Something other than a melting pot

Photo by tanakawho's

Here's a fun fact: Amongst those in the know, the city of Los Angeles is also known as Tehrangeles. That's an amalgamation of the names Tehran and Los Angeles. Do you know why? There are so many Persians in Los Angeles that people describe it is a mini Tehran.

In this country, many pockets of cultural and national groups have amassed themselves nearly everywhere. How many Chinatowns, Germantowns, Latino neighborhoods and little Italys do you know of? They are everywhere in the US, and most likely, your own place of residence can lay claim to at least one street or one neighborhood that is foreign country defined.

Houston, where I live, has a large and thriving Persian community. It also has a deeply-rooted and pervasive Mexican heritage. My husband likes to say that between his native Farsi, my native Spanish and our communal English, we've got the city covered in terms of language. An observation that has proven itself entirely true over my four years of living there.

Here in Washington DC, where I used to live, you may encounter a Persian community which spread out over the District of Columbia and the states of Maryland and Virginia, is statistically even larger than the one we have in Houston. DC's 'Tehran' is second only to Los Angeles and just marginally larger in size than New York's.

The wife of the deposed Shah of Iran, Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi and her son, who would be Reza Shah with his wife Yasmine, live here part of the year. I've seen them several times at charity events and local restaurants. They look about as normal as people like deposed Empresses and un-crowned Shahs can look when they wait in line to sit at a French Bistro. That is DC for you - a status leveler type of place as I ever saw one. So many of the famous and the well-known are here, that even the bistros can deign to disregard protocol for ex-imperials.

Interestingly enough, even though I can now spout all these bits of information at you, long before I had ever befriended my in-laws (who are Persian) or married their son, I had lived in Washington for years and years and never paid much attention to the confluence of Persians gathered here.

In my four years of marriage, I've learned enough of my husband's language that when in his company, if I trot out a few of my almost diction-perfect Farsi phrases, I get mistaken for an Iranian. By the same token, my husband is often spoken to in Spanish and thought of as Latin American when in my company. We both take pleasure in the mistake others make in this respect. It seems yet another confirmation that not only are we similar and well-attuned to each other in our hearts and minds but that somehow, we've also managed to tap into what brands us as a part of each other's heritage.

This last observation brings me to thought that wouldn't it be nice if everyone could not only be identified easily but also, that just as easily, they could be misidentified? A total oxymoron I know but at the core of this thought lies the essence of what, besides economic prosperity, is the dream that has kept many of us immigrants in the United States of America - the sense of equality in a nation that promises to protect our individuality. The sense of being part of a larger whole even while our uniqueness is preserved; a land where there is really no pot, as I have never believed that the US is about melting its population into fondue-like consistency, but rather a place where we can celebrate what ties us to our old life at the same time that we forge a new one for ourselves here.

For myself, the US is not the land of my father. And yet as I have just written this statement, I have to ask myself what is, truly, the land of anyone's father? Not even my husband, who proudly lays claim to 500 years of uninterrupted family ancestry anchored in Iran, not even he, can make true the statement about the land of his father because in the end, and this is what I've been trying to get at in such a roundabout way, anyway you look at it, travel back far enough, and in the family history you will find that your birthplace is just another place in a long list of places that only partly explains where you are from. I suppose that is perhaps why someone might mistake me for an Iranian or why my husband might be mistaken for a Latin American; it is also the reason why I feel glad that the US has many mini Tehrans and would not find it amiss if Iran someday had a mini Los Angeles. It is also why I believe that there is nothing wrong with ex-empresses standing in line like the rest of us do and why, had I married someone born in a place other than where my husband is from, I would still feel OK with having people mistake my background because, blending in is something that comes to me easily. I think the ability to blend in is one of the single greatest benefits we enjoy by living in this country. Hopefully, no one will ever demand that we sacrifice the I in order to be part of the us in the US.


  1. Milena, this is a wonderful look at race in America. Having spent ten years in Miami where the confluence of South American and Central American and Caribbean nations render the city so different from any other in the states, I can truly appreciate your thoughts on how, once cultures begin to mesh, we are all rendered equal. It's a nice thought that one day they'll be a little Los Angeles in Tehran. Here's hoping.

  2. Milena!
    There is no "i" in US. Oh, wait. There is. UnIted States. I remember now.
    Quite enjoyable read. I like the idea of the queen standing in line instead of lines forming behind her. (Elvis Costello had that great line about the Queen of England: the world's most famous welfare mother.")
    And I am so with you. "My ancestors were Scottish," someone will say but as it turns out, that was just another stop in their circular transit of the globe. Plus, I once read that you share about the same percentage of genes with your great grandparents as you do with a person chosen at random from the street. So, we eventually all blend in with strangers even more than we do with our ancestors.

  3. Have I expressed how much I admire your writing? Seriously. Your content is great. You've provided a really thorough and insightful look at modern families immigrating and blending into US culture (does this make sense?). Anyway, I am a fan. Also I love the book list you have on the side. I want EVERY one of those books!! If I could only get them all and disappear for a few days, I'm sure the minions would be fine...

  4. Cce: Having been to Miami on several occasions, I know what you mean about cultures beginning to mesh. Nevertheless, the Cubans still remain the dominant gene in good old Me-a-me.

    Ron: Oh! and you HAD to go and point out the obvious. As to the Queen, that was a great line by Costello, had never heard it before. Scottish huh? I can see you now with the kilt and hear the brogue. The romance novel cover is just around the corner I'm sure.

    Baby Island: I loved your post on your little girl's birthday the other day. I can still see in my head that photo of her that you took when she was born. What an angel. Thank you so much for all the lovely compliments. Your nice words have made my day. I'll pass you all the books if you want. Let's start the book swap. Also, hand over the kids to me for the afternoon and I'll take care of them so you can read some. Life without reading is like a desert and no water existence. Can't have that. Might I also suggest reading in the toilet. They'll wonder why you are in there for so long but no one questions toilet time.

  5. It's funny that you mention Germantowns. There was a neighborhood in Philadelphia called Germantown but nowadays one side is occupied by mostly poor African Americans and the other side by well off Jewish families. There you have it Germantown, c'est logique.

    I lived in the Bay in CA for 12 years and I loved how people often spoke to me directly there in Spanish. Here in France people can tell that I am not French and they often think I am North African and I have even had people speak directly to me in Arabic. I have somewhat ambiguous looks and in the summer I get very dark. I understand what your husband goes through a little.

    Even Native Americans came from somewhere else, Bering Strait Asia etc. We are all trespassing.

  6. I don't know if there is a way to comment on sidebar items but this is realy a comment about your movies.

    If you have not seen Persepolis you should. It is a fantastic French animated movie for adults about a teenage girl in Iran at the time of the deposal(can you say that) of the Shah and the coming of the Ayatollah. It is funny, sad, ironic, and tragic. I saw it in France this past Fall and thought it was extraordinary.

  7. This was a wonderfully insightful post on cultures and how big cities can create the 'melting pot' that we always hope will bring out the best in all of us.

    Also, I always enjoy your selection of books!

  8. Sure enjoyed your post and also the comments of others.
    It is wonderful to get your perspective on the United States, melting pot of the world.
    Also, love the setup of your blog, especially the scrolling book reviews.


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