

To make myself feel better, I would say that I am all of the above, but I do not understand how these identities can coexist when I am not deeply rooted in any one of them. I do not authentically identify.

For the first time while I was traveling, I did not identify with being Iranian, nor do I right now. This is because Ive never been to Iran and I will probably never live there long enough to call myself an Iranian. Calling yourself Iranian is claiming Iran as your home, in my opinion. Iran was never my home. I find that the place you grow to know yourself best through invested time is hometo your identity. I have found most of myself in Hawaii and in California, so I do identify these places as home.

Calling yourself Iranian is claiming Iran as your home, in my opinion. Iran was never my home.

But what about something I love to claim: calling myself Persian? Okay, its safe to say that I do identify with being Persian. The more I interact with other people and question why my behavior may stray from that of my peers, I find the answer within the mannerisms, etiquette and values my parents taught me from a young age. These lessons come from their experience growing up in Iran and being surrounded by Persian culture. Another reason I love calling myself Persian is because Persian poetry also speaks to my soul deeply. It explains why I adore poems, why I write a certain way and why I have a romantic yet nostalgic view on life. I find many of my emotions humming inside the pages of Rumi and Hafez. The more I learn about Persian history in a cultural sense through the arts, anthropology and social norms, the more I relate it to my sensitivities and behaviors.

The last identity I have is that of being an American. I say that I am American because I was born and raised in America, and whether I like it or not, the American culture has shaped my personality and some of my intentions with the world. Although I am privileged to be American, I do not appreciate many elements of this upbringing and continued existence. I do not appreciate the capitalistic way of existing that is necessary for survival. I do not appreciate the self-centered culture surrounding Americans, the competitiveness of succeeding, the individualistic lifestyle, and the lack of government protection for all peoples basic human rights. I have always identified the least with my American identity, but this also changed when I went abroad. I found myself doing similar things as Americans I met across while abroad, things in contrast with my European and Central American friends. After coming back I realize that I am more proud to be American now than I once was, because I appreciate what is offered to me in this country. However, I still dont feel one hundred percent myself while living through this nations taught ideologies, nor do I support its systematic oppression.

Although I am privileged to be American, I do not appreciate many elements of this upbringing and continued existence.

But there are so many more identities I can claim, and so many more others relate to. For example, two other intersectional identities of Iranian-Americans are their gender and their religion. For me, my grandparents were Muslim, so I say that I am Muslim Persian, even though I have never known anything about Islam nor have I practiced it.

Alas, I still feel unidentifiable. But one thing I am sure of, is that being an Iranian-American woman, just like being any type of being, is a miracle. Some traits I have noticed from my friends and family whom identify as such are beautiful. We are romantic with life. We are kind-hearted. We trust our intuition. We feel deeply. We think deeply. We are hard-headed. We are stubborn. We are expressive. We are questioning. We are trying to find a home.

And that home may not be within any constructs of a whole identity, or more than one identity. I will never be confident in any one of my identities. Sometimes I feel like I dont deserve to claim any of them. For example, would I have to dedicate my academic career to studying Persian history and modern-day Iran to be knowledgeable enough to claim Persian and Iranian as my identities? Would I have to give back to Iran through my professional path to feel more confident in my identity? Would I have to move back to Hawaii and contribute to its economy to feel like it is my home, just as I felt the first eighteen years of my life? If I leave California in a year when I graduate, will I be leaving this identity behind?

…being an Iranian-American woman, just like being any type of being, is a miracle.

When you are exposed to many identities, you pick up on things here and there that align with your views. But when you are picking up parts of the whole, are you able to create a steady whole, or does one always feel disconnected? I myself have felt versatile but lost. But it may not be so painful to be lost, for lack of direction brings much life.

So, what I have learned through this writing therapy is that intersectional living can be painful, but it is also a deep life to live. Forming an individual vision for yourself takes time when you are coming from many backgrounds. Perhaps they can coexist and you will feel completely home. I am waiting for that day. Until then, I will continue to engage with all of my identities. Maybe its not home we should be looking for, but home we must create.

Much love to all Iranian-American women, women, men, all people, all creatures.

I hope your identities bring you joy and peace.

Thank you for reading my identity diary.